Cookbook #40: The Country Cooking of Ireland
The Country Cooking of Ireland (2009)
I am cheating right now. I admit it. I am offering you not one but two recipes from this cookbook. I am supposed to cook liver from page 210. And I will. But I have to soak it overnight in milk (?), and in the meantime, I decided to make the next entry in the cookbook--Boxty. Don't worry. The liver is next. And I will have a lot to say about it.
In a chapter devoted entirely to potatoes, the opening entry is on boxty. And it turns out, my boxty ensures that my marriage is no longer a sham. For you see: "Boxty on the griddle,/ Boxty in the pan,/ If you can't make boxty,/ You'll never get a man." Well! Thankfully, I make a mean boxty.
Eaten in the north of Ireland and in Northern Ireland--Fermanagh, Derry, Tyrone, Cavan, Mayo, Sligo, Donegal--boxty is similar to a thick pancake composed of mashed potatoes, shredded potatoes, flour, and baking soda. Boxty may derive from the Irish bocht, meaning "poor," and is said to have originated during the Irish Famine.
The Great Famine occurred roughly from the mid-to-late 1840s to the beginning of the 1850s. During the Famine, the population fell by 20 to 25%, reduced by starvation, disease, and emigration. A third of the population was dependent upon the potato for food, and when blight ravaged the crops, up to 75% of it was lost, and the people suffered. Add to that the political refusal of the English to supply support and the ill-conceived English importation of food from the Irish, and you have a full blown tragedy.
At the beginning of this year, I had to plan (roughly) when I would make which meals, as I didn't want to be making peach dishes in January or chard dishes in June. I always knew I would make boxty the day after the Nero Wolfe meal when I would have leftover mashed potatoes. But here's the problem: I am still stuffed from last night's dinner, and these pancakes, also called poundy, are heavy. You can see why these would be an attractive component to a hungry person's meal. While these are heavy, they are surprisingly tasty (butter, potatoes, salt? How can you go wrong?). A very, very tasty brick that sits at the bottom of your belly.
The husband mocked the purchase of this cookbook, but I knew that it had to be mine the moment I saw this book last year. It is part of a new series of cookbooks from Chronicle Books, including The Country Cooking of France. While Ireland may not be the first place that springs to mind when you think cooking, let me remind you of the cheeses, the lamb stew, the scones, the soda bread, the butter. These are the building blocks of civilization, people. The building blocks.
I spent a semester abroad in Galway, as I mentioned here, but in 2004, I returned to Ireland to attend the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, where I turned up late at the folk dancing class because I really, really wanted to meet Colm Toibin (which I did) and made a fool over myself fawning over Seamus Heaney (but I bet he gets that a lot). However, the two weeks in Sligo were not the highlight of my summer of 2004. No.
For about ten days before this summer school, I traveled around Donegal County and on to Derry--parts of Ireland and Northern Ireland I didn't have the chance to spend time in when I was abroad in the 90s. I spent four days in Donegal Town staying by myself without the benefit of a change of clothes (Aer Lingus had lost my luggage). It was truly a wonderful experience. I wandered the castle, rode a bike to Lough Eske, and drove a waterbus in the bay. Yes, you read the correctly. I took a waterbus one afternoon around the bay--it was a total tourist attraction, but what else did I have to do? And the waterbus driver asked me if I wanted to drive the bus. How could I pass that up? Really. I spent an afternoon at the Ballyshannon Music Festival where I accidentally ended up in a darkened pub with three other people for a fiddle lesson. (I don't play the fiddle.) In Derry, I walked among the murals in the predominantly Catholic Bogside area, poked into a city-center Protestant church that boasted the best hydrangea bushes in Europe (seriously, a woman at the church did boast about them), and finally broke down and bought a new set of clothes. I say all of this for no reason or connection to boxty--although I did eat a lot of potatoes while I was there--but as reminiscence. Thank you for indulging me.
But to bring us back to the boxty, this is really quite tasty. While boxty are generally meant to be served as a side dish to meat, you can get quite creative--anything you would top a latke or a blini with is fair game for the boxty, and more and more restaurants are serving them with higher end foods such as crab, lobster, and even caviar. However, I was perfectly happy with a little extra salt, pepper, and butter.
Finally, I give you a poem from Seamus Heaney; he says all there needs to be said about the potato:
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble towards the black
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
Recurs mindlessly as autumn. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
like inflated pebbles. Native
to the black clutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes ( a clean birth )
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five
wolfed the blighted root and died.
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrefied when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore.
Under a gay flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
Brown bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop
Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
1 peeled, medium russet potato, grated on the large holes of a box grater
1 cup freshly made mashed potatoes (preferably made with heavy cream and butter)
1 cup white flour, plus more for dusting
1 tsp baking soda
2 to 3 tablespoons bacon fat or butter
1. Wrap the grated potatoes in a clean tea towel or several thicknesses of cheesecloth. Working over a medium bowl, tightly twist the ends of the towel in opposite directions, to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Set the bowl of potato water aside for 10 minutes.
2. Put the grated potato into a large bowl, add the mashed potatoes, and mix well to combine thoroughly.
3 Carefully pour off an discard the liquid from the bowl with the potato water, leaving a layer of thick white potato starch at the bottom. Add the starch to the potato mixture, then add the flour and baking soda and season to taste with salt. Transfer the mixture to a lightly floured surface an kneed for 1 to 2 minutes or until a thick dough forms.
4. On a lightly floured surface, press the dough with your hands into a disk, then roll it out into a circle about 3/4 inch thick. Using a cookie cutter or the floured rim of a drinking glass, cut the dough into 3-inch rounds.
5. Melt the bacon fat or butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the boxty in a single layer and fry for 3-4 minutes per side or until golden brown.