ST. PATRICK'S DAY conjures up visions of thick Irish stew, brown bread, and potatoes -- wonderful, stick-to-the-ribs fare for a windy March evening. But is that all there is to Irish cooking? Even an Irishman certainly can't live on brown bread and potatoes alone.
Still, if you believe the '86 editions of the major travel guidebooks, Irish food is all ``plain and hearty,'' with a disdain for sauces and other ``foreign'' elements.
Wherever these writers have been in the last 10 years, it certainly hasn't been in the best restaurants, or even in the modern households, of the Emerald Isle. If they had, they would have noticed that Irish cuisine has lightened up and taken on a noticeably French accent.
You'll still be served potatoes, but they're likely to be new potatoes -- as in nouvelle cuisine -- served in the more sophisticated company of French Beans Bonne Femme, Fresh Celery Hollandaise, and Asparagus Parmesan.
``We are a fairly new country, and the idea of eating out wasn't big here until the 1970s,'' says John Prendergast, owner of Zetland Hotel and restaurant in Connemara, County Galway. That was a time of general prosperity in the country, he explains, when more women began working outside the home, adding to the family income.
``We had money for traveling in Europe, while at the same time our own tourist business changed from being mostly English to people from European countries and Americans, who had different tastes in food.''
Marie and Gerry MacCloskey of MacCloskey's, a popular French restaurant in Bunratty, near Shannon Airport, point out that the Irish come back from European holidays having been exposed to new and different foods. They ask for better quality, for fresher produce in the shops, and for more variety and creativity in restaurant menus.
``You can tell the change by the rows and rows of cookery books in the bookstores now,'' says Mrs. MacCloskey. She adds that young people are becoming more affluent and more interested in fitness and lighter foods.
But the brown bread has not been thrown out with the boiling water.
Arbutus Lodge in Cork, a gracious, family-run town house, earned a Michelin star, which it has held for many years, with a menu that includes gourmet variations on traditional regional dishes. Chef Michael Ryan serves a wide variety of exciting dishes from Irish Nettle Soup to Noisette of Lamb with Thyme and Honey Sauce.
The guiding principle for the nouvelle Irish cuisine, as John Prendergast puts it, is ``to take the best natural foods, prepare them carefully, and add light sauces for variety.''
As a primarily agricultural country, Ireland has the raw materials. The mild, misty climate is ideal for root crops and other moisture-loving vegetables. The Emerald Isle's famous green grasses promote rich cream, butter, and milk, as well as cheesemaking. The single-family style of farming also is conducive to raising prime livestock. And nowhere in the country are you more than an hour or two from the sea.
Myrtle Allen, of Ballymaloe House, County Cork, was probably the first of the Irish cooks to gain an international reputation through her ``Ballymaloe Cookbook'' (Gill and MacMillan, Dublin, New York).
Ballymaloe (pronounced Bally-ma-lu) is the family's sprawling farmhouse restaurant and hotel 20 miles from Cork City. The 400-acre farm, which is strictly a family operation, is practically self-sufficient for the restaurant. The sheep keep the golf course trimmed and fish comes in fresh from Ballycotton, the local seaport.
The Ballymaloe menu features a gourmet version of ``Irish country cooking,'' with especially good seafood dishes. My favorite was monkfish in red pepper sauce, although the chocolate ice cream was worth the whole trip.
In a bit of reverse cultural exchange, the Allens also have a Paris restaurant, La Ferme Irlandaise, serving many of the traditional ``hearty'' Irish dishes. The Parisians line up around the block to get in.
Back in Ballymaloe, daughter-in-law Darina Allen runs the Ballymaloe cooking school on a nearby farm. Courses vary in length from special weekends for the vacationer to 12 weeks for the would-be professional chef.
While tastes may be changing, you can still find an authentic Irish stew at Celtic Mews, a Dublin restaurant specializing in Irish dishes for today's lighter palate. (A hint for stewmakers: They thicken it with mashed potatoes rather than flour.)
Many of the best restaurants around Ireland are in small, country-house hotels. Here are some sample dishes from a few of these establishments: Zetland Sirloin of Beef 1 pint beef stock 6 to 7 pounds sirloin of beef 2 small onions 8 small mushrooms 4 peeled, chopped tomatoes 1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped 1 teaspoon mace 4 sprigs fresh tarragon
Trim all fat and gristle from meat and place in roasting pan or tray. Add remaining ingredients around meat and cook until rare, about 10 to 20 minutes in a preheated 450-degree F. oven.
Place meat on serving platter. Remove vegetables and seasoning from roasting pan, pour off any grease and strain juices into a gravy bowl for serving.
Slice meat and garnish with sprigs of fresh tarragon. Serve with natural meat juices as sauce. Ballymaloe Monkfish With Red Pepper Sauce
Allow about 1/3 pound monkfish fillets per person. Carefully cut away any gray skin and membrane, leaving only white flesh.
Cut into 1/2-inch thick slices and poach in slightly salted water by cooking just under the boiling point, but simmering, until fish is no longer transluscent and flakes easily, 8 to 10 minutes or less. Red Pepper Sauce 1 red pepper, seeded 1 cup cream 10 tablespoons butter
Dice pepper into 1/8-inch cubes. Sweat gently in 1 teaspoonful of butter in covered pot over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes.
In a small saucepan, boil down cream to about half, then add remaining butter, about 2 tablespoons at a time, beating or whisking after each addition, finally stirring in the diced pepper. Green peppers can be used instead of red. Makes about 1 1/4 cups sauce. Arbutus Lodge Brown Bread 1 pound very coarsely ground brown flour 6 ounces white flour 2 ounces butter or margarine 1 egg 1 1/2 cups buttermilk 1/2 teaspoon bread soda 1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix dry ingredients together. Cut in butter, then mix in milk and egg by hand. Dough should be just soft enough to knead lightly.
Shape into round loaf and cut a cross on top. Place on tray dusted with brown flour. Bake in a preheated 400-degree F. oven for 10 minutes, then lower heat to 350 degrees F. and bake 40 minutes. Marfield House Smoked Haddock 4 to 5 ounces smoked haddock 1/2 cup cream 1 teaspoon grated onion 1 tomato, peeled and chopped coarsely 1/2 cup grated Gruy`ere cheese
In a baking dish cover haddock with cream and onion. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. until cream thickens. Scatter tomato and cheese over fish and place under grill or broiler to brown. Serves 1. Ballymaloe Carrot and Apple Salad 2 tablespoons honey 1/2 tablespoon white vinegar 2 cups grated carrots 2 cups grated apple or 1 cup celery, finely chopped 1 cup cucumber, grated, (optional)
Mix honey and vinegar for dressing. Combine remaining ingredients and toss all together. Best served immediately.