Ireland - that mystical land of rolling hills, friendly people, tales of leprechauns, and St. Patrick - has experienced a culinary revolution over the past few decades.
Propelled primarily by tourism and a new-found prosperity, modern Irish cuisine has at its foundation a rich tradition of cooking, according to Boston University associate professor Noel Cullen. Also core to its revival is a new breed of highly skilled and passionate chefs who started emerging in the early 1960s and have added flair to the renaissance.
"It's also built on a new confidence in exploring Irish traditional dishes and the growing sophistication of the Irish diner, who today has greater disposable income and dines out. So dining as a concept has revisited the Irish because before, based on the famine in Ireland, food was life," says Mr. Cullen, an Irish chef who has lived in Boston for more than a decade and is clearly passionate about the country of his birth.
He attributes much of the culinary renaissance to two small towns in the south-east of the island - Kenmare in County Derry and the seaport town of Kinsale.
Kinsale's reputation grew in the early 1980s, "when a profusion of talented people opened superb restaurants," Cullen writes in the introduction to his recently released cookbook "Elegant Irish Cooking" (Lebhar-Friedman, $35). "The number and high quality of these restaurants in this small town was amazing."
This, he says, was the first time tourism in Ireland was built upon a center for good food and restaurants.
"These small beginnings led a new breed of Irish chefs and restaurateurs to a new confidence, and raised the standard of restaurants and fine dining, which many others have since emulated."
That same decade saw new life breathed into Kenmare, which dates from 1775, and now has more award-winning restaurants per capita than Paris, Cullen says locals like to point out.
That's very different from the impression many around the world have of Irish cooking as limited to "pub grub" and boiled potatoes.
"Over the years, Irish food and cooking in the US have called to mind images such as corned beef and cabbage, potatoes, and boiled bacon - all usually overcooked and greasy," Cullen says. "While this may be the case some of the time, the opposite is true in Ireland's professional kitchens, now populated by enthusiastic, skilled culinarians eager to prepare ... the finest dishes from the freshest native products."
Cullen says these products include lamb, beef, dairy products, and vegetables (in particular root vegetables) grown north of Dublin in fields fertilized with seaweed.
As nowhere in the Emerald Isle is more than 60 miles from the sea, a wonderful variety of fresh seafood and shellfish is available in markets and restaurants everywhere in the country.
With Ireland's rivers and lakes still relatively unspoiled, salmon is popular and many salmon recipes are uniquely Irish. "Salmon has always been a very important fish to Ireland, [where it] is known as the king of fish."
And yes, the potato, which has become synonymous with the Irish for a number of reasons, most notably the famine of 1845 to 1850, remains an important ingredient. "Although it carries both blessings and curses for its role in Irish history, the potato still enjoys an honored place in Irish cuisine. The humble spuds, also affectionately referred to as murphys or praties, are still an important and essential part of the Irish diet," says Cullen. "Indeed most Irish consider a dining experience without the potato incomplete."
He notes that "cooking and food through the ages have moved right along with every major civilization, and Ireland was a major contributing civilization in what they called "the period of the saints and scholars" in the 7th and 8th centuries." During this period, Irish monks traveled much of the world, taking not only the word of God with them, but a host of recipes.
Besides probably the best-known Irish dish - lamb stew which is thickened with the puree of its own vegetables, - the Irish also contributed some breads, butter, fine cheeses, blood sausage, and even mayonnaise to world cuisine, says Cullen.
But when it comes to commonly held myths and misperceptions of Irish food, Cullen would like to dispel the impression that all Irish food is boiled, bland, and potato-driven. He says the Irish have used a lot of herbs in their cooking for many, many years.
And the ingenuity that has characterized Irish cuisine in past centuries is clearly alive and well in the country's enthusiastic chefs.
Cullen recalls how he came up with the recipe for Mullaghmore Lobster Souffle, featured in his cookbook: "When I was in college, I used to go work for Lord Louis Mountbatten. I was his chef. His family loved lobster, and they loved souffle so I put the two things together. Normally you would not make a souffle out of lobster - it's too expensive - but they liked it so much I made it practically every day for them."
Peppered Leg of Lamb with Ginger, Red Currant, and Vinegar Glaze
6 tablespoons ground peppercorns
4 cloves garlic - 2 crushed, 2 slivered
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 5- to 6-pound leg of lamb
1 sprig rosemary
1-1/2 pounds roughly chopped vegetables - onions, celery, carrots, and leeks
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup raspberry vinegar
1 tablespoon peeled and chopped fresh ginger
1/4 cup red currant or cranberry jelly
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Mix ground peppercorns with crushed garlic cloves, salt, and olive oil.
Remove outer gray layer of skin (fell) from lamb. Make incisions in lamb; insert slivered garlic and pieces of rosemary. Rub peppercorn-garlic mixture over lamb. Roast lamb on the top of vegetables for about 1-1/4 hours, or until a meat thermometer reads 140 degrees F. for medium rare.
Remove lamb from roasting pan; keep warm. Pour off fat from roasting pan, except for about 2 tablespoons.
Place roasting pan on stove (with vegetables) over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Stir in raspberry vinegar, ginger, and jelly. Cook 2 minutes.
Add chicken stock and whisk to a smooth consistency. Bring to a boil. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer; discard vegetables. If required, correct the consistency of the sauce with additional chicken stock. It should be slightly thickened. Pour sauce into gravy boat. If desried, serve lamb with carrots and new potatoes.
- Recipes adapted from 'Elegant Irish Cooking.'
Mullaghmore Lobster Souffle
1/3 cup unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup boiling milk
4 eggs, separated
1/8 teaspoon salt
Pinch of nutmeg
1/2 to 3/4 pound lobster meat, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Lightly butter a 7-inch-diameter souffle dish.
Melt 1/3 cup butter in a small saucepan over medium heat; whisk in flour. When mixture becomes a smooth paste, gradually whisk in boiling milk; cool slightly.
Whisk egg yolks, one at a time, into flour mixture; season with salt and nutmeg. Stir in lobster meat.
Beat egg whites in a clean, dry copper or stainless steel bowl until stiff. Fold gently into lobster mixture; pour into souffle dish. Place in a hot-water bath (roasting pan 1/3-filled with boiling water) and bake 85 minutes. Serve immediately.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor