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St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland

March 17 marks Saint Patrick’s Day (aka St. Patrick’s Day, St. Paddy’s Day, St. Patty’s Day), a cultural and religious holiday which celebrates the life of Saint Patrick, who died on that date way back in the fifth century.  Patrick has endured as the most commonly recognized patron saint of Ireland, credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland.

Saint Patrick’s Day was made an official feast day in the early seventeenth century, and continues to have religious significance.  It has also gradually become a secular celebration of Irish culture, where people line up for hours for the privilege of cramming into a pub to drink green beer or Guinness.  I recall a childhood where vicious class mates threatened pinches if we didn’t wear green on that day. They weren’t even Irish.

Paddy Trivia

There is a few days to pick up some Paddy Day trivia to impress your friends/teach the kids:

    • Shamrocks-according to Irish folklore, Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to the pagan Irish.  His followers adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day.  Add another leaf and you end up with the four leaf clover, referring to the luck of the Irish.  It also explains the green.
    • Public Holiday in Ireland–In 1903, Saint Patrick’s Day became an official public holiday in Ireland.  Another law quickly followed to close pubs/bars on March 17 after drinking got out of hand; it was later repealed in the 1970s.
    • American Traditions–Boston held the first parade in the United States in 1731, followed by New York’s famous 5th Avenue parade 20 years later. Chicago has been dying their river green for the past 40 years.
    • Video Trivia- this clip from the History Channel provides a brief history of Patrick’s life and traditions, like why drinking beer became so popular  that they had to close the bars (it has to do with a break from Lent)  http://www.history.com/flash/VideoPlayer.swf?vid=448829801

Downton’s Fighting Irish

Tom Branson, Downton’s Irish Chauffeur

Downton Abbey’s most notable Irish character is Tom Branson, the chauffeur, played by Allen Leech who tweets @allenleech.  Brendan Coyle (who plays Mr. Bates) is half Irish, as is his character.

Branson was introduced in S1 E4, which aired this week in South Africa on BBC, and in Canada on Vision TV.  Downton needed a new chauffeur. Grantham: “To think that Taylor has gone off to run a tea shop.  I cannot feel it will make for a restful retirement.” Carson: “I would be rather be put to death My Lord.  Grantham: “Quite so”.

So Robert Crawley loses his elderly tea loving driver, providing him with an opportunity to shake things up a bit by hiring a young Irishman to drive them about.  This young man initially impresses Lord Grantham with his passion for reading history and politics: he is even given a library card.  Little does he know that the “revolutionary chauffeur” will make major ripples in the Downton pond.

A Wee Spoiler Alert:  Downton Grads (we have seen it all and converting new followers) will recall Branson’s creative talents in the kitchen in S2 E3;  I shared his soup recipe and was reminded why Brits are widely regarded as the world’s worst cooks.  I don’t think I am giving too much away by saying that the flirting between Branson and Sybil in this first episode–over frocks and “The Vote”– continues over time.  If you like guilt free brownies, but don’t want details of the long simmering romance, follow the link to my brownie post–just scroll down quickly to the bottom for the recipes.

The Science of Using Alcohol in Food

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are pretty simple to plan.  You really only need two key components: green and alcohol. That also pretty much sums up the key ingredients you need for recipes to serve in honor of the day.  Green is easy enough to achieve with healthy green vegetables like spinach, peas, kale used in hearty dishes.  And then there is the old standby: green food coloring which will turn anything you can think of–from cupcakes to beer–into a festive treat which you would never touch on any other day of the year.

While turning stuff green is fun for one day of the year, you may wonder about the point of pouring beer into your cake–isn’t it a waste of a good buzz?  While I enjoy a few glasses of wine on occasion, our liquour cabinet is stocked with spirits which are more likely to end up in a pot than in a glass.  Seriously, alcohol can be a powerful weapon to bring out wonderful flavours in a dish.

yeast, a great science experiment

My absolute favorite cooking magazine is Fine Cooking.  I have every single issue that has ever been published, bought the special red cases to store them in, and have ordered replacement issues for the odd issue I have lost.  I am torn between the print and digital versions: I still love the experience of flipping pages, but recipes are so much easier to find online. Either way I won’t give up my dedication to magazine as they explore the science of cooking.  It is very much like chemistry class, and once you figure out the properties of ingredients–how they react to temperature, moisture and to each other–you can make your own creations.  I grew up believing recipes were formulas, and I a scientist and creator of all things tasty: working with yeast will do that to you.

David Joachim and Andrew Schloss wrote a great article for Fine Cooking:  Alcohol’s Role in Cooking. This article explains how alcohol helps to bring out the flavour in your food in two ways: by evaporation and molecular bonding.

  1. Evaporation–alcohol molecules are volatile, meaning they evaporate rapidly (you smell them right away). Use that to your advantage with a splash of spirits in a dressing, for example.
  2. Molecular bonding–alcohol bonds with both fat and water molecules, bridging the gap between our aroma receptors (which respond only to molecules that can be dissolved in fat) and food (which consists primarily of water).

The good news: less is more so you can still have your glass of wine and cook with it too.  The ideal ratio is 1% of the total dish; over 3% and the dish will be overwhelmed.  When it comes to evaporation, a small amount can make a distinct difference in flavor perception.  And with molecular bonding, just a splash of a spirit in a marinade intensifies the flavors in the finished dish.  All the more reason to bring alcohol into the kitchen.

Does the Alcohol Used in Cooking Burn Off?
What I found most interesting about this article is that alcohol does not burn off when you cook it, but you aren’t using much in the first place.  How much is retained in a finished dish is determined by several factors: the amount of alcohol added, the amount of heat applied, the cooking and standing time, and the physical dimensions of the cookware.  Check out this nifty chart.

Preparation / Method Retained Evaporated      
Flamed (flambé) 75% 25%
Left uncovered overnight, no heat 70% 30%
Stirred into mixture and baked or simmered for 1 hour 25% 75%
Stirred into mixture and baked or simmered for 2-1/2 hours 5% 95%

Source: USDA Table of Nutrient Retention Factors, Release 6

Dishes with Beer

Colcannon, an irish favorite

So now that we have learned a little more about how alcohol improves the taste of our food, here are a few recipes to try for St. Patrick’s Day.

  • I posted a great recipe on Robbie Burns Day for a traditional Colcannon aka Bubble & Sqeak.  Essentially it is a hearty dish of cabbage, potatoes, sausage and beer.
  • Lynn Crawford, one of my favorite chefs, recently shared her family recipe for Beer Batter Halibut. Not as great as Lord D’s version which launched their family seafood restaurant “back in the day”, but that recipe is MIA.
  • Fine Cooking has some great St. Paddy’s Day recipes online, including this great chocolate stout cake made with Guinness.

Irish Beef Stew

hearty irish stew

The recipe I am sharing today is for the one dish I typically make for St. Patrick’s Day, and which Lord D raves about.  This dish is based on the famous from Fidel Murphy’s Irish Pub.  This version does not use any alcohol, but you could 1-2 cups of dark beer at stage 4 if you like, bringing to a boil, reducing and scraping the bits from the bottom of the pan.

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings


  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 1/4 pounds stew beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 6 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 8 cups beef stock or canned beef broth
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp. (1/4 stick) butter
  • 3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 7 cups)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cups 1/2-inch pieces peeled carrots
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper to season


  1. Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat.
  2. Important Tip: Use paper towels to dry the beef.  This will ensure you are browning the beef, not steaming it–makes a big difference in your final stew.
  3. Add beef and sauté until brown on all sides, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute.
  5. Add beef stock, tomato paste, sugar, thyme, Worcestershire sauce and bay leaves. Stir to combine.
  6. Bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, then cover and simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
  7. Meanwhile, melt the butter in another large pot over medium heat.
  8. Add potatoes, onion and carrots. Sauté vegetables until golden, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
  9. After the meat has simmered for 1 hour, add vegetables to beef stew.
  10. Simmer uncovered until vegetables and beef are very tender, about 40 minutes.
  11. Discard bay leaves.
  12. Transfer stew to serving bowl.
  13. Sprinkle with parsley, which gives it a really nice fresh taste, and serve.

For some reason stew always tastes better the next day, so you can resist the temptation to eat it on the first day. Refrigerate and enjoy on day 2.  This freezes really well, allowing you to enjoy it on a night when you don’t feel like cooking…like every night of the week!