Irish Soda Bread - ©

Expedition to Ireland: Potatoes, Cabbage And Lamb – Oh, My!

Ireland is the place you think of first when you think, cabbages, potatoes and beef stew’. And that’s not wrong, by any means. But it’s also a place where ancient history and modern tastes meet in a rare old celtic jig of sprightly culinary traditions. Let’s take a look at some Irish specialties you might have heard of, and some you probably haven’t…

Irish Stew - © delish.comIrish Stew: You can’t get much more Irish than that! Or can you?

On our menu today…

Ireland is largely a rough land of moors and meadows, lakes and rivers, and (in the minds of many) a place of pastoral splendour. But its big cities are as modern as any in Europe, and its people are as cosmopolitan as any in their food tastes. But outside the cities and not too far back in the cultural memory lie some culinary gems that Ireland claims as her own, alone.

Ireland has been inhabited by humans for over 30,300 years, though the official pre-historic era there began about 1,000 years ago, when the Celtic La Tène culture arrived from mainland Europe. After that all was tranquil until the Romans came. With the Romans came Catholicism, and therein lies the root of tensions that persist between the country’s two majority religious groups to this day. But that’s not what we’re here to explore today, and it doesn’t even have anything to do with food.

Irish cuisine (as we hinted rather strongly in our teaser paragraph, above) has always relied heavily on potatoes and cabbage, along with root veggies, grains and animal proteins such as beef, mutton and pork.

Main dishes

Irish Stew: Perhaps the most iconic Irish dish – and the one most non-Irish folks expect see atop all the special St. Patrick’s Day menus, this is truly a classic, by anyone’s standards. Very simply, potatoes, onions and carrots are simmered with lamb (or beef) until the meat is fall-apart tender. The dish features a rich, well-seasoned meat broth often fortified with a bottle (12 oz. / 355 ml) of dark beer – more often than not, Guinness Stout.

Coddle: Coddle is another classic Irish stew, traditionally made from diced-up leftovers from the previous week’s main meals – often including sausage, bacon, potatoes and onions. Plus any other root veggies you may have on hand.

Coddle - ©

And don’t forget to throw in a handful of barley. It’s just not the same without it, and the barley starch gives the broth a velvety character. Just throw everything in the pot and simmer (‘coddle’) until the meat and veggies are tender.

Shepherd’s Pie:

This fairly well-known dish is often attributed to the Scots, but it came over to their own even rougher land with the early Irish (Celtic) immigrants who settled Scotland. But this casserole is definitely ancient and characteristically Irish. It’s traditionally based on mutton on lamb and topped with a layer of mashed potatoes.

Shepherds Pie - ©

In Canada and other countries, descendants of Irish and Scottish immigrants commonly use ground beef  – but that’s properly ‘Cottage Pie’, according to the Irish. You add a generous handful of corn kernels, and another of green peas, and some flour to create a velvety white gravy. Bake until the potatoes are gol;den brown on top.

Fried Cabbage:

This dish is also known in other countries’ cuisines – notably Germany’s and Poland’s – as an easy weeknight staple. Coarsely chopped cabbage and sliced sausages are fried in lots of butter. Par-boiled potatoes are also added after the cabbage is browned and the sausage is sizzling. The dish is then simmered until the cabbage is wilted and the potatoes are fork tender. Serve with lots of buttered bread.


Colcannon: Mashed potatoes with butter and milk, blended with steamed (wilted) coarsely chopped cabbage. Needs lots of salt and pepper! And a handful of bacon bits or diced leftover ham (if you have it)…

Colcannon - ©

Colcannon is traditionally served with boiled ham, a universal favourite on the Emerald Isle. It can also be served with Lamb and Roast Beef. Or any meat, really.

Champ: Creamy mashed potatoes with milk, scallions and lots of butter. Easy to make and delightful to eat. Another Irish favourite that goes with everything!

Roasted Cabbage: Take a whole heed of cabbage, put 9it in a roasting pan or deep casserole dish, and roast until the outside laves are a deep roasty brown and the cabbage is fork tender through and through.I slice the bottom stem stump off the cabbage so it won’t roll around in the roasting dish, and take a slice off the top. Then I put a nice 1/4 cup / 115 g lump of hard or semi-soft butter on top. The butter will melt slowly in the oven running down into the interior of the cabbage, flavouring and tenderizing the whole head. Some folks score the exposed top of the cabbage head down as deep as 1 in / 2.5 cm to help the infusion of the butter…

Baked Goods

Boxty: One of the simplest Irish dishes to make; considered a vital prerequisite for a woman to snag a husband: “Boxty on the griddle, boxty on the pan; if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get a man.” I’ll hasten to qualify that: a very old Irish rhyme with no place in modern equalitarian society. But a cute little ditty, nevertheless.

Boxty - ©

Boxty are just potato pancakes made from mashed or grated spuds, milk and eggs. You really do need the eggs as a binder! Some folks add chopped scallions…

Soda Bread: It’s like a tea bread in as much as it’s leavened with baking powder rather than yeast, but various versions are eaten as a bread accompaniment to a meal or as a dessert. I’ve even made a really heart sandwich with it, though the traditional loaf shape is round, not rectangular. You could probably make a loaf right now with what you have in the house: Flour, baking powder, sugar, eggs and buttermilk (plain milk will do).

Barmbrack: This really is a traditional tea bread, using baking powder rather than yeast, and usually baked in a regular load pan. It’s heavily dosed with dried fruit, raisins and spices. What sets it apart from your average pound cake with Maraschino Cherries, or your old-standy Pumpkin Raisin Bread is the fact that it’s often soaked in tea and whiskey. A rich desert with a cup of tea, a shot of whiskey or a pint of stout!

Go ahead and go Irish!

If there’s something on the menu list above you haven’t made before, commit to yourself to make it tonight! You may never make mashed potatoes your old way again after you’ve tried Champ. And you may find yourself buying only half the bread you used to, after you get into the habit of making Soda Bread!

Remember the old adage: “You don’t have to be Irish!”

~ Maggie J.