Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Irish Superfoods

Food and drink in Ireland is far more than Guinness and Irish stew. This fertile and hospitable country is home to some of the finest ingredients, wonderful cooking and traditional values of home produced Superfood.

I was eight years old when I fell in love with Irish food and 50 when I fell in love with an Irish woman, and here are a few of our favourites which I hope you'll enjoy and will encourage you to look more closely at the fascinating and health-giving traditions of Irish cooking.

The First Steak

In 1947 my father had to visit Dublin on business. It was a dreadful winter, one of the coldest on record; there was no coal, not much electricity and food was still strictly rationed. Even my uncle (he was married to my mother's brother's wife's sister – and in our family that meant uncle) Manny Shinwell, couldn't help, and he was the Minister of Power, later to become Lord Shinwell. Things were pretty bleak and hard for most people, but my father came home from his Irish trip with a suitcase full of joy and excitement.

There was no rationing in Dublin and he bought pounds of fillet steak, packets of butter, slabs of cheese, bananas, chocolate, real coffee and two pairs of nylons for my mother. I'd never seen a banana or eaten steak and to have real butter with bread and cheese was a treat I never forgot. From that moment, Ireland for me was a magical kingdom. But it wasn't until I met Sally, my wife, whose family comes from County Cavan that I discovered the joys and healthy benefits of Irish cooking.

Sally and I have traveled around Ireland eating everywhere from grand hotels to village inns, neighbourhood restaurants and seaside cafes with the best fish in the world. We've collected recipes from her family and ideas from anyone with an interest in Irish food. We also had the great privilege of meeting Darina Allen, doyenne of the world famous Ballymaloe Restaurant, hotel and cookery school, whose Irish cookbooks are an inspiration.

For some great seasonal recipes, including Irish treats, read on . . .

Kale-Filled Potato Pancakes
Serves four

My wife is half Irish and remembers a variation of these from her childhood. Potatoes are, of course, a traditional part of the Irish diet, but a lot more than just chips. We make these pancakes with kale or other dark green winter vegetables. They're not only delicious; they also provide cancer-protective nutrients, folic acid and fibre from the kale and extra vitamin C from the potatoes. In spite of the bacon and a little bit of butter, they're a remarkably healthy quick dish.

For the pancakes
450g/1 lb potatoes, peeled and diced
60g/ 2.5 oz plain flour
milk - approx 200 ml/7 fl oz

For the filling
225g/8 oz back bacon, diced
57g/ 3 oz unsalted butter
450g/ 1 lb kale, finely shredded

Put the potatoes and flour into a blender or food processor, whizz with enough milk to make a batter. While you're letting the batter rest, prepare the filling.

Dry-fry the bacon; add a third of the butter. Tip in the kale or other green vegetables and add a few tablespoons of water. Boil vigorously for five minutes, stirring continuously. Drain

Heat the rest of the butter in a small non-stick frying pan. Tip in a quarter of the batter and make a slim pancake. Allow to cook until golden on the bottom. Pour in a quarter of the filling, fold over and serve. Repeat three more times with the rest of the batter and fillin

Cavan Lamb Pie

Serves 6

Traditionally made with mutton, not easy to find today, and from County Cavan, the home of Sally's family, but popular other parts of Ireland. I recently ate it in one of my favourite restaurants Roly's Bistro in Dublin, where they called it Kerry Lamb Pie. Here's my version, which combines very lean lamb with lots of vitamin and mineral rich root vegetables. Fibre, masses of protein, very little fat and hugely satisfying this is perfect for a dinner party as you can make the filling two or three days before, reheat it when ready, put on the pastry and you'll be eating it in under half an hour.

1 kg cubed lamb with all fat removed
1 large chopped onion
1 parsnip, peeled and cubed
1 turnip, peeled and cubed
half a Swede, peeled and cubed
1 leek, washed and sliced diagonally
2 large carrots, peeled, halved and sliced
2 sticks celery with leaves, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 bay leaves
1 bouquet garni
4 tbsp rape seed oil
a bowl of well seasoned plain flour
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 large glass decent red wine
1 litre vegetable stock (preferably home made)

1 pack ready made puff pastry
1 egg, beaten

In a large heavy saucepan, heat the oil, coat the meat in the flour, add to the pan stirring constantly till lamb is browned all over. Remove from heat, take out the lamb, add the onion, garlic and celery and a little more oil if needed. Keep stirring till vegetables are soft but not brown. Add all remaining vegetables and stir till coated with oil, return the meat to the pan and stir for a minute or two. Add the red wine, bay leaves, bouquet garni, tomato puree and stir till bubbling. Add stock, cover and simmer till meat and vegetables are tender, approx 60-90 minutes.

Roll out pastry until big enough to cover a large ovenproof pie dish with a good overhang all round. Put the filling into the dish and if necessary put a pie funnel or an upturned egg cup in the middle to support the pastry. Lay pastry over the dish, cut around the outside, use a fork to crimp the edge all round. Brush with the beaten egg and place in the middle of a preheated oven 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Bake for 20-30 minutes till pastry is golden and crisp. If you prefer you can make in individual dishes or soup bowls serving one per person. These won't need support for the pastry.


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