Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Irishy Dinner Party


For this week’s dinner party, I served up an Irishy menu in honor of St. Patrick.  (Not quite Irish, but Irishy, because it wasn’t exactly traditional.)  We celebrated the unofficial Saturday start of the holiday with my little sister Mary and her husband Dan, who were staying with us for the weekend.  In the morning, we watched the Chicago River dying from up in Ben’s office, where we had a perfect bird’s eye view.  Then we spent the rest of the drizzly day back in the apartment, watching old movies and cooking dinner.   

          Lacinato Kale Salad with Toasted Hazelnuts, Golden Raisins, Parmesan,              Vidalia Onions & Mustard-Malt Vinaigrette

Shepherd’s Pie

Chocolate Cake with Guinness Ice Cream

Shepherd’s pie was an easy choice for our St. Patrick’s feast.  But for a first course, I had to get a little creative. I knew I wanted something green, and that led me to kale.  A cousin to cabbage, kale seemed a perfect St. Paddy’s Day option for that reason too.  Kale is a tough and hardy green, and while normally cooked long and slow to eek out every last bit of tenderness, I decided to take a fresh and raw approach this time.  I chose a beautiful variety of kale called Lacinato, whose leaves are long and broad, bumpy and dusky green.  I sliced thinly across the leaves, creating long, skinny ribbons that were crunchy but tender, bright in green flavor and a little bit bitter, a perfect base to a fresh winter salad.   


Topping the salad was all sorts of sweet and salty, crunchy and chewy goodness: golden raisins, sliced Vidalia onion, thin shards of parmesan cheese and gorgeous toasted hazelnuts.  The hazelnuts were a surprise gift (is anything better than an out-of-the-blue gift?) from my friend Brandon, who lives in Portland, Oregon (which right now tops the list of places I want to visit, both because of its incredible produce, namely its hazelnuts, and its incredible people, namely Brandon).  She picked and shelled and roasted them herself.  And gosh, they are really delicious. Stay tuned for next week’s post. I’m planning a maple-hazelnut tart for dessert.


Back to the salad as a whole.  A whole that was much more than the sum of its tasty parts.  I wish like snow to Eskimos, there were a couple dozen English words for delicious.  Because I don’t know how else to say it.  This salad was absolutely delicious.  I like how Mary put it.  She said that if she’d eaten it in a restaurant, she’d tell people to go there just for the salad.  I think that says it all.  

IMG_0177 IMG_0138

Shepherd’s pie was a must.  One of our all-time favorites, I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to share it with you.  This traditional dish is classically made with ground lamb. But when I made it for the first time years ago, I neither knew this fact, nor paid much attention to the recipe.  I accidently bought cubed lamb for stewing.  And as Mark Twain said, “Accident is the name of the greatest of all inventors.”  I’ve been making it this way ever since.


Cubes of lamb shoulder are slowly simmered until meltingly tender, in a dark broth flavored with browned onions, fresh thyme and cinnamon.  Sautéed mushrooms and half moons of carrots are folded inside, then the stew is topped with a crust of cheddar-loaded mashed potatoes.  The cheese isn’t exactly traditional either, but who cares?  On top of the potatoes – more cheese, which melts and turns golden brown in the oven, and a sprinkling of bright and pungent green onions.  It’s simple, rustic food.  But at the same time, it somehow seems the height of gourmet fare. 



We made dessert Irish by topping chocolate cake with Guinness-flavored ice cream.  The ice cream was wonderful, with boozy hues of spiced molasses, smooth hints of bitter chocolate, and pleasant echoes of the quintessential Irish brew.  The chocolate cake, on the other hand, just missed the mark.  This was the first time I’ve tried this particular recipe.  On paper it sounded fantastic, but in reality, it was just okay.  (It definitely looked good though, so I couldn’t resist including a picture.)  Since you can find a recipe for okay chocolate cake just about anywhere, I don’t really see a reason to post this one.  Sorry to disappoint, but why mislead you with anything but the best? 


Have no fear though, my friends.  I’ll keep on my quest towards perfecting chocolate cake.  And when I get it just right, you’ll be the first ones to know.  

Lacinato Kale Salad with Hazelnuts, Golden Raisins, Parmesan,
Vidalia Onions and Mustard-Malt Vinaigrette

Serves 4

For the vinaigrette:
1/2 small garlic clove, minced
1 Tbl Dijon mustard
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
3 Tbl malt vinegar
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the rest of the salad:
2 bunches Lacinato kale
1 small Vidalia onion
1 cup hazelnuts
2/3 cup golden raisins
2-3 oz block of parmesan cheese
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

First make the vinaigrette: Combine the minced garlic, mustard, thyme, malt vinegar, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper in a medium mixing bowl.  Whisk together, and slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  This can be made ahead and refrigerated for about 4-5 days in an airtight container until needed.

Next, prepare the rest of the salad:
Working with 3-4 leaves at a time, and cutting straight across the width of the leaves, slice the kale into thin ribbons of about 1/8 inch thick.  Slice from the tips of the leaves to within about an inch from the base of the leaves, discarding the tough, wide stem area at the bottom. Wash the ribbons of kale in cool water, then spin dry.  


Slice the top and bottom ends off the onion, then slice the onion in half from top to bottom.  Remove the skin and thinly slice the onion. You’ll probably only need between 1/4 and 1/2 the onion, depending on its size and on how much you like onions. 

Spread the raw hazelnuts on a parchment-lined sheet tray and roast in a 350°F oven until toasted and aromatic, about fifteen minutes or so, rotating the pan about half-way through.  Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature.  Removing the skins can be a real hassle, so just try your best – I like a bit of skin left on anyways.  Here’s a handy trick through.  Take a handful of cool, toasted hazelnuts and, holding them over the colander bowl of a salad spinner, rub them between your hands to remove as much of the skin as possible.  Place in the colander, then repeat with the rest of the nuts, Give the salad spinner a few spins and the papery skins will separate out from the nuts.  Discard the skins.

Slice about half of the raisins in half, and leave the rest whole.  Slice the parmesan cheese into thin ribbons using a vegetable peeler.  

Assemble the salad: In a large mixing bowl, combine the sliced kale with most of the prepared onions, hazelnuts, raisins and parmesan.  (I say most of the onions, hazelnuts, etc. because you’ll want to keep a little bit left over to top the salads. It’s always nice to have some of the pretty stuff right on top.) Drizzle the vinaigrette on top. Season with a good pinch of salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Toss to coat thoroughly, and place onto salad plates. Top with the rest of the onions, hazelnuts, raisins and parmesan. Serve immediately.


Shepherd’s Pie
Serves 6

Lamb is traditional here, but to save a few bucks, use beef chuck.  It’s what I do most of the time, and I think may even like it better that way. 

For the filling:
olive oil, as needed
1 # 12 oz beef chuck or lamb shoulder, sliced into 1-inch cubes
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1 Tbl chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp tomato paste
1 Tbl flour
1 cup red wine
2 cups beef stock
3 medium carrots, peeled, sliced down the middle, then sliced into 1/4-inch half-moons
1/2 # cremini mushrooms, wiped clean
2 Tbl chopped fresh parsley leaves
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the topping:
2 # Yukon gold potatoes
6 Tbl butter, room temperature
3/4 cup cream, warm
12 oz grated cheddar cheese, divided
1/2 bunch green onions, cleaned and thinly sliced
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

First prepare the filling: Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat for two minutes.  While the pan is heating, use a paper towel to pat dry the cubed meat.  Season the meat with salt and pepper.  Add olive oil to thinly cover the bottom of the pan and continue to heat 1 minute.  Working in 2 batches, place half of the lamb or beef cubes into the pan, one by one, leaving space between them.  Brown for two minutes, then flip over and brown for two more minutes.  Remove the cubes of meat to a side dish, then repeat with the remaining meat.  Reserve the meat. 

Add the chopped onions to the pan, and a little more olive oil if needed.  Season with salt and pepper, then sauté, scraping up the browned bits at the bottom of the pan, until the onions are tender lightly browned, about 5 minutes.  Add the thyme and cinnamon, stir to combine, and sauté about 2 minutes more.  Add the tomato paste, stir to combine, and sauté about 2 minutes.  Add the flour, and again stir to combine and continue cooking about 2 minutes longer.  Add the red wine, stir to combine, and cook until nearly evaporated.  Add the beef stock and return the browned meat cubes to the pan with their cooking juices.  Season with a bit of salt and pepper.  Bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down to very low and cover.  Stirring occasionally, keep at a bare simmer, with just a few little bubbles escaping every second, until the meat is incredible tender.  When tender, remove the lid and simmer to reduce the sauce a bit – You want it slightly thickened, but keep enough to generously coat the meat and vegetables (you’ll add the carrots and mushrooms to this in a bit.)  Taste, and season as needed with salt and pepper.


While the stew is simmering, prepare the carrots and mushrooms: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the sliced carrots.  Boil until just tender, probably less than five minutes.  Drain in a colander and reserve. 

Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel.  Trim the bottom ends off the stems, then quarter the mushrooms.  Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat for two minutes.  Add olive oil to thinly cover the bottom of the pan and continue to heat 1 minute.  Working in 2 batches, add half of the mushrooms to the pan, season with a pinch of salt.  Sauté, stirring or tossing the pan occasionally,  until the juices are released and evaporated, and the mushrooms shrink in size and are thoroughly browned.  Remove to a side dish, then repeat with the remaining mushrooms.  Reserve. 

When the meat is tender, the sauce is reduced to slightly thick and the carrots and mushrooms are cooked, add the carrots, mushrooms and chopped parsley to the pot of stew.  Stir to combine, turn off the heat, and reserve covered while preparing the topping.

To prepare the topping: Peel the potatoes and slice into equal-sized chunks.  Bring a pot of generously salted water to a boil and add the potatoes.  Simmer until the potatoes are tender, then drain in a colander.  Puree the potatoes using a potato ricer, or just mash them if you don’t have a ricer.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the pureed potatoes with the butter, cream and 8 oz (8 oz sounds healthier than 1/2 pound) of the grated cheddar.  Fold gently to combine.  Taste, and season with salt and pepper. 

To assemble: Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Now either add all of the stew filling to a 9x13-inch casserole dish, spreading it evenly across the bottom, or divide it equally between 6 large soufflé cups.   Top with the pureed potatoes and spread evenly with a spatula.  Top with the rest of the grated cheese and the sliced green onions.  Bake until the top is golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.

The entire casserole can actually be assembled the day ahead, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight.  In this case, bake it at 350°F, about 45 minutes-1 hour, until it is hot throughout and the top is golden brown.  


Guinness Ice Cream 
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
Serves 6

1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup Guinness stout
2 Tbl + 2 tsp molasses
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise.  Scrape the seeds with a knife and add with the vanilla pod, milk and cream to a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover, and set at room temperature for half an hour, so that the flavors can infuse.

While the cream is setting, combine the beer and molasses in a small saucepan.  Whisk to combine and bring to a boil, then turn off the heat.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla extract.  Whisk about a quarter of the cream mixture into the yolks, then slowly add the rest of the cream, whisking to combine.  Add the Guinness mixture and stir to combine. 

Pour the mixture back into the medium saucepot, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spatula.  The temperature of the custard should not exceed 180°F.

Strain the custard into a 2 quart container and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, then cover and refrigerate until very cold, about four hours to overnight.

Process in an ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. After processing, transfer to an airtight container and freeze until ready to serve.


  1. The giant, mouth-watering cake in this post me remember your famous multi-colored cakes you used to make in college. I think you are going to need to make one - if just for the photos- one of these days. The best part was that you always frosted it plain on the outside then it was like a surprise party inside.

  2. I do have a special place in my heart for those food coloring-laden cakes! Thanks for the memories :).