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.
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.
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.