WINTER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 1
Gaelic Foodies

Margaret Johnson
Johnson Brings Home the 
Art of Irish Cooking

By Michelle Boyle
 

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What Margaret Johnson has accomplished with her career is what most people only dream of. She has taken her work experience of more than 30 years as a high school English and journalism teacher and combined it with her love of traveling in Ireland and her passion for cooking.

When Johnson first started writing on the topic of Irish cooking back in 1991, she says "No one took me too seriously, but as the Irish food revolution/renaissance began to take hold, I found that I was on the 'cutting edge,'" Johnson said.

When Bon Appetit Magazine devoted its entire May, 1996, issue to "The Food of Ireland," Johnson laughed that she was finally recognized "as somewhat of a pioneer as an Irish-American author."

Johnson has strong ties to Ireland. Her maternal grandparents were from Kerry and Cork. And while loathe to name just one location as her favorite place in Ireland, she did divulge that "I do love Kinsale, in Cork, my late husband and I rented an apartment there three different times. I also love Dublin, but I feel comfortable everywhere." Johnson is so well traveled in Ireland that she leads culinary tours there. The next jaunt will be in October, 2014, in conjunction with Quinlan Ireland, a New Jersey-based tour operator which also operates Celtic Golf.

Johnson explained that the excitement around Irish food is "more about Irish food, rather than the cooking. There are so many artisan producers in Ireland now-and, thankfully so many fabulous foods being exported and available here in the U.S., that Irish brands are becoming household names.

Many of this is thanks to companies like Kerrygold/The Irish Dairy Board, whose cheeses are sold Stateside from Costco to Whole Foods, she emphasized.

Johnson likes everything about her profession. "I love what I do and am thrilled when people ask my advice about travel to Ireland and/or Irish food. Having visited all 32 counties and forged friendships with people from all over the country, I feel I am honored to be Irish," she enthused.

Currently, Johnson is working on her next cookbook, Favorite Flavors of Ireland that will also serve as a 20-year retrospective about what she loves best about the Emerald Isle. "It will be the most comprehensive of all the books I've ever written," she predicted.

As a special treat for readers of The Irish American Post, Johnson has provided several recipes from her most recent cookbook, Christmas Flavors of Ireland. The most iconic christmas dish is Christmas or "figgy" pudding. Everyone serves it and even though it's a bit time consuming, it's a must and is generally served with brandy butter," Johnson offered.
 
 

Christmas Pudding with Brandy Butter
Serves 10-12

The original figgy pudding, created sometime in the 1400s, was a dish of dried figs, dates, raisins and spices boiled in almond milk. Also called plum pudding, despite the fact it contains no plums whatsoever, this steamed or boiled pudding was first recorded as Christmas Pudding in 1858 in a novel by British author, Anthony Trollope.

The name is probably derived from the substitution of raisins for dried plums as an ingredient in pies during medieval times. In the 16th and 17th centuries, dishes made with raisins retained the term: "plum," and in the Victorian era, Christmas plum puddings became a well-loved dessert.

Curiously, plum pudding was a latecomer to Ireland, but it caught on quickly and today it is a favorite Christmas dessert. Not to be confused with fruitcake, it is actually more like a dense spice cake. Serve this pudding, adapted from a recipe from the chef at Hayfield Manor (Perrot Avenue, Cork City), with brandy butter, the quintessential topping for Christmas puddings.

Ingredients:
1 cup/150 g sultanas (golden raisins)
1 cup/150 g currants
1/4 cup/60 g chopped dried fruit, such as cranberries, raisins, and figs
1/4 cup/60 g chopped dried apricots
1/4 cup/60 g candied cherries, halved
1/4 cup/60 g candied mixed peel
1/3 cup/75 ml brandy or dark rum
Juice and grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
8 tbsp./115 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup/115 g (packed) dark brown sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup/60 g chopped stem ginger
1 apple, peeled, cored, and grated
1 1/4 cups/150g all-purpose flour
1 cup/115 g white breadcrumbs
1 tsp. mixed spice (page xx), or pumpkin pie spice

Process:
1. Combine the fruits, candied cherries, and mixed peel a large glass jar or bowl. Add the brandy or rum, orange zest, and juice, and then cover; let stand at room temperature overnight.
2. Butter a 6-cup/1.5 L pudding mold or deep, heatproof bowl and place a round of wax paper on the bottom. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs. Stir in the soaked fruits, ginger, apple, flour, breadcrumbs, mixed spice, and cinnamon.
3. Spoon the batter into the prepared mold and smooth the top. Cover with a double piece of buttered wax paper and a double piece of aluminum foil. Fold together and make a pleat in the center (to allow for the pudding to expand). Tie the paper and foil in place with kitchen twine.
4. Place the mold in a large saucepan or Dutch oven fitted with a rack, or put a folded kitchen towel on the bottom of the pot to prevent direct contact with the bottom of the pot. Add enough hot water to the pot to come halfway up the sides of the mold or dish. Cover and steam on medium-low heat for 2-2 1/2 hours, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. (Check the water level once or twice during cooking and add more water when necessary.)
5. Carefully remove the pudding mold from the pot. Remove the foil and parchment, and run a metal spatula around the sides to loosen. Place a serving plate over the mold and invert. Slice and serve warm with brandy butter or sauce. (If not serving immediately, let the pudding cool, covered, in the mold. When completely cool, unmold, wrap in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil. Refrigerate the pudding for up to one week or freeze).
6. To serve, put the pudding back into its mold, cover with waxed paper or foil, and steam for one hour, as above, or until heated through. Thaw frozen pudding before reheating as above.


Brandy Butter

Ingredients:
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups/175 g confectioners sugar, sifted
2 tbsp. brandy
Process
In a small bowl, beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer on medium until light and fluffy. Add the brandy and beat until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl or crock, cover, and refrigerate for up to two weeks. Return to room temperature before serving.

 
Mincemeat Tarts

Makes 18 tarts

Mincemeat, a mixture of chopped dried fruits, spices, and spirits, is one of Ireland's most popular Christmas foods. It was developed more than five hundred years ago in England as a way of preserving meat without salting or smoking and was esteemed as holiday fare there during the era of Henry VII (1457-1509), who proclaimed Christmas a day of feasting.
Some early recipes for mincemeat used suet, veal or mutton, and gradually cooks added ingredients like apples, Seville oranges and even red wine.

When there was no longer any need to preserve meat with honey or spices, the meat in mincemeat was eliminated and replaced with fruit alone, although some cooks still use a bit of suet in their recipes.

In Elizabethan England, huge mince pies were made during the 12 days of Christmas, and it became customary to offer a visiting guest a slice. The leap from England to Ireland was a short one, and mincemeat soon became a favorite ingredient in an Irish Christmas as well, especially in the form of little mince pies.

Along with steamed pudding and fruitcake, mincemeat has been the standard-bearer of traditional Christmas desserts in England, Ireland, and elsewhere for centuries. These little pies, which can be made with homemade or prepared mincemeat, come covered with a Christmas star instead of a top crust and are delicious served with brandy butter. You will need two tart pans for this recipe.
Ingredients:
Pastry
2 cups/225 g all-purpose flour
1/2 cup/60 g ground almonds
5 oz./150g chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Grated zest of 1 orange
4 tbsp. sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 tbsp. ice water

Filling
1 cup/250 ml prepared mincemeat
1 large egg white, beaten
Confectioners sugar for dusting

Process:
1. Combine the flour, almonds, butter, zest, and sugar in a food processor. Pulse 8-10 times, or until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg yolk and water and process for 10-20 seconds, or until the dough comes together. Dust a work surface with flour. Turn out the dough, form it into a ball, and then flatten into a disk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for thirty minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 350° F/180° C. On the floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/8 in./2.5 cm-thick round. With a 4 in./10 cm cookie cutter, cut out 18 rounds and put each round into the well of a 12-well tart pan. Reroll the pastry scraps, and with a star shaped cookie cutter, cut out 18 small stars.
3. Divide the mincemeat into each of the pastry shells and top each with a star. Brush the pastry stars and tart edges with the egg white and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and the filling is bubbling. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to let cool for about ten minutes. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar before serving.


 
Burren Smoked Salmon on Potato Pancakes

Makes 12 small cakes

Hosting a holiday party is meant to be a fun experience, and festive small bites, inspired dips, and tasty spreads, especially ones made with traditional oak-smoked Irish salmon, can mitigate stress. For the festive season, serve hot- or cold-smoked salmon from the Burren Smokehouse (Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare), one of Ireland's premier producers, on these little potato pancakes. Top the dish with a dollop of sour cream or crème frâiche and a sprinkling of fresh chives.
 
Ingredients:
Potato Pancakes
2 large potatoes, cooked and mashed
1 large egg, beaten
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4-1/2 cup/125-250 ml whole milk
Butter for frying
1/2 lb./250 g smoked salmon, cut into
24 (1/2-in. /1 cm-wide strips
1/2 cup/125 ml sour cream or crème frâiche
Fresh chives for garnish
Process:
1. To make the pancakes, put the potatoes, egg, flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper in a food processor. Pulse 4-5 times to blend, and then gradually add enough of the milk to make a thick, smooth batter.
2. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brush the pan with butter. Drop spoonful of batter into the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until browned and heated through. Repeat with additional butter and remaining batter. Cakes can be served immediately or refrigerated, covered, overnight; reheat in a hot oven.
3. To serve, put a spoonful of sour cream or crème frâiche on top of each pancake. Put a piece of rolled salmon on top, sprinkle with pepper, and garnish with chives.


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