No need to stew

New Irish cuisine focuses on fresh ingredients to celebrate the flavors of the Emerald Isle.

March 17, 2004|By Christianna McCausland | Christianna McCausland,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At Killarney House restaurant in Davidsonville, a duo of Irish musicians plays while families, couples and friends dine on chicken breast stuffed with Irish blue cheese, oatmeal-encrusted trout and steak flamed in Jameson whiskey.

"Our emphasis is on the food," says Michael Galway, who owns Killarney House and another restaurant, Galway Bay, in Annapolis. He came to the United States from County Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1986 and began his career as a dishwasher at the Powerscourt restaurant in Washington.

"Up to this point, most people didn't go to an Irish bar for food. They went to drink whiskey or beer," says Galway. "We wanted to show that Irish food could be done well and taste very good. It doesn't have to be all boiled meats and overcooked vegetables. A lot of the taste was taken out of Irish food."

Irish cuisine has had a bumpy road through the years. Organized farming began on the isle about 6,000 years ago, and Ireland remained an agrarian society for most of its history. Meals were made from what the land provided - through foraging first and then farming - and the basic ingredients available to the Irish were mostly balanced and healthful.

Fowl, beef, lamb and pork were nourished and made sweet by year-round grazing on Ireland's lush grass. As an island crossed by many rivers, Ireland gave the Irish a ready supply of fish and shellfish, particularly salmon, and even seaweed. Oatmeal, sweet butter and cheese accented the Irish diet, and when the potato was introduced sometime before the 1600s, it flourished. Even garlic grew wild in Ireland.

Yet something went wrong. Despite the country's ready access to wholesome foods, Ireland remained a poor country marked by political unrest. The most noted event in its culinary history is the horrific famine of the 1840s. A combination of history, socioeconomics and political wrangling hindered the development of the Irish palate so that farmhouses all over the country routinely mistreated some of the most enviable ingredients on the planet.

According to Darina Allen, owner of the famed Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Irish cooks were immature. "People overcooked vegetables, they were careless about the quality of the produce. In a way, it was probably part of a nation growing up."

Irish cuisine now has reached its prime, benefiting from improvements in the Irish economy, international influences and a wider knowledge of food.

The allure of Irish food is its sophisticated simplicity. Allen is at the forefront of the Irish food revolution along with her mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen, who, with her husband, opened their country home, Ballymaloe, to visitors in 1965. Myrtle served a simple menu that changed on a daily basis, depending on the availability of fresh ingredients from the farm.

The philosophy was simple - use fresh farm ingredients in straightforward preparations - yet it caused a stir that renewed interest in Ireland's native bounty. Darina Allen began the cooking school in 1983, and the name Ballymaloe is now synonymous with the best in ingredient-based, healthful food.

Americans do a disservice to Irish food in their own homes by romanticizing the cuisine as little more than corned beef and cabbage. With well-intentioned myth and memory, Americans sentence Ireland's rich food history to inertia.

"People still love to associate Ireland with rural character and `the old country,' " says Margaret Johnson, author of several Irish cookbooks. "There's that myth that everything was simple, and everything was stew. And it's not. It's a modern, thriving country now."

In her newest book, The New Irish Table (Chronicle Books, 2003, $24.95), Johnson features recipes contributed by some of Ireland's new traditional chefs. Her research transformed her own understanding of the new Irish cooking. "I came to understand that this was what Irish cooking was all about," she says, "using the indigenous ingredients and, as Emeril would say, kicking them up a notch."

At his restaurants, Galway strives to provide an authentic Irish meal. Although fish and chips, shepherd's pie and corned beef are perennial favorites on the menu, the restaurant brings Irish flair to more nouveau dishes. The Chieftain Salad is Galway's Irish interpretation of the popular Caesar salad. His is made with Cashel blue cheese, walnuts and black currant port dressing.

Galway serves fresh-baked brown bread and soda bread using imported Irish flour; the corned beef is only the best first-cut quality; and the sodas, mustards and chutneys are all imported from the isle. His recipes are made with Kerrygold butter and cheese, the brand name of the Irish Dairy Board's dairy products that can be found in grocery stores throughout Maryland.

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