The truth is, corned beef and cabbage is an Irish-American institution. Ask for it in Ireland and chances are your server has never heard of the dish developed by immigrants in New York City. To learn more about home-grown Irish cooking this St. Patrick’s Day, the Hippo sat down with two local restaurateurs with Irish roots to chat about what they remember in their own kitchens.
Michael Conneely is the owner of the Peddler’s Daughter with locations in Nashua and Haverhill, Mass. He’s lived in the United States for the past 25 years, but was born and raised in Carraroe (or An Cheathrú Rua) north of Galway in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking part of Ireland. Neal Brown is the manager at The Shaskeen in Manchester. He’s been living in the States for about 15 years and hails from Belfast.
“St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was more of a religious day,” Conneely said. “It was kind of treated like a Sunday, really.”
What was one of your favorite meals growing up?
Michael Conneely: One of my favorite meals — was called in Gaelic actually — it was called a “Blind Herring.” It was a fish dish. The fish was boiled in fish stock and served with a cream onion sauce made out of milk, with boiled potatoes. That was one of my favorite dishes growing up.
Neal Brown: For home cooked meals, I used to love fried, smoked cod on Friday nights, and we’d have that with potatoes. It’s just a good salty, fried fish — the stuff of dreams. The fish was obviously very readily available, plenty on Fridays.
Did you help out in the kitchen a lot when you were a kid?
MC: Oh, yes I did. I was the youngest of five. I used to cook with my mother on a regular basis, especially baking — as much as I could learn. I was very interested in food. … At that time there wasn’t a lot of television watching. We grew up on a farm, milk our own cows, fish for our fish … we used to make blood sausage, stuff like that. We were self-sufficient.
NB: Yeah, my dad was the one that did the Sunday lunches, and in the evenings I was the one that would go in and make pancakes and we’d have pancakes for dinner every Sunday night. My mom taught me how to do that from a young age.
Is there a dish or food you miss that you can’t find in the States?
MC: There’s a lot of things. I think when people travel, I think their taste-buds change. The fish from home has a different taste to it, and the vegetables. … I do miss all my own home grown stuff, especially the vegetables. That’s what I miss. Not more so the dish, but the taste. The potatoes here that we get when we boil them, they’re not as floury.
NB: I can’t find my smoked cod. There was a very unhealthy, delicious thing that we used to get all the time at the local fish and chip shops in Northern Ireland called a pastie, not like a Cornish pasty or anything like that. The owner would take all his unsold potatoes, sausages, all the burgers, and just grind it into a compound, form it into a patty, batter and fry it. Just like a chip shop in a bag. An Ulster pastie was a traditional one. And I miss the bacon as well.
How would you describe the current food culture in Ireland?
MC: In the last 25 years it’s grown leaps and bounds. … The food culture right now is very forward. Again they’re still doing a lot of organic stuff, but they’re putting in all the French techniques. And the food tastes a lot better and people are more accomplished cooks now than they were.
NB: In Ireland it’s always changing, I mean, in the past 20 years with the expansion of Europe and the migration of eastern Europeans come over to that part of the world. The last time I was in Dublin and Belfast you could almost find food from any corner of the world on the streets. Thirty years ago, a Chinese restaurant was the most diverse you had in Northern Ireland. Now you have Vietnamese, Australian and South African all on one street.
Where do you go when you’re looking for a taste of home?
MC: I’ve got two locations, but when I’m not eating in my place, I like to go to Matt Murphy’s in Brookline, [Mass.].
NB: There is a store I go to down in Greenland: British Aisles. They import goods and product from the UK. I’ve been going to them for a couple years now. … Locally, it’s hard for someone to get real authentic Irish food. Here, we have a twist on the American comfort food Irish style. Boiled dinners are hard to come by every 11 months out of the year.
What’s the most traditional Irish item on your own restaurant’s menu?
MC: I suppose the potato leek soup, and we also do a Irish breakfast. Potato leek soup is a staple of Ireland and we do it well. ... And of course our famous fish and chips.
NB: Our scotched eggs are really a surprise popular choice. Our Guinness beef stew is really, really good. It’s very cliche. Even the bangers and mash.
As seen in the March 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.