Favorite Irish foods

As I begin to think about packing to return to America on Monday, my thoughts are turning to things I’ll miss about Ireland. My fabulous in-laws, of course. The wonderful hospitality and Irish spirit. The gorgeously green scenery. And, yes, the food.

Here’s a short list of the Emerald Isle foods I’ve grown to know and love:

Taytos. Taytos is Ireland’s answer to Lay’s potato chips, and like the latter, you can never eat just one. You see the little red and blue bags everywhere – in gas stations, quick-stops, bars and homes. The standard flavor is cheese/onion, which even my husband scarfs down. Now THAT’S saying something.

Bulmers. Even though I’ve tried, I can’t seem to develop a taste for Guinness. And while you can easily find American lagers like Budweiser and Coors in Ireland, it seems silly to me to order them here. Whiskey is a little hardcore for a relatively light drinker like myself. This leaves me with Bulmers hard cider, a choice I am more than happy to make when visiting the pub. It’s light and easy to drink, it’s slightly sweet but not too much, and it’s yummy. I’ve been told they now make Bulmers in pear and berry flavors, but I haven’t had opportunity to ask for them. A goal for my next visit, I suppose.

Cadbury chocolate. Cadbury Snack. Cadbury Dairy Bar. Cadbury Buttons. Cadbury anything. Yes, please.

Jaffa cakes. Part cookie, part cake, all good. Jaffa cakes are to Ireland what Little Debbies are to America. Start with a flat little spongey cake the size of a cookie, put a spoonful of orange marmalade in the center, then coat the whole thing with chocolate. Enough said.

The Irish fry. Anyone who’s ever stayed in Ireland has been asked two inevitable questions: “Will ye have a drop?” in the evening and “Will ye have a fry?” in the morning. The “drop” of whiskey is never just a drop, and for the uninitiated, a “fry” might bring to mind an order of crispy shoestring potatoes or a greasy Friday night fish extravaganza. Au contraire, mon frere.

For those who believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the Irish fry is like brunch on steroids – a gluttonous and manly amalgamation of a fried egg, sausage, rashers (thick Irish bacon), black and white pudding, half of a tomato (fried, of course), and classic Irish brown bread or toast. Sometimes you’ll see other mix-and-match additions like baked beans and mushrooms. The whole thing is washed down with lashings of scalding hot tea, although coffee is gaining more favor in some circles. Somewhat surprisingly, potatoes usually aren’t included in a traditional fry; those are saved for roasting at supper later in the day. (More on this later…)

It’s not the kind of breakfast you could eat everyday, but as a once-in-a-while treat, it’s fantastic.

Potatoes. I would be remiss not to include the humble spud in this list. You can’t get away from potatoes here. Even meals like lasagna, curry and pizza come with chips. And let me clarify: here, “chips” are what we call fries, usually the thick steak-cut variety. What we call chips are known as “crisps” here, and that include Taytos and all other varieties. So when I say chips, I really mean fries. Got it?

The younger generations sometimes get away with a potato-free meal, but for traditionalists like my dear mother-in-law, a dinner without potatoes is unfathomable. I’ve tried and tried and tried to replicate her delicious homemade roasted potatoes at home in Indiana, and never gotten it just right. Something about the potatoes themselves, I believe, or perhaps my preparation technique. Who knows. I’ve given up trying to compete and accepted that when it comes to roasts and potatoes, she is and will always be the reigning champion.

Brown bread. While we’re on the subject of my mother-in-law, let me just say that her brown bread is delicious. Found in every restaurant and home in the country, Irish brown soda bread is not like the wheat bread you find in America. It’s a flat, dense, chewy disk of whole grain goodness that’s cut into thin slices and served for breakfast or lunch.

Again, I’ve tried to make it at home without the same success, although hubby has experimented enough to come up with a very tasty version of his own. I once asked my mother-in-law for a brown bread-making lesson, taking copious notes the entire time as she casually threw handfuls of flour into a bowl saying things like “use about this much and then add the buttermilk until it looks right.” She usually apologizes after making it, saying that it doesn’t seem quite right when, of course, it’s always perfect.

I know there is more I’m leaving out, but these are the biggies, the go-to items I seek out when we’re here. Two more days until we leave. I wonder how many last taste blasts I can cram into my diet before we go.

Pop goes the Cork. County Cork, that is.

Here we are, safely ensconced at my mother-in-law’s house in Ballydaly, Millstreet, County Cork. We finally arrived yesterday after a hella long ride. Left Sligo around 11:30 a.m. and rolled into the homestead at 7:30 p.m., with several brief stops along the way including a tasty lunch at Moran’s the Weir on the river just outside Kilcolgan (famous for oysters and seafood, but we ordered toasted sandwiches), my husband’s aunt’s house in Charleville, and a quick stop so hubby could power-nap for 10 minutes before continuing the journey.

Mother-in-law had prepared her wonderful beef stew last night just waiting to be served when we arrived, bless her. The woman raised 7 children and professes to hate cooking, but let me tell ya, this lady knows her way around a roast. Her style of cooking is very old-fashioned, traditional Irish – roast meat, roast potatoes (and often boiled potatoes as well), and two veg. Nothing fancy, but all of it delicious. This is comfort food at its finest. With any number of inlaws and outlaws rolling in all the time, I have no idea how mother-in-law knows to judge how much food to make, but she always comes out right on the money.

When we can manage to resist the classic Irish “fry,” breakfast at the mother-in-law’s consists of tea, juice, cereal and brown bread. Mother-in-law is a whiz at making traditional Irish brown soda bread – a chewy flat disk of wheat and bran. She says she rarely makes it anymore, but always has a loaf cooling when we come to town, (my husband being her “golden boy,” after all, entitles him to special treatment). Like tea, brown bread is found everywhere you go in Ireland, from the neighbor’s house to the finest restaurant, and every family has its own variation. You’ll often find it served for breakfast, alongside a dish of stew, or with cheese. My mother-in-law knows her recipe by heart, of course, and demonstrated it to me once after I begged and pled pitifully. Imagine me trying to take copious notes as my mother-in-law casually pitches in a handful of flour or a palmful of baking soda, saying things like, “now, just add enough of this until it looks right.” Needless to say, the brown bread I’ve tried to recreate at home is nothing like hers.

traditional Irish brown bread

traditional Irish brown bread

Neither are my roasted potatoes. Since I got married, my husband’s been after to me to learn how to make roast potatoes just like mom’s. After three plus years, I seriously doubt it’s ever going to happen, although I think I am getting closer. The secret lies in parboiling them first until just tender, sprinkling them lightly with oil, then roasting gently until they are ever-so-browned on top, tender and fluffy inside. I can never get them exactly right. Hubby’s actually better at making them than I am, but I pledge to persevere until I succeed. Where there’s a will, there’s a spud. 

The Irish eat potatoes every day, no exaggeration. Whether it’s the aforementioned roasted version or the ubiquitous chips, nary a meal goes without some sort of potato accompaniment. Rice, pasta and other starches are few and far between, and even they are served with, yep, you guessed it. Potatoes. It’s a little strange to go into a restaurant or pub and see items like chicken curry or lasagna offered up with a side of chips, but that’s how it’s done here. 

Hubby and I stopped into the pub this afternoon for a quick pint while we were running errands in town, then headed back to the homestead for a delicious dinner of tender roast lamb with gravy, potatoes and a mashed carrot-turnip combo. Yummy, yummy stuff. Another pint of Bulmer’s, and I’ll be off to dreamland…