Is corned beef really Irish? Irish pub owner makes this traditional light dish instead
Every year, someone has a full-on tantrum over the corned beef. That's according to Siobhan Reidy, who owns The Irish Rover in Louisville, Kentucky, with her husband, Michael Reidy.
"Every year one of your tables wants to yell at you over corned beef and cabbage," Siobhan Reidy said. "But we don't carry it because it's not Irish."
Her husband should know. He grew up in County Clare, home to the Cliffs of Moher on the rugged Atlantic coast of Ireland. Corned beef and cabbage can be found in Ireland, Reidy said, but her husband certainly didn't grow up eating it. He most definitely did not eat it to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
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A typical celebratory meal in Ireland might include thick ham-like slabs of Irish bacon or some other cut of pork, mashed potatoes and vegetables of some sort — perhaps cabbage, and perhaps not — all served with a white sauce.
Reidy said the tradition became part of Irish lore after many Irish-American expats settled among Jewish immigrants in some of the poorest neighborhoods of New York.
That holds up, according to The Nosher, MyJewishLearning.com's food blog. "When Irish immigrants saw the salty, cured corned beef their Jewish neighbors were enjoying, it reminded them of their own comfort food," writes The Nosher's Shannon Sarna.
And since cabbage was abundant and cheap, it nicely bulked up the stew pot, along with the potatoes and carrots. Seasonally speaking, those are the vegetables that would also be readily available in what's technically a late-winter holiday.
New York's Irish pubs also got keen to the fact that, if they sold steaming bowls of corned beef and cabbage, they'd sell an awful lot of beer to the folks who showed up.
"That may be another way this whole thing came to be, because the bars were luring men into the pub by giving them supposedly free food," Siobhan Reidy said.
New York was where the future Mrs. Reidy met her husband, though she later convinced him to move with her to Louisville to open The Irish Rover in 1993. It was the city's first Irish pub.
There, the Reidys serve fish and chips and traditional Irish breakfasts with Irish slab bacon and black puddings, or blood sausages. People adore the salmon gratin and the beef stew. Around St. Patrick's Day, there's always a bit of clamor for the corned beef and cabbage that will never, ever be on the menu.
The Reidys recommend instead the Shanagarry fish cakes, a recipe from the Ballymaloe Cookery School in East County Cork, Ireland, founded by Myrtle Allen and run by her family members. Allen, Siobhan Reidy explained, is the Alice Waters of Ireland.
"Myrtle Allen was credited with the revolution in Irish food," she said.
And for the record, The Washington Post in 1996 asked Allen her opinion of corned beef and cabbage. "I don't know anybody who serves corned beef in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day," she told the paper.
Shanagarry fish cakes
This recipe is adapted from the Irish Rover in Louisville, Kentucky. We added crushed saltines to help the patties stay together, though the original recipe calls for skipping the binder. Do what you prefer. Serve fish cakes with mashed potatoes and vegetables.
Makes eight 4-ounce cakes
For the cakes:
2 pounds fresh cod filet
1/4 pound smoked salmon
1/4 pound fresh salmon, skin off
2 tablespoons Country Dijon mustard
1/2 cup finely crushed saltine crackers
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil for pan-frying
For the breading:
1 cup seasoned fish fry
Pulse each fish separately in a food processor until chopped but not pureed. Drain well, and then combine with mustard and cracker crumbs. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Form patties with mixture and roll in seasoned fish fry. Heat the oil over medium heat. When oil begins to shimmer, place patties in oil. Add more if pan runs dry. Cook until patty turns easily with a metal spatula, about 5 minutes each side. Make sure the patty is cooked through.
Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.
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