18 March 2010

The Feast of Saint Patrick

This post was supposed to go up on St. Patrick's Day, but we were too destroyed to finish it. No, not by copious amounts of Guinness, but by food coma.

St. Patrick's Day. The day when everybody is Irish. Dress in green day. Annoyingly pinch those who aren't wearing green day. Drink some green beer day. Or as we professional drinkers like to call it: Amateur night.

While my curmudgeonly side likes to deride the, well, amateurs who come out to drink tonight, I do like St. Paddy's. Alannah (as if you couldn't tell by the name) is partially of Irish stock. And the other side is Scottish, who according to my good Irish friend are merely Irish who couldn't swim. Add to that our ability to out-drink people twice our size, and you can see why despite all the douchebaggery, we'd like this holiday.

So imagine my delight coming home from work this commercialized-by-beer-distributors holiday to find Alannah taking on an entire hurling team's worth of Irish. Foods. She was even kind enough to take pictures of what she was doing, knowing I like to show off her stuff on the web.

I came up to the kitchen and saw her furiously whipping something up on the stove. It smelled cheesy. It smelled boozy. It was... Welsh?

Surprise number one: Welsh rarebit. Following the recipe perfected by Fergus Henderson. You know, that famous chef in London. Ok, so maybe none of this was Irish, but it's the same archipelago, right? Besides, ever since eating at St. John on our latest trip to London, I'd been jonesing for the very version of beer-and-Worcestershire-spiked cheese-on-toast perfected by Henderson. Paired with a glass of port, I was having myself a very happy evening.
She then led me up to the kitchen to help her with the next dish: Colcannon. Alannah first made this for me last St. Patrick's Day, when I learned a) that it's delicious and b) that I'd had it before as part of an airline meal under its English name, "Bubble & Squeak."

"Colcannon" sounds much more manly, like an Irish porn star with a thick mustache. The English name sounds like there's a mouse squished in it. Nomenclature aside, it's a hash of potatoes and cabbage, fried like a patty. Simple, but delicious. Of course, Alannah can't leave well enough alone, so she used red cabbage and savoy cabbage. She had me fry up bits of smoky bacon to add to the melange before it was fried, just to make sure it was customized enough to qualify for an episode of Pimp My Ride.

Speaking of customization, she put me to work on the next treat: Soda bread. Irish soda bread is a quickbread. In lieu of making a yeasty dough and proving it over the course of hours, you use baking soda as the leavening agent and bake it straight away. It's like an English scone or American biscuit, only it's often made in a huge round as opposed to little individual morsels. Again, Alannah couldn't leave it alone. Borrowing from my Iranian side, she asked me to put in a fistful of barberries, aka zereshk. Along with a fistful of caraway seeds and a fat pinch of sugar, this customization makes for the most flavorful soda bread, lovingly bastardized with Persian flair. I fear our kids will look like this soda bread.

While I was on boulanger duty, Alannah was doing a bit of kneading of her own, working on her magical pie crust. For she had spent much of the day preparing the filling for what would become a Guinness-brisket-trotter pie.

For the uninitiated, a trotter is a pig's foot. It's smelly. Kinda hairy. And doesn't particularly have much meat. In fact, in the wrong hands, it's downright disgusting. (Have you seen the film Precious? There's some pig foot up in that joint.) But, again, Alannah was plying me with food perfected by Fergus Henderson. And thus, she'd spent the afternoon on "trotter gear." She scrubbed clean the pig's foot, chopped up the aromatics, then drowned it all in port. Delicious tawny port.
How 'bout a pictorial spread?

Tawny port. As Alannah told me she did it: Some for the pig.
Some for the cook. Repeat.
The trotter and its aromatics. Alannah says,
"Trust me, you need all the aromatics you can get."
Starting the stew side of things.
The trotter concoction had to simmer for hours, letting loose all the collagen from the skin and connective tissue, and infusing it all with a rich, fatty, gelatinous property. In the end, there's not really any meat to use, but liquid richness.

In the meantime, she had also started a cast iron pot of a standard beef stew, using a nice fatty brisket. Brisket isn't easy to come by in France. We learned this when trying to make corned beef last year. Alannah had to overcome her language barrier to explain to the butcher that we wanted cow belly. Not pork belly. Not veal belly. Full grown moooooo. At least, that's how I imagine she explained it. This year, it was much easier, because the butcher had apparently remembered last year's exchange.

Anyway, she went with brisket because she knew I love corned beef brisket, but simply didn't have three days to brine it and somehow manage to surprise me. And because it tastes good. No other meat has the texture of beef brisket. Stringy, striated, chewy, and unique to the cut.

When making a stew, it's good to brown the meat and vegetables before adding any liquid. In northern France, as with in the Isles, it's assumed that you'll do the browning with butter. Lots of it.

To quote Hugh Jackman in that horrible romantic comedy
with Meg Ryan, "Rich. Creamery. BUTTER."
We buy our butter and eggs in bulk from a dairy family at the local marché. First off because we go through a lot of it. When you bake as much as Alannah does, you need to buy in near industrial quantities. When you eat like I do, you want to be as far from industrial as possible, as much to stave off the early death from this sort of consumption, as well as because artisanal ingredients taste better. That and even the fanciest of packaged butters – even the one that every food blogger in France pimps and goes on about like a bleating goat – contains stabilizers and flavor-enhancing compounds you're not supposed to know about. So we buy huge hunks of butter by the kilo.

But I digress. The butter is important because it's also what makes the magical pie crust so damn magical. You know that scene in American Pie? You know which one. Yeah, well, Alannah's pie crust will make you want to recreate it.

So, back to the filling, eventually you do need to add liquid. In this case, the liquid is Guinness. Again, some for the stew, some for the cook. Note that his beer is, obviously, black. (Ok, it's a very deep brown, but even in Ireland, it goes by "the black stuff.") Green beer should never be consumed. Hell, beer in a green bottle is even a no-no by beer snob standards.

Anyway, the stew must also simmer for several hours to break down nicely. The trotter gear must then be drained so that the gelatinous substance that's left can be added to the stew to create the world's richest, booziest pie filling.

To be honest, it doesn't look very good. But it's a pie filling, for fuck's sake. It's going to be hidden by a crust of golden, buttery, flaky, delicious dough.

Guinness-brisket-trotter pie.
The richness will nearly kill you.
Once covered with a crust, a brief 20 minutes in the oven is all you need. It seems short after hours and hours of stewing, and the smell emanating from the kitchen is intoxicating and satisfying in and of itself. If you're feeling impatient, you can wait it out by having a Guinness.

Of course, such a dish must be enjoyed with yet another pint of the black stuff. (Or a Smithwick's if you can find it. No such luck this year in Paris.) The point isn't to get hammered, but to enjoy the richness and depth of meats cooked low-and-slow with the earthy, mild bitterness of a good beer. A good brew adds more dimension to a meal like this, and it's a reason the beer is in the stew to begin with.

But wait! There's more!

A proper holiday meal just isn't complete until dessert is served. Though I couldn't eat another bite, I always have room for Alannah's chocolate-stout cupcakes. Which are made with, you guessed it, Guinness.

Here's the thing: I hate cupcakes. I'm not sure it's because the whole cupcake trend was kicked off by the equally deplorable Sex & the City, or because something about the confection doesn't jibe with me. Maybe because they were (and in 4-years-behind-California-in-most-food-trends Paris, still are) trendy above all else, and utterly destroyed by all the people cashing in on the trend and producing fancified little chocolate or red velvet turds covered in buttercream. Read the only trashing review of the beloved Kara's Cupcakes in San Francisco, by yours truly. Then spread the gospel.

But Alannah's little cuppies are tha bomb. They're the first to sell out at every Paris charity sale she brings them to, and they're the first and only ones I've ever actually begged for. In fact, she refused to ever bake them for me until she knew I was the right guy.

They're that good. And even better with a little tawny port.

Happy amateur night to all.


  1. Ribald, hilarious! Loved the description of the "Scottish, who according to my good Irish friend are merely Irish who couldn't swim." I feel like I've eaten the brisket-trotter-pie myself, though I wouldn't touch a pig's foot with a 10 ft pole!

  2. You know why it's called bubble and squeak? It bubbles in the hot pan when it's cooking and then squeaks when it's ready. At least that's what i've always been told. Oh and bubble and squeak for us was always the leftover vegetables and potatoes from Sunday lunch. Yummy makes me want to cook sunday dinner just to have bubble and squeak with a fried egg on Monday!

    Good work Alannah!

  3. Ya know, if you never see a pig's foot being prepared (or see it whole in front of you) you may actually wind up eating it ;) After all, that's what gelatin is made of!

    Ms. Habib - that makes sense. When I was first served bubble & squeak it was on Air New Zealand. The air hostess had asked if I wanted an omelette or b&s. I hadn't a clue what the latter was, so I asked for it. I kind of was expecting a mouse. (Hell, it was my first exposure to NZ, I had no idea what they actually ate!)