By Joe Dizney
Long before he was St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, the British-born (or so it is believed) Maewyn Succat was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in County Antrim.
During the six years he was indentured to a shepherd he became fluent in the native tongue and enamored of the culture. According to legend, God came to him in a dream and told him to go to the coast where he would meet a boat that would take him to England. He did, and escaped. He eventually become a priest, later a bishop, taking the name we know him by.
St. Patrick purportedly had another dream in which the Irish called to him to walk amongst them again, which he also purportedly did, becoming the saint we commemorate on March 17 in observances religious, secular and culinary. Shepherd’s pie (even if it wasn’t invented by Aithcen, Patrick’s household cook and the de facto patron saint of Irish chefs) is the obvious feast of choice.
Actually a homey casserole of seasoned, minced lamb and vegetables topped by a “crust” of mashed potatoes, shepherd’s pie (not to be confused with cottage pie, made from ground beef) exudes the humble lack of pretense and familiarity of the best comfort food.
The vegetables added to the lamb generally include onions and carrots, occasionally turnips, but unfortunately a universal inclusion to most recipes is frozen peas. Now frozen peas in and of themselves are not a bad thing, being one of the rare vegetables that does freeze well. They are also very British and do add a touch of green to the plate. But the substitution of another classic country food for the mashed potatoes might make for a more seasonally correct, and more truly Irish, meal: Colcannon, a mash of potatoes, butter and milk, plus cabbage or kale and herbs.
My offering below may not be a by-the-book version of the Irish classic — you could always add those frozen peas — but it’s a worthy meal to celebrate the wearing of the green any time you feel the spirit.
Shepherd’s Pie with Colcannon Crust
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves minced garlic
2 large carrots, diced
2 ribs celery, dice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1½ lbs. coarsely ground lamb
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 cup stock (beef, chicken or vegetable) (or ½ cup stock plus ½ cup red wine)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
2 to 3 cups lightly packed kale (curly or lacinato), ribs removed, washed
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup (about 6) chopped scallions, greens only
Grating of fresh nutmeg
2 to 2½ lbs. Russet potatoes, peeled and cut in to equal-sized (about 2-inch) pieces
6 to 8 tablespoons butter
2 egg yolks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup Irish cheddar, grated fine, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons extra for topping
For the lamb
Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet. Sauté onion 2 to 3 minutes until translucent; add garlic and cook a minute more. Add carrots and celery and cook for 3 minutes; add rosemary and thyme and cook for another 3 minutes.
Raise the heat to medium high and add lamb, breaking it up until it is well browned. Add tomato paste, mustard and Worcestershire sauce, stir to incorporate. Add stock (or stock/wine mixture) and reduce heat to medium low. Season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer 15 to 20 minutes until most (but not all) of the liquid is gone. Remove from heat, stir in parsley and reserve.
For the colcannon
Fill a bowl with ice and water. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook kale 4 to 5 minutes until leaves are wilted and tender but still bright green. Remove from pot (reserve water in pot to cook potatoes); submerge kale in ice water bath and chill for a couple of minutes; drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop and set aside while potatoes cook.
Bring pot back to boil, add potatoes and cook for 20 minutes. While potatoes cook, combine the milk,the scallions and a grating of nutmeg in a small pot and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep.
Thoroughly drain cooked potatoes and return them to the pot or a bowl and mash by hand with a potato masher, keeping some lumps, then lightly whip in the cream/scallions; individually add the kale, egg yolks and most of the cheese, whipping until creamy. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spoon lamb mixture evenly into a deep casserole and spoon the colcannon over the lamb, gently flattening the potatoes with a knife or spatula. Make a wavy or crosshatched pattern in the colcannon crust by just barely dragging the tines of a fork over the surface. Sprinkle reserved grated cheese over the top. Bake for 50 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve hot.