Every St. Patrick’s Day my mom cooks the same meal—corned beef with carrots, potatoes and cabbage, with a side of Irish soda bread. Growing up this was one of my least favorite meals of the year, aside from the soda bread, which I would eat any day. The texture of the corned beef freaked me out and the vegetables were somehow too salty, yet always too bland.
I’ve grown more appreciative of my mother’s efforts to add holiday levity to weeknight dinners—and of corned beef in general—but I still think that when it comes to a St. Patrick’s Day feast, there are much better options. Modern Irish cuisine is full of beautiful ingredients and imbued with a farm-to-table sensibility, from local seafood and vegetables to farmstead cheeses.
In the 18th century, Ireland was Europe’s beef powerhouse, although the workers raising and processing it could rarely afford to eat meat themselves. Irish immigrants in the US were finally able to enjoy beef, though usually cheaper cuts, like corned beef, which they often purchased from a kosher butcher shop—and then cooked in a pot with root vegetables, cabbage and potatoes. In Ireland, lamb or bacon is a much more typical St. Patrick’s Day main course, corned beef—which is basically an American invention—never having been an actual staple there.
For an update, consider salt-crusted Irish salmon instead. There’s still loads of nice citrus in the market this time of year as an accent, and this presentation is easy, dramatic, and flavorful without the nitrates. You could also play with the idea of Irish and Jewish immigrants cultivating a meat-based relationship—after all, what could be more Jewish than brisket, the cut corned beef is usually made from—and make the lamb shoulder from Zahav, the Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia. Lamb is also a classic Irish meat and the basis for plenty of both traditional and “new Irish” dishes.
Unlike corned beef, the Irish did, and still do, eat plenty of potatoes. Rather than boiling them though, make colcannon to go with your salmon (or corned beef if you wish). A versatile side that combines two excellent storage vegetables—potatoes and cabbage—colcannon is a traditional dish. Try this New York Times version made with kale for a modern take on this hearty classic—which is somewhere between mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, especially if you use whole milk instead of low-fat.
France or Italy might come to mind first, when thinking of European cheeses, but Ireland produces some delicious blues, washed rinds and cheddars. It’s grass that makes the island emerald, and grass is what ruminants depend on for the flavorful milk required to make great cheese. Consider crafting a Irish cheese plate from Gubbeen, a mellow, milky washed rind; a hearty Irish cheddar; and a Cashel Blue, a mild blue-veined cheese.
All that cheese is going to pair beautifully with a crisp, refreshing cider. Ireland doesn’t get enough sunshine to grow grapes for wine—but it does produce some excellent cider (paywall). Not all of it is exported, if you’re celebrating outside of Ireland this year. But cider is such a quickly growing market you can at least sip along in spirit with something you can find close to you. For purists, Magner’s is the Irish cider brand you see pretty much everywhere.
I’m still not sure what moved my mom to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with us every year—our family is not Irish, especially not her side. And we weren’t even particularly enthusiastic participants, except when it came to the soda bread. It’s a quick bread, leavened with baking soda, not yeast, and the slightly crumbly, moist texture is really satisfying—though lots of Americanized recipes are really closer to a cake than a bread. This updated version from King Arthur Flour, made with a mix of whole wheat and white flours is worth baking, though I leave out the currants.