Eric Akis: St. Patrick’s Day evokes memories

Eric Akis

I was looking at the calendar and noticed St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. That, in turn, made me remember a wonderful trip my wife, son and I took to Ireland many, many years ago.

We visited friends in Dublin, then toured with them around the south and west of the Republic, eating and drinking very well along the way.

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When reflecting upon the bounty of good food we enjoyed, the first thing that came to mind was a combination that was fairly simple. It was brown soda bread, served to us slathered with Irish butter and topped with Irish smoked salmon.

The bread, leavened with baking soda, not yeast, is dense and delicious. When sliced, it’s the perfect landing spot for silky slices of smoky fish. The butter adds richness and marries the two. While eating it, I sipped a pint of Guinness, and life was very good.

Another simple, but tasty, dish I had in Ireland that also goes great with buttered slices of brown soda bread was potato and leek soup. On that occasion, the bread was served with aged Irish cheddar cheese.

Smooth and comforting soup, sturdy bread and tangy cheese was the perfect meal to enjoy after seeing the sights on a blustery Irish day.

Craving that bread and soup, I prepared them at home the other day and you’ll find the recipes for them below.

You can’t find Irish smoked salmon here, so I served the bread with B.C. fish. With regard to the soup, rather than serve Irish cheddar alongside it, I decided to set some of it, grated, right on hot bowls of the soup, with tasty results.

This combination of foods would make a nice meal to serve on St. Patrick’s Day, while wearing something green and making a toast — or two or three — to the Emerald Isle.

Irish-Style Brown Soda Bread

This dense and hearty loaf is called soda bread because it’s leavened with baking soda, not yeast. Buttered slices of it taste great topped with smoked salmon. You can also serve it toasted with your morning eggs, or use it to make sandwiches, such as ham and cheese. Or simply serve slices of the bread with soup.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 40 to 45 minutes

Makes: One loaf

• butter for greasing

3 cups whole grain or whole wheat flour, plus some for shaping (see Note)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/4 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

2 Tbsp cooking molasses

1 large egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease a nine- by five-inch non-stick loaf pan with butter. Place the flours, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Combine buttermilk, molasses and egg in another bowl. Add the wet mixture to the flour mixture and mix until loose and fairly wet dough forms.

Dust a work surface and your hands with whole-grain (or whole- wheat) flour. Turn the dough onto the surface. Knead and shape the dough — flouring your hands and the work surface again — if needed, into a loaf about eight inches long and four inches wide (the loaf will expand and fill the pan as it bakes).

Set the dough in the pan. Bake the bread in the middle of the oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until loaf has risen above the rim of the pan. (When completely baked, the unmoulded loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.) Unmould the loaf and set on a baking rack.

Let the loaf cool until warm or room temperature, then slice and serve.

Potato and Leek Soup with Irish Cheddar

After being ladled into bowls, this smooth and comforting soup is tastily topped with tangy bits of grated cheese. You’ll find Irish cheddar cheese in the deli section of many supermarkets.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: About 25 minutes

Makes: Four servings

2 Tbsp butter

2 cups sliced leeks, white and pale green part only (see Note)

1 Tbsp all-purpose flour

1 medium garlic clove, coarsely chopped

1/4 tsp dried thyme

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 medium (each about 270 grams) baking potatoes, peeled and cubed

1/4 to 1/2 cup light cream or milk

• salt and white pepper to taste

1/2 cup grated Irish cheddar cheese, or to taste

1 Tbsp snipped chives or chopped fresh parsley

Melt the butter in a medium pot set over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook until softened, about four to five minutes. Add the flour, garlic and thyme, mix until well combined, and cook two minutes more.

While stirring, slowly pour in the stock. Add the potato and bring the soup to a simmer for 15 minutes or until the potato is very tender.

Purée the soup in a food processor or blender, or in the pot with an immersion (hand) blender. Return soup to a simmer, then mix in 1/4 to 1/2 cup of cream (or milk), depending on desired consistency.

Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper, as needed. Ladle into bowls, top each soup with some cheese and chives (or parsley), and serve.

Note: Two small leeks, or one very large one, should yield the amount needed here. Before slicing the leek, I halved it lengthwise, washed it, and then dried it. Save the tough, dark green part of the leek for stock.

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