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| September 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

 

Margaret’s Dublin Lawyer (also known as Drunken lobster)

Margaret’s Dublin Lawyer (also known as Drunken lobster)

Ireland’s food history and culture can be traced back to prehistoric times. That it’s  an island at the very western edge of Europe meant the influence of other countries did not play much of a role in Irish cuisine until recently. As such, traditional dishes still figure prominently in a cuisine that has evolved from centuries of cultural, political and social change.
Think Irish cuisine and you’ll certainly imagine amazing cheeses and butter produced from milk of “cattle that remain out on pasture all year round,” explains Ambassador Raymond Bassett. Of course, many traditional dishes also come to mind. Topping the list would be Irish stews and potatoes of some sort. Those familiar with traditional Irish cuisine would cite boxty (a type of thick pancake of mashed and shredded potatoes, flour and baking powder or soda), colcannon (a mixture of milk and butter-mashed potatoes with chopped cooked onion and cabbage or kale) and champ (mashed potatoes with spring onions stirred into them). Other dishes mentioned would be coddle (especially Dublin coddle) consisting of bacon, pork sausages and potatoes, black pudding (blood sausage), soda bread, barmbrack (a type of currant cake, a treat for Halloween when tiny charms are found in it) and Irish breakfast (a fried or grilled meal of bacon, egg, sausage, black pudding and fried tomato.)
One cannot ignore the introduction of the potato, which was brought to Europe in the late 16th Century and then worked its way to Ireland. It has been hailed as the “greatest occurrence” and condemned as the “worst calamity,” dramatically affecting and completely changing the Irish diet, its cuisine and its people. Consequently, the before and after references to the arrival of the potato in Ireland have become an important marker in the evolution of Irish cuisine.
Before farms with fields and domestic animals gave way to food production as the principal preoccupation, the Irish were primarily hunters and gatherers. Cattle were kept for dairying, not meat. Milk was turned mainly into a widely drunk sour milk, butter, curds, soft and hard cheeses. Only in winter, when fodder was scarce, would old cows and unwanted bull calves be slaughtered, salted and preserved as winter food for the gentry and nobility. Cheeses and curds were known as white meats. Milk and milk products made up the key part of the diet of the working class, and particularly the poor, all year round. The practice of bleeding cattle was common to make black pudding by mixing blood with barley and seasoning.

Traditional Irish stew remains renowned in Ireland.

Traditional Irish stew remains renowned in Ireland.

Pigs herded in oak forests, feeding on acorns and woodland fodder, provided the cheapest meat. Pork was popular with everyone (and that reputation holds true to this day). Blood collected after slaughtering went into the black pudding, a practice that still continues. Salting pork doubled the price due to the high cost of salt and, as a result, a vast majority of the population got by just on pieces of salted bacon with fresh meat being reserved for holy days or festive occasions.
The endless assortment of stews and soups for which Ireland remains renowned was inspired by the earliest of cooking vessels, the cauldron. Stews and soups varied with the availability of ingredients. Coastal-area creations differed from those inland, ranging from clam and cockle soup, lobster soup to sheep’s head broth. With iron and bronze cooking cauldrons being expensive, wooden troughs filled with water, brought to and kept at a boil with hot stones, proved to be an ingenious alternative. Ovens as such did not exist until later, but cauldrons turned upside-down on hot stones acted as a crude type of oven. As for roasting, in addition to spits, placing meat on a hot stone and covering it with more hot stones offered another successful roasting technique as the fatty drippings ignited to continuously heat the stones. Roasting meat was basted with honey or a honey sauce. Honey (as a dip) and salt (for flavouring) were served with all meats.
Oats and barley served as thickeners for soups and stews, and when milled into flour, they were used to make a variety of coarse breads. The limited supply of wheat was designated to create a palatable variety of “wheaten” bread (particularly for nobility), sweet cakes and scones. Although the Irish have never lost their love of butter, it was historically important to accompany bread as stone-ground flour often contained pieces of stone and grits. The butter helped lubricate the throat to more easily swallow the bread. Understandably, more cereals were consumed as porridge.
In the past, a myriad of wild fruits gathered in the summer ranged from crabapples and plums to an extensive number of berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, whortleberries and rowberries, for example). The only cultivated fruit seemed to have been apples. People made do with very few vegetables and greens; they were mostly limited to onions, wild leeks, sorrel, nettles and watercress.
Significant augmentation and diversification of native Irish ingredients and cooking techniques began in the 12th and 13th Centuries with the waves of conquest and colonization (Anglo-Norman, Tudor and Stuart), which brought new food traditions. These included built-up ovens, the use of spices, figs, grapes, almonds, walnuts, hare, pheasant and turkey along with a much more sophisticated appreciation of food and cooking. Tea and coffee houses became fashionable. But most important, the potato arrived and changed the entire food culture of a nation.
The Irish are recognized to have been the first to seriously consider the potato a staple food. The plentiful, cheap and efficient food source allowed poor families to  lease a few acres for a season, which enabled them to pay their rent, build a cottage and feed themselves. As a result, the under-populated island of 1570 became the most densely populated country in Europe by 1840. As potato cultivation expanded and land for grazing cattle declined, meat and dairy prices increased, and the diet of the poor was reduced to potatoes supplemented with cabbage in the summer and salted herring in the winter. Not only did this diet lack the well-balanced choices that had existed for centuries, but it left a large portion of Irish society vulnerable when the famines of 1739 and 1845 struck after potato crops were destroyed, first by cold weather and then by blight. During these periods, in total, more than one million people died, two million emigrated and another three million were left to live on charity. The island’s population was reduced by 50 percent, but the potato, the cause of these disasters, remained the most important Irish food item.
Parallelling these calamities was the start of what may be considered modern Irish cuisine, initiated by a solid farming class (families owning more than two acres). They expanded their diets to include a wider variety of vegetables, more meat and more bread made from wheat. Potatoes were the main vegetable served at every meal and they also became a thickener for soups and stews. With the increase in village grocers’ shops, more foreign food products and concepts began to influence Irish cuisine. Sugar replaced honey, tea replaced ale and beer.
However, throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Irish food was thought of as being rather boring. A good plain meal of meat, vegetables and potatoes became the symbol of post-famine Ireland.  Then, as the economic prosperity of the 1960s became evident, and with increased travel abroad, Irish cuisine continued to diversify. Reflective of a popular demand to create international recipes and ethnic foods, the availability of non-traditional ingredients expanded. Simultaneously, a new Irish cuisine emerged based on traditional ingredients and recipes that were dealt with in new ways and with an emphasis on fresh vegetables, fish (particularly salmon, trout and cod), shellfish (prawns, oysters, mussels), a wide range of hand-made cheeses, traditional soda bread and, of course, the potato. Ambassador Bassett boasts of the Emerald Isle’s organic produce “grown naturally without any genetically modified material.” As well, today, people are encouraged to adapt healthier food choices and cooking techniques. Even chefs are swapping stick-to-your-ribs meals for those with a lighter touch that subtly embody flavours from around the world.
I invite you to try my version of Dublin Lawyer, a recipe dating back hundreds of years. (Note: The origin of this unusual name is uncertain.) For best culinary success, use Irish whiskey! Bon Appétit!

Dublin Lawyer (my Drunken Lobster)
Makes 2 servings

1/16 tsp (pinch) cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp (0.5 mL) ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp (1 mL) minced fresh garlic
1/2 tsp (3 mL) each of lemon zest and dried crushed tarragon leaves
2 tbsp (30 mL) soft butter
3 lobster tails, uncooked (5 oz or 150 g each)*
To taste, salt
1 tbsp (15 mL) whiskey
2 tbsp (30 mL) heavy cream (35% fat), first addition
1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped fresh chives
1/2 tsp (3 mL) cornstarch
1 tsp (5 mL) heavy cream (35% fat), second addition

1. In a small bowl, thoroughly combine cayenne pepper, nutmeg, garlic, lemon zest and tarragon leaves with soft butter. Set spiced butter aside.
2. Carefully insert the handle of a metal teaspoon into each lobster tail (entire length) between shell and flesh along the top side of lobster shell in order to keep tail straight during cooking.
3. Drop tails into boiling salted** water and cook until thickest part of tail just turns opaque (about 4 minutes). Drain and immediately plunge into cold water to stop cooking. Drain again.
4. To reserve top side of shells for serving, with scissors, cut entire length of the underside of the tail shells on both sides; peel off the released underside of shells and discard before loosening and detaching the flesh from the top side of the lobster shells.
5. Cut lobster flesh into 1/2-inch-wide (1.25 cm-wide) medallions.
6. In a non-stick skillet over medium-low heat, sauté lobster medallions in melted spiced butter for 2 minutes. Add whiskey, then 2 tbsp (30 mL) heavy cream and chives. Season with salt. Whisk and suspend cornstarch in 1 tsp (5 mL) heavy cream and add to skillet, stirring constantly until sauce thickens.
7. Serve immediately in reserved lobster shells (inverted position) and if desired, along with garlic butter-sautéed mushrooms, buttered mini potatoes and cooked kale scented with garlic infused olive oil. Garnish with fresh chive stems.

* Total weight of lobster flesh, when cooked, is 6 oz or 180 g.
** Note: The uncooked lobster tails may be quite salty, so be cautious when adding salt.

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining. (www.margaretstable.ca)

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (www.margaretstable.ca).

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