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Modern take on an ancient St. Patrick's Day feast

| Tuesday, March 13, 2012

St. Patrick's Day is a religious holiday that commemorates the good works of St. Patrick.

The details of St. Patrick's life often are debated by historians, but it generally is agreed that he died on March 17 sometime in the late fifth century. St. Patrick's Day is observed internationally and usually is characterized by attending church services and wearing green attire, a tradition that is the result of St. Patrick's use of the three-leaf shamrock to teach the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

It was made an official feast day in the early 17th century, meaning that Lenten restrictions on food and drink are lifted for the day. That might explain a lot about the revelry that is associated with the modern-day observance of the holiday.

St. Patrick's Feast Day was celebrated in Ireland and parts of Europe dating to the ninth or 10th centuries. In later years, the day was added to the Catholic Church's liturgical calendar, and in the 1600s, it became an official holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland.

Depending on one's proximity to the sea or inland waterways, a traditional feast menu might include roasted pork and beef or fresh salmon and seafood, along with sheep's-milk cheese, blood pudding, ale and mead and oat bread. The potato didn't reach the British Isles and the feast-day table until around 1590.

Of course, what was called feasting in bygone years is called partying today. Universally, where there are occasions of celebration and merriment that include alcohol and food, there are people who just can't behave themselves. In 1903, James O'Mara, the Irish Parliament member of the United Kingdom Parliament, felt that the drinking on St. Patrick's Day had gotten out of hand. He led the effort to make St. Patrick's Day a public holiday and, thanks to the Bank Holiday Act, which he also introduced to parliament, all pubs and bars had to remain closed each year on March 17. The act was repealed in the early 1900s.

In 1990, the government of the Republic of Ireland started a campaign to make St. Patrick's Day one of the greatest celebrations in the world as a way to showcase Ireland and its culture.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in New York City in 1762, rather than in Ireland. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through the streets of New York in an effort to reconnect with their roots. In 1848, the first official St. Patrick's Day parade was made possible when many Irish Aid Societies came together to unite their individual parades. It is the world's oldest and largest civilian parade, with more than 150,000 participants. Today, nearly 3 million people line the 1.5-mile parade route each year to watch the five-hour procession.

The shortest St. Patrick's Day parade in the world takes place in Dripsey, Cork, Ireland, where the procession travels between the town's two pubs, a distance of about 100 yards.

Pittsburgh's St. Patrick's Day parade history can be traced to 1869. It's still a big, fun, crazy, entertaining and exuberant, grown-up party with a great lineup of entertainment. The green beer will flow, and the closest most people will get to traditional Irish fare will be in restaurants offering a Reuben sandwich.

For those who prefer to celebrate at home, I've put together a menu of contemporary adaptations of a few items that commonly were used to prepare the St. Patrick's Day feasts of the distant past. This anachronistic, 17th-century feast-day menu of appetizer, soup, entree with vegetable and fresh bread requires just a little planning and prep.

Olga Watkins is the head chef at Hollywood Gardens in Rochester, Pa., and leader of the Olga Watkins Band.

Mini Goat Cheese and Raspberry Potato Pancakes

  • 1 cup leftover mashed potatoes
  • 1 large baking potato washed, shredded, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 small log (4 ounces) chevre cheese (soft goat cheese) at room temperature
  • 1 small jar raspberry preserves
  • 1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced

Combine the mashed and shredded potatoes, egg, flour, milk, salt and pepper in a medium-size mixing bowl, and stir until completely mixed. Heat a large saute pan or griddle to medium high. Melt a large pat of butter in the pan or onto the griddle, adding more as necessary.

Shape about 1 tablespoon of potato pancake mix into a small ball and place it the pan or on the griddle. Repeat this process until you have a line of potato balls spaced about 2 inches apart from one another and covering the cooking space. Use a small, thin spatula to the potatoes, beginning with the first one that you placed in the pan. The bottom should be golden brown. After you turn the potato mix, press down on the cooked side with a spatula until it is flattened into the shape of a little pancake. Repeat that process until all of the pancakes are cooked.

When both sides are browned, transfer the pancakes to a baking sheet in one even layer. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Add about 1 1/2 teaspoons of chevre cheese to the center of each pancake. Transfer the pan to the oven, and set a timer for 5 minutes. Remove the pancakes from the oven and add 1/2 teaspoon of raspberry preserves on top of the cheese on each pancake.

Transfer the pancakes to a serving platter, garnish with the green onions and serve. The pancakes can be made and cooked in advance and refrigerated or frozen. If you choose to do this, heat oven to 375 degrees and line up the cold, defrosted pancakes on a baking sheet. Add the cheese, and bake for 10 minutes. Finish the recipe the same way.

Makes about 2 dozen mini-potato pancakes.

Braised Pork Roast With Apples and Cabbage

The prep time for this recipe is only about 15 minutes, but the cooking time is 3 hours or longer. Start this dish about 4 hours before you plan to serve it.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 piece boneless pork loin (about 5-7 pounds)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small white onion, chopped
  • 3 medium-size garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped (Set aside in lemon water until ready to use.)
  • 1 small head of spring cabbage, cored and cut into 2-inch squares
  • 1 large can of chicken broth
  • 2 teaspoons light brown sugar
  • Water

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Heat the olive oil on medium heat in a roasting pan on a stovetop burner. Rub the pork loin with the salt and pepper. In the roasting pan, brown the pork loin on all sides, then transfer it to a plate on a warm spot on top of the oven. Add the onion and garlic to the roasting pan and saute until tender. Add the apple, cabbage and chicken broth, and turn up the heat until the chicken broth starts to boil and the cabbage starts to break down and soften. Stir in the sugar and add the pork loin back into the roasting pan. Leave the roasting pan uncovered, and transfer it to the preheated oven.

Set a timer for 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, use a pair of kitchen tongs to turn the pork over in the pan. Make sure the liquid still is about halfway to 1/3 of the way up the side of the pork loin. If not, add a little hot water.

Set the timer for another 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, the liquid in the pan should be mostly reduced, and the pork should be very tender. If that's not the case, turn the pork over again and continue to cook it. Try another 20 minutes at a time.

When the pork is finished, remove it from the pan carefully and transfer it to a shallow pan to rest. Transfer the roasting pan to the stovetop burners. If there's still a lot of liquid in the pan, turn the burners on medium-high and allow the liquid to reduce while the pork rests. Allow it to rest for about 20 minutes before slicing or breaking it into pieces. Transfer the cabbage mixture to a serving platter, and lay the pork pieces on top. Serve immediately.

You can use a pork butt or fresh (raw) ham or other roast-friendly cut of pork for this preparation, but you will need to cook it longer for the fat and muscle fibers to break down. You can start a bigger or fattier cut of meat in the late morning and let it cook until dinnertime. Your house will smell divine, and the pork literally will melt in your mouth. Just remember to turn it every hour or so during cooking.

Makes 10-12 servings.

Oyster Stew

This whole process, including prep -- unless you shuck the oysters yourself -- should take about 20 minutes.

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 quart half-and-half
  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, more if needed
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, more if needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried cayenne pepper
  • 1 tiny pinch of ground nutmeg
  • 2 pints fresh, shucked oysters
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Melt the butter in a 2-quart or large saucepan on medium low heat. Add the half-and-half, and stir until it is hot and starts to reduce. Add the bourbon, salt, pepper, cayenne and nutmeg.

Add the oysters and cook, stirring gently with a wooden spoon, until the oysters are just cooked. They should become opaque and slightly firm. Don't allow the mixture to boil. Taste the broth to determine whether more salt and pepper are needed. When the oysters are cooked, remove from heat.

Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with the fresh chives. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings.

Oat Bread

You can start this process in the morning. After you've mixed the dough you're practically done. Then you can through this in the oven 45 minutes before dinner and you'll have fresh, warm bread on your table. Buy some good Irish butter and set some honey on the table to serve with it!

  • 3 cups warm water
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 packages yeast
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 6 cups of all-purpose flour (or 4 cups whole wheat flour and 2 cups steel cut oats)
  • Butter for greasing pans

Combine the water, sugar and yeast, and set aside in a warm place.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the oil, salt, sugar, honey and flour (or whole-wheat flour and oats). Add the yeast mixture, and stir well.

Add the 6 cups of all-purpose flour (or whole-wheat flour and oats), 2 cups at a time, until the dough is elastic and smooth. Cover and let it rise in a warm place until it is double in size. Knead and let it rise again. Split the dough, shape it into loaves and place into greased bread pans. Let it rise again until double.

Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, for about 30 to 35 minutes.

Makes 2 large loaves of bread.

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