Is it not wonderful to be alive just now? The days grow longer, some warmth has returned to the air, the daffodils are blooming, the birds are nesting and green shoots are to be seen everywhere in the garden. It is a particular joy for me to see those chives peeping through the soil in the raised bed outside the back door. Soon, all the herbs will be up in the garden and we shall be back to eating salads. I love the feeling of anticipation of what is to come. Will 2011 give us the summer that we have all been waiting for or, will we once again be disappointed? Somehow this year, my spring reveries are sharper and sweeter than usual, perhaps because of an exceptionally acute longing for what summer has in store, a longing which in turn has probably been engendered by the severity of our winter just past.
St Patrick’s Day is now around the corner and, not surprisingly, my thoughts also turn to traditional Irish fare. I am not talking here of Irish stew, which I have never much liked. Rather I wish to dwell on bacon and cabbage, even though many of my readers will be disappointed that I am devoting any time to such prosaic food. Commonplace it may well be, and despised by many, but this is largely because bacon and cabbage is often badly cooked. Give the preparation of this dish some time and attention and you will be richly rewarded.
I leave the choice of the bacon joint to you, but do try and avoid the bargain offers. I have always found them to be lacking in flavour. In times past, pork was cured differently than it is now and it was common practice to steep bacon in water before cooking it. That is no longer necessary. Just bung it into a large pot, cover with water and bring it to the boil, before turning the heat down to a simmer As for cooking time, the old adage was twenty minutes a pound and twenty minutes over. This works reasonably well, but I do find that smaller joints of say, two pounds/ one kilogram need to be boiled for a little longer than the one hour, which is all that strict application of the rule would allow. I would give it another fifteen minutes.
While the bacon is slowly cooking, prepare the cabbage. One can use any winter green but my preference is for Savoy cabbage. Trim out the white stalks and then cut the leaves into narrow strips before putting aside. Now is also the time to tackle two other key elements of this meal – potatoes and mustard sauce. Peel the potatoes and place in a steamer about 40 minutes before the bacon is due to be put on the table. Meanwhile, make a béchamel sauce in the usual way. If like me, you are troubled by cholesterol, substitute olive oil for butter; it works very well. My wife and I could never agree on this sauce. She favoured parsley; I wanted mustard. The compromise was to have both at the same time i.e. parsley sauce with mustard or vice versa. I find this a good combination.
When the bacon is cooked, remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and put to one side. Put the cabbage into the simmering bacon water and allow to boil reasonably quickly for 10-15 minutes. Then return to the bacon. Cut off the skin, layer with mustard (I favour the Dijon variety but if you like English mustard, go for it!) and spread brown sugar on top. Dot with cloves, if you like them. Place the joint on a baking tray and cook in a preheated oven at 160°C for about ten minutes, or until the sugar has melted, giving the outside of the bacon a caramelized, sweet crust. Carve very thinly and serve with the steamed potatoes, cabbage and parsley-mustard sauce.
In these grim times, it is worth bearing in mind that bacon is a relatively inexpensive meat. I always gauge the weight of my joint to ensure there are leftovers. Cold ham is so good in sandwiches. Neither must one forget that precious water in which the bacon and cabbage is cooked. I squirrel that away in the freezer for use as a base in soups. It makes for an incomparable stock.
Wherever you are on Lá Fhéile Pádhraig, may it be a happy day for you and make it even happier by treating yourself to bacon and cabbage, one of Ireland’s great contributions to the world of gastronomy