Have you ever been asked while abroad to share with someone what Irish food is like? Have you ever given thought to what Irish food is? My older daughter, who has lived in Greece for many years, tells me that it doesn’t exist, that all we have is borrowed dishes from here and there but little that is authentically our own. For once, I think she may be right, even if many of our food writers do refer constantly to our traditional cuisine. Of course, we have some Irish dishes like, boxtie, colcannon, Irish stew, barn brack, soda bread, etc. However, the list is anything but endless and hardly constitutes a cuisine which can be compared with that of our European neighbours like France, Spain, Italy or dare I say, the Nordic countries.
I have mentioned before that the food eaten in Ireland 50 years ago was, by and large, bland and uninteresting. Turn the clock back a hundred years and the mass of the population subsisted largely on potatoes and soda bread interspersed with a little bacon or fish, (if you lived near the coast) cabbage and root vegetables. Only the well-to-do, and they formed a very small part of the population, had regular access to beef or lamb and a whole range of foods that may be commonplace today, but were luxuries a few generations ago. How our food has changed and how grateful we should be for the many foreign influences that have turned eating in Ireland in the 21st century into such a pleasure!
This month I want to share with you two recipes, which come from two different European countries very far apart in every sense of that word. The first, Jansson’s Temptation, a dish of potatoes, anchovies and cream, hails from Sweden and was recently brought to my attention by my youngest son’s girl-friend; it is simply scrumptious and, given how well known it is in Sweden and Finland, I am astonished it never came my way before. The second, Parmigiana di Melanzane (sometimes erroneously called egg plant Parmesan in American cookery books) is an aubergine, cheese and tomato gratin of Sicilian origin and one of the worst kept secrets of Italian cuisine. I have loved it for years but this particular recipe only came to hand in the last few weeks and then thanks to a cousin of my wife, who lives in the south-east of England. Both of these dishes are eminently suitable for non-meat eaters, but can be served to great effect with grilled meat or fish. They could also form part of a smorgasbord or buffet-style supper.
This dish should be made with salt-sweet Swedish anchovies which, I am told, are available in IKEA. The brand is Abba. If these are unavailable to you, ordinary tinned anchovies drained and rinsed will do. However, do not add any of the juice from the tins as indicated in the recipe below. The outcome will still be very good, if inauthentic.
Serves 3-4 for a light meal
60g softened butter
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
2X125g tins of Swedish anchovies, drained (keep the juice of one of the tins)
6 medium sized potatoes peeled and cut into julienne strips
400ml whipping cream
2tbsp white breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 190°C/Gas 5
Grease a shallow ovenproof dish with half the butter. Fill the base with the onions. Using a pair of scissors, snip the anchovies into four and distribute them over the onions. Pour over the juice from one of the tins. Cover with the prepared potatoes. Press the potatoes down lightly and season. Pour over the cream and then quickly tap the dish a couple of times on a wooden surface to settle the assembly. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the surface and dot with the remaining butter. Bake for 40 minutes or until crusted and golden and bubbling at the edges.
If you do not favour strong flavours, cook the onions in a little oil beforehand and if you are put off by that amount of cream, substitute half of it with either milk or beer.
Parmigiana di Melanzane
Serves 6 for a light meal
3tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2tbsp torn basil leaves plus a few extra to serve
Sunflower oil for frying
3 eggs beaten
Plain white flour for dipping
3 aubergines, ends removed and thinly sliced (about 1kg)
2 cow’s milk mozzarella, drained and sliced
80g freshly grated parmesan, plus a little extra to serve
To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and fry briefly until fragrant. Add the passata and 250ml of water, the torn basil and a little salt. Bring to the boil and simmer over a medium heat for about 45 minutes until you have a thick pouring sauce.
At the same time, fry the aubergines. Heat about 1cm oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Have a couple of dinner plates at the ready with the beaten egg in one and the flour in the other. Dip the aubergine slices into the flour and then into the egg and fry until crispy and lightly golden on both sides. Drain on some kitchen paper. It is this dipping process that marks the difference between this recipe and all others I have seen for this dish. The result is that your parmigiana is less oily.
Line the base of a 35X25cm roasting time or baking dish with a thin layer of the tomato sauce and arrange a layer of aubergines lengthways on top so that they overlap slightly. Add another thin layer of sauce, a couple of tablespoons of the grated parmesan and half the mozzarella. Repeat this exercise now laying the aubergines crosswise and repeat with a final layer of aubergines again lengthways. Finish with a more generous layer of tomato sauce so that the aubergine is liberally coated. Cover with foil.
Heat the over to 200°C/Gas 6 and bake the parmigiana for 45 minutes before uncovering and baking it for a further 25-30 minutes until lightly golden brown. Leave to stand for 10-15 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature, scatter with a little more Parmesan and decorated with a few basil leaves.
I have frozen this gratin with reasonable success.