Serious Entertaining

Seasonal menu planning for the perfect dinner party.

Serious Entertaining: Simple St. Patrick's Day Supper

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[Photograph: Carrie Vasios]

I've made my fair share of soda breads, corned beef, and Guinness cakes over the years. This year I'm keeping it simple with a menu that honors some of Ireland's best ingredients.

First Course: Brown Bread with Irish Cheeses

I love all breads, from airy ciabattas to elegant French baguettes. But sometimes I want a hearty, rustic, craggy bread. You know, a big old slice of nubbly, oaty bread that just begs to be spread with a layer of thick jam or a melting pat of butter.

This is that bread.

The Irish call it brown bread and they make it with a special coarse wheat flour*. The unrefined grains lend this bread a vaguely sweet, honey flavor as well as a hint of toasted oats. I like it cut into thick, soft wedges or even made into toast. For my St. Patrick's Day supper, I'll make a loaf and cut it into slices to be served with a selection of Irish cheeses.

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The rolling green hills of the Emerald Isle aren't just stunning to look at; they're feeding herds of sheep, goats, and cows. It's no surprise, then, that the Irish make great cheese. For a first course, I'll put together a cheese plate that gives my guests a small survey of some of Ireland's best cheeses.

Cheddar: Start off with a mild cheese like a medium-aged Irish cheddar. Buttery yellow with a festive green rind, the cheddar I chose is smooth with a slightly grassy flavor. Don't worry if you can't find a specific brand; Ireland makes a wide spectrum of cheddars, from sharp to mild, and it's hard to go wrong.

Washed Rind Cheeses: Sitting just south of Dublin, County Cork produces many excellent washed rind cheeses. I bought a version called Ardrahan (pronounced Drah-han); a cow's milk cheese with a salty, nutty flavor. Make sure to tell your friends to eat the rind- it's pungent but delicious.

Blue Cheese: Since its creation in the early 1980s, Cashel Blue has become one of Ireland's best known cheeses. This extremely creamy and fruity blue is made in County Tipperary from a herd of Friesian cows. It's not as aggressive as some other blue cheeses, so everyone should enjoy its melting texture and slightly tangy flavor.

Main Course: Champ with Sausages

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Though its food scene has really taken off, at its heart Ireland is still a meat and potatoes kind of country. And who could blame them? Champ is a simple but delicious dish where creamy mashed potatoes are mixed with a good helping of milk and butter and studded with scallions. Served with sausages, this is a complete main course, and the green parsley adds a festive St. Patrick's Day touch.

Dessert: Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate-Whiskey Sauce

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Guinness is great, but don't forget about Irish whiskey. You could serve Irish coffee, but I'm in love with this chocolate-whiskey sauce poured over vanilla ice cream. It's the perfect dessert to finish a simple meal: easy to prepare and just a tad boozy.

* Using Irish-style whole meal flour is important to achieve the proper consistency and flavor of this bread. You can find it online at kingarthurflour.com

**These Irish cheeses and more are available by mail order at murrayscheese.com

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