By Karen Herzog
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
At my house, St. Patrick's Day is more a celebration of Irish hospitality than a wearing o' the green.
My husband and I have traveled to Ireland twice, and have fond memories of the warm welcomes and wonderful meals we enjoyed there. This weekend, those memories will inspire our fifth-annual St. Patrick's Day party, with a nod toward contemporary Irish cuisine and a minimum of green.
Admittedly, the exterior of our house will be bathed in a soft green spotlight, with a few shamrock lights shamelessly strung inside the front porch and the requisite leprechaun windsock greeting guests as they arrive ... all in good fun.
But we won't be serving green beer in plastic cups, or dying platters of canapes the stereotypical color.
We offer Guinness stout and Harp lager in pint glasses, along with Irish whiskey and Irish cream liqueur for Irish coffee.
A smoked salmon appetizer, an assortment of Irish farmhouse cheeses and a creamy Irish root vegetable soup served with Irish brown bread anchor our cocktail party menu. And for dessert, a decadent twist on the Italian cannoli that showcases Irish cream liqueur.
We're trying some new recipes this year from Herb and Christine Quigley of Oconomowoc, Wis., who were chef-proprietors of the award-winning Ballycormac guest house in County Tipperary, Ireland, in the mid-1990s.
The true green of the rolling Irish countryside is the inspiration for the wearing o' the green. But the Ireland of today is much more sophisticated than American St. Patrick's Day traditions would suggest. Just as there's more to Wisconsin than beer and foam cheeseheads, there's more to Ireland than potatoes and leprechauns.
One of our favorite meals in Ireland several years ago was as close to the perfect meal as I've ever tasted. We were sitting at a window table in a cozy restaurant in Doolin, County Clare, admiring the hills that seemed to disappear into the mist, when our server delivered a beautifully presented entree of seared wild Irish salmon with a horseradish mustard vinaigrette. The salmon tasted as though it had just been reeled in from the sea.
March 17, the feast day of St. Patrick, honors the patron saint who converted Irish Celtic pagans to Christianity and used the native shamrock as a symbol of the holy Trinity. St. Patrick's Day in Ireland is a holy day and national holiday; cocktail parties and green beer are not part of the tradition. In fact, most people don't have stand-up cocktail parties in Ireland, period.
The goal of any St. Patrick's Day party should be to offer hospitality and enjoy the company of friends and neighbors. Be realistic about how much time you have to prepare food, so you can relax with your guests.
Combine store-bought items with a few home-cooked specialties. We buy Irish brown bread from a local baker so we can focus on preparing a double batch of the root soup. This rich, crowd-pleasing recipe from County Clare restaurant in Milwaukee is made with roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, leeks, garlic and plenty of whipping cream. We keep the soup warm for guests in a crockpot.
Salmon holds an esteemed place in Irish cooking and culture, and always has a spot on our party table. (According to legend, the ancient Irish hero Finn McCool gained the gift of knowledge by accidentally tasting a salmon.)
We had wild Irish salmon shipped here for a St. Patrick's Day party a few years ago, but it didn't live up to the memory of what we tasted in Ireland. We've also served a smoked salmon platter from a deli, which was nice, but expensive. This year, we may switch to a smoked salmon with horseradish cream spread over scones or crackers - a recipe suggested by Christine Quigley.
You won't find corned beef and cabbage in Ireland unless you're perched on the bar stool of a pub that caters to Americans. Corned beef has ancient roots in Ireland, but the masses could never afford it because cows were too valuable for their milk to be slaughtered for meat. When Irish immigrants came to America, they found salt and beef were inexpensive, and adopted corned beef and cabbage as an Irish-American tradition.
Cheese and crackers are classic party fare, and Irish farmhouse cheeses are as flavorful and well-made as American artisanal varieties. Kerrygold Dubliner brand Irish cheeses are easy to find, but in our opinion, taste as bland as the average, mass-produced American cheese.
Last year, we found the proverbial gold at the end of the rainbow - a wedge of Irish Cashel blue cheese that our guests quickly gobbled. The semi-soft cheese is rich and buttery, made with milk from the cheesemakers' pedigreed Friesian cows.
Our party has evolved through trial and error. We keep a record each year of the beverages and foods we serve, along with notes on what goes over well and what doesn't.
My husband's suggestion of an "Irish flag" vegetable tray two years ago in orange, white and green seemed like a good idea. The carrots disappeared quickly, but for some reason, the neat rows of cauliflower and broccoli went nowhere, leaving most of the edible flag on the tray. We still do a vegetable tray with dip, but we switched the assortment of veggies and supplement with gourmet pitted olives.
Our gathering is an adult evening event. We have young children, as do many of our friends. But our house isn't large enough to comfortably accommodate 40 adults, plus children. We also tailor the food to adult tastes.
Those interested in including children in the celebration may want to consider an early evening dinner party with just a few friends.
If you choose the larger cocktail party, consider the guest list carefully. Invite a mix of people, and don't worry if they don't all know each other. You never know what connections might be made in an eclectic group.
As for food, people generally eat less than you expect because they are busy talking with other guests. The standard rule for a cocktail party is to offer enough food for each person to have about eight bites. We focus on finger foods, with the exception of the soup.
Offer a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including bottled water. Plan for guests to have two to three drinks each throughout the evening. Offer plenty of food to offset the effects of alcohol consumption.
And don't forget about dessert.
We're not fans of Irish porter and whiskey cakes, and we prefer desserts that are easy to eat out of hand, such as brownies and bars.
Herb Quigley created the Irish Creams on this year's menu. At the Ballycormac house in Ireland, he made butteries or Aberdeen rowies (puf
f pastry) and rolled strips around wooden dowels to form shells that resemble cannoli. The filling was a mixture of Bailey's Irish Cream, chopped dried cranberries, ricotta and mascarpone cheeses, miniature chocolate chips, chopped slivered almonds and orange rind, with a bit of sugar added for sweetness.
Instead of making the pastry, Christine Quigley suggested a great time-saver: Purchase mini cannoli shells from an Italian grocery store.
Of course, no party is complete without music. And thankfully, Celtic music has evolved as much as Irish cuisine. We play a mix of music; not just Irish. We've moved beyond "Danny Boy" and "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" to Celtic rock and other Celtic artists whose songs convey Irish pugnacity and humor without being too mournful. Our CD collection includes several bands we first heard at Irish Fest, such as Cherish the Ladies.
As the party winds down and the last guests are lingering in the kitchen, where most parties end, may we suggest offering this Irish toast with glasses raised:
"May the roof above us never fall in, and may we friends gathered below never fall out."
© 2002, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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