We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today: In his first cookbook, My Irish Table, Cathal Armstrong takes us on a culinary tour of his homeland -- and gives us a recipe for mince pies. Leave a comment below, and you could score a free copy of the book!
While reading through Cathal Armstrong's debut cookbook, My Irish Table, one phrase immediately jumps to mind: "the luck of the Irish." From the first page, the cookbook whisks you away to a land bursting with natural resources and people who know how to use them to their advantage. This certainly holds true for Armstrong's family of eight: From his father's backyard garden to Sunday dinners at Nana's, it's fair to say that cooking was in his blood.
After moving to the US at age twenty, Armstrong climbed the rungs of the culinary ladder until finally opening Restaurant Eve in 2004. Following in the tradition of Irish chefs, he scoured the markets for fresh, organic ingredients. Following his father's precedent, Armstrong then planted his own garden at the restaurant. Then he upped the ante: In 2010, Armstrong created Chefs as Parents to improve school lunch programs and educate families on how to eat more fresh, local ingredients.
As Armstrong explains in the book's introduction, My Irish Table is more of a culinary coming of age story than a simple collection of recipes. The cookbook provides a loving look into a chronically underappreciated cuisine through the lens of the people, and the country, that taught Armstrong to truly appreciate food. Reading this cookbook is a bit like taking a trip through the rolling hills of the Emerald Isle -- one you're not quite ready to leave when you reach the end. Grab a pint of Guinness and prepare to fall in love.
Are there particular Irish ingredients, dishes, or cooking methods that don't translate over to your American audience? Any that are surprisingly popular?
One of my favorite ingredients from Ireland, which I miss dearly, is Dublin Bay Prawns. They are luxurious, super expensive, and, of course, extremely perishable. I would be willing to assume all risk to get them here in the States, but still no one will ship them to America. One dish you might be surprised by is our house-made black pudding -- it's actually very popular. I guess people are willing to try something new!
How did you strike a balance between the Irish cooking you grew up with and the American cuisine you experienced while working in the States?
My father was an excellent gardener. Growing up with a garden, and learning how to utilize it as much as we could, really shaped how I run my restaurants. I try and source from local purveyors and farmers as much as possible, and I added a garden in the back of Restaurant Eve to have access to the freshest herbs.
You're very open that the recipes in the Restaurant Eve section are not for the average home cook – why did you decide to include them in the book?
When I decided to write a cookbook, I wanted to make sure it was one that people would feel was accessible. I wanted to highlight the things that I ate growing up, things that I make pretty much as my mother made them. However, I also wanted to include a chapter to show what goes into "restaurant" dishes. That chapter, the one focused on the food of Restaurant Eve, is perfect for those who want to challenge themselves and prepare a restaurant style meal at home.
When you're feeling blue, which of your mother's comfort dishes do you crave the most?
Chicken noodle soup. I've cured people on their deathbed with this over and over again.
Your book is called My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve, but it seems much more heavily weighted towards recipes from Ireland. Why did you decide against making it a purely Irish cookbook?
I wanted to make a personal cookbook book, one that is very autobiographical. I wanted to show that an Irish kid can become a successful chef in America. In that sense, it’s as much an American story as it is an Irish story -- my life belongs in both places.
In addition to your career as a chef, you're widely involved in growing the farmer's market movement, as well as putting healthier lunches in schools. Do you think you'll eventually become more of an activist than a chef?
The role of the chef has changed since I began my career in the restaurant industry. When I first started cooking, chefs were simple blue-collar workers. Now we have transformed into a community of leaders and activists. But I would not quit my career as a chef to become an activist -- being a chef is more fun. Besides, cooking professionally is one of those vocations that gets under your skin: It's more who you are than what you do.
Makes 12 cups mincemeat, and a LOT of pies
1 pound pure white beef fat, cold
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
10 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 lemons, zested
2 cups golden raisins
2 cups dried currants
1 apple, such as Bramley, Ida, or Pink Lady, peeled, cored, and coarsely grated
3/4 cup brandy
1 teaspoon mixed spruce
One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 1/2 cups mixed candied fruit peel, cut into 1/2-inch squares
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 pound chopped almonds
1 cup water
Soup and colcannon photos by James Ransom; all other photos by Scott Suchman
We've giving away five copies of My Irish Table! To enter, leave a comment below: What recipes do you miss from your homeland, wherever that may be? We'll pick a winner at random at the end of the week! (Unfortunately, we can only ship domestically).