NEW YORK — Nostalgia, especially around St. Patrick's Day, may prompt Americans to turn their thoughts to Irish food, whether they're of Irish descent or just fans.
However, there's plenty of evidence in recent Irish cookbooks that today's Irish don't live in a nostalgic past. Both Irish home cooks and restaurant chefs are producing a variety of dishes that happily combine or alternate new ideas with traditional homegrown ingredients.
"Elegant Irish Cooking" (Lebhar-Friedman, $35) by Noel C. Cullen sets the scene in fine detail. Cullen, current president of the American Culinary Federation, was born in Ireland and is now professor of culinary arts at Boston University.
Don't expect a culinary textbook or solely an ethnic cookbook, Cullen warns, from this volume he calls a labor of love.
There are certainly, as promised in the subtitle, "Recipes From the World's Foremost Irish Chefs." There's much more: Cullen's lengthy introduction delves into the social and agricultural history of food in Ireland and considers the evolution of taste to give present-day cooking a colorfully rich context.
It's an exciting time to be writing about modern Irish cooking, Cullen says. He intends the book to back up what his travels through the country tell him: "Irish chefs have finally taken their place in the world of haute cuisine."
"Simple and delicious home cooking and baking have always been first-rate in Ireland," he writes; now, in the past two decades, "Modern Irish culinary masters have developed a progressive and uniquely Irish style of cooking."
Recipes he supplies range from Bella Cullen's Colcannon, a simple, traditional recipe he recalls his mother making, to the stylish Roast Mount Juliet Pheasant With a Potato-and-Parsnip Purée and Apple-and-Grape Sauce, credited to chef Tina Walsh of County Kilkenny.
Plenty of color photographs by Ron Manville fill in the visual settings for readers, closing in on juicy detail of good-looking dishes; portraying chefs posing outside traditional stone buildings that house their restaurants; and pulling back for expansive views over green fields or the sea shimmering in little fishing harbors.
His mother made Colcannon on Halloween, Cullen says, "and, in keeping with an ancient Irish custom, would wrap some coins in parchment paper and place them in the colcannon for us children to find."
BELLA CULLEN'S COLCANNON
8 medium all-purpose potatoes
1 head curly kale, chopped fine
1 1/4 cups milk
6 scallions, diced fine
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
8 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel potatoes. Place in a saucepan and cover with cold salted water. Bring to a boil and cook 20 minutes or until done. Strain off water. Let potatoes dry, then hand mash.
In a 2-quart pot, boil the kale in salted water until tender, about 25 minutes. In a large saucepan over low heat, heat the milk with scallions, parsley and thyme. Strain the chopped kale and add to milk. Simmer for 3 minutes. Add mashed potatoes to kale; stir in 4 tablespoons butter. Mix to a creamy consistency. Season to taste. Place in a serving dish, making a hollow in the center. Fill the hollow with the remaining butter, and serve. Makes 8 servings.
"Myrtle Allen's Cooking at Ballymaloe House" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $27.50) is a new edition of Allen's 1990 original cookbook, with a new introduction and glossy photos by Mick Hales.
Allen is cited as one of the "foremost Irish chefs" in Noel Cullen's book "Elegant Irish Cooking."
Her own book's subtitle describes its contents as a collection of 100 recipes "from Ireland's most famous guest house." Allen, a farmer's wife, opened her restaurant at the family's country house in 1964, in Shangarry, County Cork.
Now, at 75, she still presides over the complex of restaurant, small hotel and family farm; her daughter-in-law Darina Allen runs a cooking school and appears in television cooking programs.
"I have been a recipe collector ever since I was very young," Allen says in her introduction, constantly looking for that "magic formula that will work for me." By now her recipes and knowledge draw on years of experience, "even though as times change, new ingredients and styles creep in."
The book is a varied sampling of recipes. It ranges from soups and starters to desserts, breads and drinks, from worldly Persian Cocktail (yogurt with tomatoes and garlic) to homegrown Ballymaloe Brown Bread.
The recipes' headnotes make good reading, flavored with insights and anecdotes. Beef With Stout, for example, comes with a charming little essay on the local history of cattle fairs from Norman times to the 1950s.
Scones, Allen says, are first cousins of traditional Irish soda bread. Gentle handling, rather than normal kneading, is the secret. "Just a quick light turning and folding in a sprinkling of flour are all that one needs to do. Scones are eaten for tea, split open and spread with butter and jam. At Ballymaloe, we serve hot, freshly baked scones for breakfast."
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick ( 1/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup chilled buttermilk or sour milk (see note)
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Sift the flour, the optional sugar, baking soda and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the buttermilk all at once and mix with a spoon until all the ingredients are moistened and a dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 4 or 5 times. Roll or pat the dough 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick and cut out rounds with a 2-inch cutter (or diamond shapes about the same size, if you prefer), re-forming and recutting the scraps.
Arrange the scones 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake the scones in the middle of a 400 F. oven for 13 to 16 minutes, or until they are well risen and the tops are golden brown. Let the scones cool slightly on a rack, but serve them warm. Makes about 12 scones.
Note: To sour 3/4 cup milk, combine 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice or vinegar with the milk and let stand for 10 to 15 minutes, or until thickened and curdled.
"The Irish Country Kitchen" (Appletree, $15.95 paperback) is by Mary Kinsella, who grew up on a farm in County Wexford and now teaches cooking in Dublin.
The idea of tradition runs strongly through this collection of about 250 recipes, illustrated with color photos. It hews closely to local specialties, mostly straightforward dishes that are associated with local ingredients such as Connemara Roast Lamb or Baked Limerick Ham. The book also features Kinsella's versions of country dishes that could be made with ingredients from anyone's local supermarket.
Kinsella grew up on a farm and says she learned to cook from her mother, who "inspired me with a great desire to make a life's work of carrying on the tradition" — as a professional cook and teacher.
She's tried to understand people's cooking problems, she writes, and her book aims "to make everything as clear and simple and natural as possible."
Among other books available for further reading are:
"Ireland: The Taste and the Country" (Collins & Brown, $24.95, 2000) by Mike Bunn, with introduction by J.P. Donleavy.
"Ireland: The Taste of Ireland in Traditional Home Cooking" (Anness, $9.95 paperback, 2000) by Matthew Drennan.
"West of Ireland Summers: A Cookbook: Recipes and Memories from an Irish Childhood" (Rinehart, $19.95 paperback, 1999) by Tamasin Day-Lewis.
"The Irish Heritage Cookbook" (Chronicle Books, $18.95 paperback, 1999) by Margaret M. Johnson.
"Irish Traditional Cooking" (Trafalgar Square, $19.95 paperback, 1998) by Darina Allen.