I have been working on a novel since a million years ago. Some of the characters grew up in Ireland, and I was writing about them long before I finally got my first trip there. When I travelled to Howth, just north of Dublin in 2008, it was for a week with some writers who had also graduated from the Stonecoast Writers Program at University of Southern Maine. The Euro was at about $1.60, and that made for slim picken’s, as my mother would say, for reasonably priced meals. I ate more soup and Irish brown bread than I will ever need.
But I had been cooking from Irish cookbooks since the 1990’s, the era in which my characters were becoming real to me. So I grew to know them and their Irish environs through reading and something amazing: my imagination.
The first workshop I took at Stonecoast was led by two generous, smart teachers: Lewis Robinson and Josip Novakavik. One student was writing about a character who worked on a pig farm. He, the student, was stuck. “I keep thinking I should quit writing for awhile and work on a pig farm to do the research.” Josip patiently, but pointedly said, “Just use your imagination! What would a pig farm be like? It would be dirty, muddy and smelly.” We all laughed, and I knew I didn’t have to get three jobs to save the money to go to Ireland just then. I had just lost my job, I had a teenage daughter I just couldn’t ditch for a week or two and I was broke as a joke.
So I got out one of the cookbooks, Margaret Johnson’s, I believe, and began making Colcannon soup, an easy mix of potatoes, cabbage, butter and broth. It’s delicious and comforting and very, very Irish. I remember this day well because I said to my inner editor, who was badgering me, “You should be writing, not cooking.” I replied, picking up the big knife, “I’m doing research. Now scram.” As I chopped and stirred and gazed out the kitchen window, my muse kicked out my inner editor and I wrote what is one of the best chapters I’ve ever writtten: about Orla cooking the very same soup in a brewpub kitchen, while she recalls sexual abuse she suffered while growing up in an Irish industrial school. You don’t really see the abuse, but it’s allleged through little ditty’s that ramble through her head while she chops furiously. People urge me to finish that novel based on that chapter.
I will finish that novel. Meantime, I’m writing up a proposal for a different mystery novel that also involves Ireland and its people and food. I can’t tell it all here, because then I’d have to get the big knife again. But I will tell you I am back at those cookbooks. Today I spent the afternoon preparing Beef with Stout from the Ballymaloe House cookbook by Myrtle Allen. I love that book and have made this dish before. I used Murphy’s Stout only because I wanted to try something other than Guinness. And despite the fact that I just finished a non-fiction book about New England craft beer, I chose to use an Irish stout,not an American one.
- 1 lb beef (try to get your butcher to give you a cut that has some fat in it, so it melts into the broth);
- 1 onion, sliced thin
- herbs:parsley, bay leaf, thyme, sage
- 1 stick butter (yes, use it)
- salt and pepper
- 1 c. beef broth
- 1 c. stout
- Herbs: parsley, bay leaf, sage, thyme or other savory
- Brown beef in sizzling butter, careful not to let the butter get too brown or burned
- Remove beef to a plate
- Saute onion in butter/fat til soft (I also put in chopped mushrooms for umami flavor)
- Add back the beef and 1 cup of beef stock, the herbs, stout and salt and pepper (easy on the salt if you're using a bouillion cube or canned broth)
- Put in a 350 degree (F) oven for an hour. After that, you can add potatoes, if desired. Cook another 45 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
- I chose to steam winter squash, then whip it. Served this with crisped green beans (steam then crisp in a frying pan). Spoon pan gravy over all. Yum
My January, 2015 challenge is to cook one of those recipes a day. But I’m alone for the month, and that’s not practical or affordable (leg of lamb for one? I think not.) But I can do one or two a week. Here’s the recipe for Beef in Stout.