Monday 16 December 2013

Colcannon....a taste of Ireland

...or possibly Scotland, as we will see.

We've grown kale for many years, long before it became fashionable. There are three basic kinds of kale: curly kale, known in the US as Scotch kale; Russian kale; and Cavalo Nero or Black kale. You will see some lovely pictures of curly kale here, growing just up the road in St. Aignan.

We grow the last two kinds as we like the taste, and we have found the deeply ruffled leaves of curly kale are impossible to clean properly. Russian kale has flat leaves with wavy edges, and Red Russian leaves are grey green with pink veins, shading to a purplish red at the edges. Graines Baumaux describes it as an American speciality. The plants are so decorative that they are sometimes included in floral displays. We found them in Bourgueil once upon a time in the municipal planters.

Red Russian kale - about to become Colcannon

Cavolo Nero is also known as Nero di Toscana, Black Tuscan, chou palmier, dinosaur kale and lacinato. The leaves are dimpled and netted (hence the dinosaur), dark green, long and straplike, with the edgesrolled so as to form tubes. The plant looks a bit like a palm tree (palmier). Last year Gamm Vert was selling them for 6€ apiece for your flower bed, a price which will get you 8 grammes of seeds, i.e. a couple of thousand plants, with 40 cents change.

Nero di Toscana - that's going in too

Given some leftover cooked kale and potatoes, my Scots-Irish ancestry decided I ought to make Colcannon. This name comes from the Gaelic cal ceannann which means white-headed cabbage. It is basically mashed potatoes mixed with kale or cabbage, and flavoured with leek or spring onions. There are dozens of tasty dishes called colcannon on the web, all different, occasionally wildly different, many claiming to be 'traditional'.

If you wish to start a lively debate between people with Irish backgrounds, ask them what they think should be included in colcannon, particularly with reference to bacon. Mary, former head cook at the West Riding on Dewsbury Station and a legend in her own lunchtime, once did this, as she was as confused as I am by the choice. One person said their mother insisted that you never put bacon in Colcannon. The second's mother insisted the opposite. The third's mother said no to bacon but their grandmother said yes. I reckon you just put into the pot what you had, and in many a family most of what they had would have been potatoes. All the odd spices and so forth amounts to bloggers and professional cookery writers trying to come up with something uniquely their own that won't infringe someone else's copyright.

The recipe that follows, such as it is, uses leftover potatoes and kale, since this is what we had. Made like this, the dish is known as Scottish Colcannon according to Wikipedia, so it must be true. It calls for a good floury mashing potato such as Stemster, Bintje, King Edward or Russet Burbank. Roughly equal weight of spuds and greens is ideal but it's just as good if heavy on the potato side. If starting from raw ingredients, I hope I can still manage to cookboil potatoes and cabbage without referring to a recipe. I could steam, stir-fry, microwave, pressure cook them, it comes to the same thing in the end. The spring onions don't have to be cooked, but I find that's rather indigestible. The only thing I insist on is that the potatoes are peeled, but that's just me.

Leftover boiled potatoes
Leftover greens - lightly cooked kale or cabbage, thinly sliced
A leek, white part only, finely chopped, up to you what you consider to be the white part. You could also use a small bunch of spring onions (scallions) or chives
A little milk or buttermilk or single cream
Some butter

Poach the leek or spring onions in the milk until soft (about 15 minutes for leek, 5 minutes for spring onions or chives).

Tip the potatoes into the leeky milk and add half of the butter. Stir well, bring the liquid to the boil again, and cook gently for 5 minutes with the lid on to reheat the potatoes. Mash thoroughly with a potato masher or fork.

Meanwhile, reheat the greens thoroughly, taking care not to let them dry out (I microwaved the kale on medium for three minutes in one-minute bursts, checking the temperature each time).

Mix the greens into the mashed potato and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. When serving, make a well in the middle of the mound of potato and put in the rest of the butter to melt.

Comfort food par excellence

Colcannon goes particularly well with boiled bacon or gammon, but could be served as an accompaniment to virtually any main course, carnivore or vegetarian. We had leftover beef, for which Tim conjured up a tasty sauce containing leftover squash puree.

Historical Footnote
According to some, Colcannon was traditionally used for predicting marriage on Halloween. Charms were hidden in the Colcannon and depending on what charm you found it was seen as a portent for the future. A button meant you would remain a bachelor and a thimble meant you would remain a spinster for the coming year. A ring meant you would get married and a coin meant you would come into wealth. In other traditions, an unmarried girl could put Colcannon (some say the first and last spoonful) into a sock and tie it to her front door handle. The first man to enter the house was her husband-to-be. She would at least have a good reason why her socks smelled of cabbage. And anyone choking on a charm would meet their maker in the coming year, or indeed in the coming few minutes. (All  right, I made that one up.)

How widely these traditions were practised is unclear, likewise how widely the mickeys of socio-ethnic researchers were taken. The web has spread these blagues across the world, and many think they are charming, but as Mary Bergfeld puts it in her blog One Perfect Bite, "Immigration statistics and the birth rate, all those years ago, lead me to believe this didn't work real well".

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