If you were to meet Clodagh McKenna, owner of two restaurants, vibrant television personality, and award-winning author of five successful cookbooks, the first thing that you would notice about her is that she radiates genuine warmth and happiness — qualities that shine through in her newest cookbook, Clodagh’s Irish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Traditional Flavors. Though the book is based on fresh interpretations of Irish soul food, each of its 150 recipes will leave you feeling that you’ve experienced traditional Irish fare at its best as well as a call to the communal family table; the table that serves as a cornerstone of Irish culture. As Clodagh says, “life revolves around the Irish table.”
This beautifully photographed cookbook has more than 300 pages with recipes, menus, and ideas for entertaining — each of which will leave you wanting nothing more than to head into your kitchen to start cooking.
Hungry for more on Irish cooking? Here are Clodagh’s thoughts on her newly released cookbook:
This book is not at all what I expect when I think of an Irish cookbook. Can you talk a little bit about the recipes you’ve included?
So, there are a lot of traditional dishes in this cookbook, because my aim is for anyone who doesn’t know what Irish cuisine is to get the book, buy the book, and be able to make Irish dishes off the top of their head.
When you think of Irish cuisine, you might think of colcannon, which is so delicious. It’s real Irish soul food. But I put a fresh take on it by making it into a soup. I take all those gorgeous ingredients and pair them with a delicious parsley pesto, which adds lovely peppery and salty flavors to the soup.
The Irish stew is another example. I love Irish stew. Mine uses lovely pearl barley. Pearl barley was traditionally used in Ireland if you didn’t have enough meat; it would sort of plump a dish up. I also put some lovely fresh thyme in the stew and cook it with chops so that you get lots of flavor from the bones.
Or the Guinness cake. The Guinness cake is the best chocolate cake you’ll ever taste… in my opinion. It’s something that is part of our history but that I’ve perfected to my taste. The Guinness cake is made with cocoa powder and buttermilk, so you get sweet and bitter flavors, and then the Guinness brings a nice caramel flavor to it.
The book really captures many traditional Irish soul food recipes and then adds the flavors that we all love to taste.
Part of what surprised me about this book was that a lot of the recipes really revolve around local ingredients and foraging. Is that something new, or has that always been the case with Irish cuisine?
It was something that my grandfather grew up with (and that even my mother grew up with), and then it was lost in the 1980s. All of a sudden, Ireland became very wealthy; advertising and big PR campaigns came onto television and we got bedazzled with ready-made foods and meals. Women started having their own careers and there was nobody at home looking after the house or cooking, so these ready-made meals made life easier. But they also took those local and foraged ingredients away.
Now it’s become really, really hot again. People are really excited about what’s in season, what’s local, and what’s foraged. I think it’s because we’ve been going through this recession. Everybody’s had to rethink what’s important, and that’s brought us all back to the Irish table.
Do you consider your approach in this book to be indicative of larger trends in Irish cooking, or is it unique to your own cooking experiences?
I think that there are some things that are traditional and what I like to call soulful Irish dishes, but then I like a lot of chefs who take inspiration from other things. A lot of them are my interpretation of kinds of dishes; they’re flavors that I really love.
So, tell me a little bit more about the book. How is it different than other Irish cookbooks? And what’s the takeaway for readers?
I want readers to realize that Irish cooking is really accessible. The ingredients that we use in our cooking are so accessible and the recipes are so doable; there’s nothing in there that’s too complex. The book is geared toward the home cook. I wrote this book with home cooks around the world in mind. I want them to be able to create an Irish meal. I want them to bring people to their table and create that sense of family in their own homes.
I also want Irish food and cooking to become part of the Irish culture worldwide. Whenever I talk to people about Irish food, they always mention their memories, “Oh, my grandmother used to cook it like this,” or “When I was in Ireland I tasted it like this.” They are true Irish people who don’t cook Irish food themselves.
Anybody who has any sort of connection to Ireland understands that life revolves around the Irish table.It’s not just green pints on St. Patrick’s Day — I want people to wake up on the weekend and think, “I can make a full Irish tortilla for brunch,” or “I’m going to make a Guinness cake and invite everyone over on Sunday afternoon for tea.” I want people to start those traditions that are so ingrained in Irish culture — they’re probably the most important thing in Ireland, part of our daily life and culture, sitting around that Irish table and cooking for each other. And I want that to grow because that is really the essence of understanding a culture.
Irish soda bread is one of the recipes most familiar to non-Irish cooks, so I have to ask you: Do you have a few tips you can share? How do we make perfect Irish soda bread?
Definitely use buttermilk. It adds that lovely sourness to it.
Be really light with your kneading. What you need to do is stretch out all the fingers on your hand like a trough and then mix the flour like that.
You also need to make sure that there’s not one part of the flour that’s dry. All the flour should be wet.
And sift your flour.
Then, cross the dough. Traditionally, we pat the dough into a round and then, using a dry knife (with a little bit of flour on each side so that it doesn’t stick), make a little cross in the loaf. We do that for two reasons: you’re blessing the bread, and it also makes it easier to tear apart when it comes out of the oven.
Anything else I should know about you or the book? Anything I’m forgetting to ask?
I would say, for anybody who is interested in cooking and wants to cook more Irish food, start out by making the soda bread. That’s a great way to get started. Then move on to the rock buns (they were a great tradition in my house on Saturday mornings). After that, learn to make soups (we love our soups in Ireland!). Then, set yourself a specific task. Maybe say, “In one month’s time I’m going to cook a sophisticated Irish dinner party” or “I am going to have an Irish brunch.” Invite people. Pick two or three recipes from the book, try them out, and then master them. Really own the Irish kitchen and spread the Irish love.