This St. Patrick’s Day I plan on turning our tiny apartment into an Irish pub. I don’t think it will be that hard and it sounds like more fun than navigating the overly crowded city on such a crazy day. I love everything about the pubs in Ireland. They’re old and dark and completely unpretentious. It’s an easy atmosphere to recreate in our poorly lit, pre-war, windows-face-other buildings New York City apartment. Of course there’s more to it than that. When I think of an Irish pub I think of conversation, camaraderie, well poured beer and food! You knew it had to come back to food, right?
When Mike and I went to Ireland last year, we spent most of our brief time there in the pubs. That might sound shallow on the surface, but the pubs are about community and frequenting them is a significant part of daily life. It was the easiest and most accurate way to experience the life of the locals. Pub is short for “public house” which was a common space shared by friends and neighbors. What struck me most was that it’s not unusual to see an older woman (think your grandma) sitting at the bar enjoying a pint. It’s not something I see a lot of in US bars. It’s actually relatively new in Ireland as well. Up until the 60’s or 70’s it wasn’t acceptable for women to drink in the bar along side the men. They drank in the “Snug,” a small sectioned-off private area at one end of the main bar. That stigma doesn’t exist anymore in Irish culture. Instead young or old, male or female, the pub is where you go for good conversation and a pint with friends and neighbors. I think in some ways pubs are to Ireland what coffee shops are to the US. I read somewhere that in Ireland, the pub is an extension of ones living room. It’s interesting to me that that same sentiment was part of the Starbucks business model – “a place for human connection and a sense of community.” I love the Starbucks intention, but pub life seems a bit more romantic to me than a venti latte surrounded by tables of remote workers and entrepeneurs head down in their laptops wearing earbuds.
Along with good beer and good conversation, you will find two very important things in an Irish pub: exceptional traditional music (they don’t have to say “Irish” in Ireland) and food. An Irish music session isn’t like a band going on stage. It’s more informal. The members are generally gathered at a table or some nook of the bar room. It’s a celebration of the group’s shared appreciation for music and it is quite beautiful. It really brings the crowd together and creates a sense of connection among the pub’s patrons. We probably won’t be able to get an Irish session in the apartment, but Mike can certainly pull out a guitar and play a few Irish tunes. So far we’ve got this pub thing covered.
You’re here for the food though, and pub food in the US is generally nothing to blog home about. Irish pubs aren’t generally know for their cuisine either, but I was pleasantly surprised to find some of the best chowders and stews I’ve ever tasted. I also had an amazing Shepherd’s Pie! Then again I’ve only ever been to Ireland for days at a time. I don’t know how I would feel about the food if it was my every day diet. If Italian food is peasant food then Irish food is working man’s food, and the work they did was not behind a keyboard in an ergonomically correct desk chair. This food is hearty for a reason. We would have to up our cardio by a lot if I made Shepherd’s Pie every week.
After sampling the real thing and asking the locals a few questions, I did some online research. Eventually I came up with my version of this Irish classic which you can find here. While I was in Ireland I realized that I’m really not accustomed to how rich and heavy the food is. I drank less so that I could eat more. I know that’s not something you hear very often about trips to Ireland, but I had to do it! I always thought I had a cast iron stomach and could eat anything. The truth is I’m just used to the type of food I eat most often. I grew up on a predominantly Mediterranean diet and that’s how I cook and eat most of the time. As a result, here’s where my recipe might be lacking by Irish standards. I used olive oil and went light on the butter for this dish. Even with those slight modifications, it was still delicious and decadent enough to serve on a special occasion like St. Patrick’s Day. Also, Mike loved it which is always a good test.
After deciding that I would go easy on the butter, I figured I’d make up for it in Guinness. I normally cook with wine. Sometimes I’ll even use whatever beer I happen to have on hand, but I knew this recipe had to include Guinness. I don’t think I could tell the difference if you used something else, but I’ll know when I’m making it and that’s all that matters to me. It also gets the party started early since I only use a half cup in my recipe and the rest goes to Mike as a pre-dinner warm up. I should probably confess right now that I don’t really like Guinness. I want to like it. I love the history and authenticity of it, but the flavor is just too caramel-ey for me. Mike will enjoy the Guinness and I’ll pick up some Smithwicks or Harp for myself to maintain the Irish theme. Our at-home Irish pub is really shaping up – Mike strumming a few Irish tunes, cold Guinness and hot Shepherd’s Pie. I can hardly wait!
After St. Patrick’s Day we’re in the home stretch for Spring. The weather will start to lighten up, and that’s all it will take to get us out of the apartment and remind us of all the enjoyable bars that give New York its own sense of connectedness and community. The romantic notion of an old, dark pub will be replaced by outdoor cafes and people watching. Sipping a local craft beer in the afternoon sunshine will get us thinking of lighter recipes and fresh ingredients. For now, let’s enjoy the cold and indulge a bit in this meaty casserole covered with creamy potatoes. Every dish has it’s time and place and March 17th is just right for Shepherd’s Pie. Happy St. Patrick’s Day and thanks for reading.