Colcannon

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

"It’s basically a vehicle for butter.” Diana Henry

The above picture - or rather a vertical version of it - was my inspiration for this post. I love potatoes as you know, and I have eaten Colcannon before and liked it, but this was a particularly tempting looking version, so I thought I would write about Colcannon. Actually this particular version is not quite the real deal, although maybe there is not a real deal with respect to this particular dish, and I will come to that. This particular version is called Salmon with Burnt Butter Colcannon and it comes from the latest edition of Coles Magazine.


My decision to pursue the topic was enhanced by the fact that my next First Recipe book is called A Taste of Ireland in Food and Pictures, and of course it included a recipe for Colcannon.


Colcannon is not a dish that will get made much in our household because I have a husband who can't abide mashed potatoes, but I have made it before I think. I guess I thought of it as a kind of Irish bubble and squeak but it isn't really. Mind you there doesn't really seem to be just one 'authentic' recipe and lots of fuss about what you should or should not do. As the author Richard Corrigan says:


“there’s no such thing as a recipe for colcannon, really. It’s something that is put together with love, not measurements,” Richard Corrigan


To demonstrate this I'm including a recipe here by Robert Carrier, taken from his Great Dishes of the World, no less, which he calls My Colcannon. Now this could be taken as a demonstration of a massive ego, and maybe it is, but maybe he was indeed acknowledging that there is no 'authentic' recipe - it's just a variation on potatoes and cabbage and this is his version. In fact his recipe is the one I found that strayed most from the basic idea of mashed potatoes, cabbage and leek or spring onion. So I give it below to show how far a celebrity chef can stray from a traditional idea. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Interesting that such a variation should form part of a collection of traditional recipes from around the world, (well mostly England, France and Italy). RC turns it into a sort of gratin.


1 cabbage, 4-6 potatoes, 4-6 young carrots, 4-6 turnips 4 tablespoons butter, salt and freshly-ground black pepper, 1/4 pint double cream, 2 egg yolks, freshly grated breadcrumbs, freshly grated cheese, butter.


Cook cabbages and potatoes in water until tender.

Peel and slice carrots and turnips in thin strips and blanch in sufficient water to cover. Pour off water; add butter and 4 tablespoons water to pan; cover and simmer until vegetables are tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Chop cabbage finely and mash with potatoes until smooth. Combine with cream, egg yolks, additional butter and freshly ground black pepper and salt, to taste.

Spread half the cabbage/potato mixture in the bottom of a well-buttered oven-proof gratin dish. Arrange a layer of alternating strips of carrots and turnip down the centre and cover with remaining cabbage/potato mixture. Sprinkle with freshly grated breadcrumbs; top with a little freshly grated cheese (optional) and dot with butter. Cook in a moderate oven (180ºC) for 30 minutes or until golden.

Nobody else uses carrots or turnips although I did see parsnips mentioned here and there.


Felicity Cloake, of course does pretty good rundown of the various 'normal' variations in ingredients and method but the main thing I got from her article was her discovery of how best to cook potatoes for mashing from Cook's Illustrated:


“peeling and cutting before simmering increases the surface area of the potatoes, through which they lose soluble substances such as starch, proteins, and flavour compounds, to the cooking water. The greater surface area also enables lots of water molecules to bind with the potatoes’ starch molecules.” Cooked whole, they retain both flavour and fluff. Returning them to the hot pan after draining and covering them with a tea towel, so they “steam and dry off”,


Elsewhere in the article she mentions that a further refinement of this technique is to remove half of the water halfway through cooking. This means that you have to watch that they don't burn though. Knowing me, that is what would happen if I attempted this, so I'm not going there.


Maybe I should regard the recipe from A Taste of Ireland as the 'true' version though, as this particular book is a sort of 'historical' collection. And it is certainly simple.


1lb each of kale or cabbage, and potatoes, cooked separately, 2 small leeks or green onion tops, 1 cup milk or cream, 4 oz (1/2 cup) approx. butter, salt, pepper and a pinch of mace.


Have the kale or cabbage cooked, warm and well chopped up while the potatoes are cooking. Chop up the leeks or onion tops, green as well as white, and simmer them in milk or cream to just cover, until they are soft. Drain the potatoes, season and beat them well: then add the cooked leeks and milk.

Finally blend in the kale, beating until it is a pale green fluff. Do this over a low flame and pile it into a deep warmed dish. Make a well in the centre and pour in enough melted butter to fill up the cavity. The vegetables are served with spoonfuls of the melted butter. Any leftovers can be fried in hot bacon fat until crisp and brown on both sides.


Which rather means that you then have bubble and squeak. Sort of.


But maybe Bord Bia/Irish Food Board is the place to go for authenticity. Simple again but interestingly there is none of that pool of butter on the top bit. Just some beaten into the mashed potatoes.


But even Delia Smith seems to think you should have the butter on the top:


"originally served in a fluffy pile with a sort of well in the centre that was filled with melted butter. The idea was to dip each forkful into the melted butter before eating it! Perhaps our health consciousness and waist-watching would prohibit this today, but even without the melted butter it's extremely good." Delia Smith


And she does take the 'healthy' option and just beats the butter into the potatoes, though she does say you could put more butter on top.


My other two chosen recipes and the original Coles recipe that started all of this off certainly did have the pools of butter though. They came from Gourmet Traveller and Bon Appétit and I have to say they both look gorgeous.

So give it a go some day.


Before leaving the topic though, where did it come from? Well it's probably ancient. The name comes from the celtic Cál which means cabbage (you can see where the name kale comes from can you not?) and ceann-fhionn which means a white head, and therefore taken to mean a white cabbage, which rather detracts from the kale theory. For it is often made with kale. And isn't that interesting? For kale is such a trendy vegetable and is yet so ancient. So, of course, many of the more modern versions use kale rather than cabbage. Also in keeping with modern practice though, modern recipes often use other kinds of greens. The Coles Magazine one, for example, uses rocket. Besides where do the potatoes fit into this name? A recipe for the dish was not written down though until the eighteenth century and then it was a Welshman who did that. Well I guess they are celts too.


It is also traditionally eaten at Halloween - which we talked about recently and there are a number of traditions associated with that.


"the dish was associated with Halloween festivities, when charms were hidden in bowls of colcannon. It was thought that should an unmarried girl be lucky enough to find one, a marriage proposal would follow. Other maidens hung socks filled with colcannon from their front door-handles, believing the first man through the door would be their future husband. Another custom was to leave a bowl of colcannon out on All Saints Day (the day following Halloween), with a knob of butter on top for the fairies and ghosts." Gourmet Traveller


"A plain gold ring, a sixpence, a thimble or a button are often put in the mixture. The ring means you will be married within a year; the sixpence denotes wealth, the thimble a spinster and the button a bachelor, to whoever gets them." Theodora Fitzgibbon - A Taste of Ireland


Nowadays it's eaten all year round though.


“Did you ever eat colcannon when ’twas made with yellow cream,

And the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?

Did you ever take a forkful, and dip it in the lake

Of the heather-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?”


POSTSCRIPT: Thank you Graham. My automatic spellchecker changed wealth to death for some reason, and I didn't notice when I did my edit check. Apologies - of course money denotes wealth not death. Money gives you much more chance of surviving into old age after all.

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