Instead of feeling despondent about such a neglected practice, I decided to attack it the usual way. Convinced that Irish whiskey could perform far beyond Irish coffee, I tasted as many whiskeys as I could in two weeks - you wouldn't believe the absorption power of a well-trained nose! I selected my favourites and started experimenting in the kitchen, guided only by my tasting notes. I essentially worked with five whiskeys: two malts and three blends. Two of my favourites - Tyrconnell and Paddy - have been poorly scored and labelled inconsistent by certain tasters in this fine publication, but their flavours and notes are ideally suited to cooking. More popular and highly regarded whiskies might drown or create culinary conflict between more subtle flavours.In Tyrconnell, I like the pure, clear, fruity style which I associate with light dishes such as a fruit salad or poached pears (one of the key notes being pear drop). Paddy might be not as rich as some other Irish blends, but its warm smoothness cheered by vanilla and toasted nuttiness offers a perfect complement to shellfish: sautéed scallops deglazed with a dash of Paddy or grilled lobster served with a lemon butter laced with Paddy. Heaven!
The other single malt I enjoyed testing is Connemara, the only peated Irish malt. Combined with a blue cheese (Cashel Blue is the best Irish one), Connemara releases its earthy smokiness in successive puffs, with a hint of bacon as well as its honeyed sweetness. It's a mix that creates a soup your guests will remember for all the right reasons.
Finally, I enjoy using Jameson and Power's in cooking. The former, with its perfect balance and rich fruity aromas, can accompany a wider range of ingredients. For instance, a smoked salmon, dressed with crispy vegetables and cottage cheese, suits Jameson's light spiciness and generous creamy texture.
I have a great fondness for Power's, which seems especially suited to cooking with meat, especially lamb provided it's not in its prime. Spicy, almondy, with a lingering finish, Power's stands fast in the presence of tasty stewed meats.
Stews like still dew
Generally speaking, Irish whiskey blends especially well with stews - and the king of this classic dish is surely the Irish stew. Fancying some good pub grub when I toured south-east Ireland one summer, I stopped in what seemed to be an authentic teach leanna. With an impressive range of draught stouts and ales, Celtic music and a smoky atmosphere, I figured the 'traditional Irish stew' whetting my appetite on the menu must be genuine. Unfortunately, the only thing Irish about the stew was the country it was eaten in. It was basically lamb stew à la Milanese, with tomatoes and enough garlic to stun a vampire!
From what I know about Irish cooking traditions, Irish stew's main ingredients are mutton (not lamb), potatoes, onions, some garlic and herbs for seasoning. Salt and pepper are the only real spices - but what about spirits? Stout (Guinness, naturally!) is the perfect tenderiser for meat and competes heartily with the very robust taste of mutton. Of course, whiskey can be used in place of stout to marinate the meat. For a sturdy, warming version of the recipe, try using Power's. For a slightly smoother approach, Jameson's will bring out the sweet notes of onions. Use a generous measure (70 ml) and enhance the flavours further by adding one more dash before serving. The same method can be applied when braising beef or pork. For a sweet, I ventured into the heady world of Irish cream liqueurs with a tantalising, tasty treat involving a choice of either Bailey's or Saint Brendan Irish Cream.
Cashel Blue and Connemara whiskey soup
- 750ml chicken stock
- 30g (1 oz) medium oatmeal
- 30g (1 oz) butter
- 1 stick of celery, sliced
- 1 small onion thinly sliced
- 1 big leek, sliced
- 1 Granny Smith apple
- 100g (3 1/2 oz) Cashel Blue cheese
- 3 tbsp Connemara single malt
- 1 tbsp chopped walnuts
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sprig of chervil for garnish
1. Bring the chicken stock to a boil, add oatmeal. Simmer for five minutes, then mix in a blender.
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan and sweat celery, onion and leek for five minutes. Add the stock, season to taste and cook for 30 minutes.
3. Peel, core and dice the apple. Dice the cheese into cubes. Add to diced apple and marinate in whiskey for 15 minutes. Add to the warm stock with walnuts. Serve in bowls. Add a sprig of chervil as a simple garnish. Accompany this tasty soup with soda bread and lightly salted butter.
Olly Malone casserole
- 1 shallot, sliced
- 2 spring onions, sliced
- 3oz (80g butter)
- 2lb mussels, scrubbed and bearded
- 2lb cockles, washed and rinsed
- Juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
- 4 tbsp Paddy whiskey
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley
- 1 slice of dried soda bread
- 60g grated cheddar cheese
1. Place shallot and spring onions in a saucepan and sweat with half of the butter. Add mussels, cockles, lemon juice and rind and three tablespoons of whiskey. Cover the saucepan and simmer for three to four minutes, to allow the shellfish to open. Shell the meat and place in a gratin dish.
2. Put the cooking juice through a sieve in a smaller pan and reduce over high heat for a few minutes - but not too long, or it will be over-salted. Add pepper, the remaining butter and last tablespoon of whiskey. Pour the sauce over the shellfish. Sprinkle with parsley.
3. Blend the soda bread to tiny crumbs. Mix with cheddar. Cover cockles and mussels with the mixture. Brown 10 minutes under the grill/broiler. Serve with mashed potatoes.
Irish cream liqueur parfait
- 100ml semi-skimmed milk
- 2 tbsp muscovado sugar
- 1 tbsp instant coffee powder
- 6 egg yolks
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- 100ml Baileys or Saint Brendan Irish Irish Cream
- Caramelised nuts or dark chocolate shavings for garnish
- 150ml whipped cream
1. Warm milk and muscovado sugar. Add instant coffee powder. Stir until melted. Beat egg yolks with sugar. Pour warm milk while whisking, add cream liqueur and stir until perfectly smooth.
2. Return to heat and bring under boiling point. When the custard thickens, remove from the heat and cool down by placing the pan over iced water. When it's cooled down, stir in the whipped cream delicately.
3. Spoon the mixture into champagne glasses and place in the freezer for four to six hours (this sweet can be made one day ahead). Remove the parfait from the freezer 15 minutes before serving and top with caramelised nuts or dark chocolate shavings.
Spirited inspired cooking
Margaret Johnson, an American writer of Irish origin, has apparently sampled all the alcoholic creations from Erin. Her book Cooking With Irish Spirits, published in 1998 by Wolfhound Press - I found it in a lovely bookshop in Kilkenny - covers a wide range of drinks as ingredients: whiskey, of course, but also stout and ale, mead, Celtic cider and Irish cream liqueurs. It includes easy-to-cook recipes with some excellent inspirations. One point where we differ, however, is Margaret's almost compulsive habit of lighting a match after pouring whiskey on meat. I think that flambé is to cooking with whiskey what some wood finishes are to maturation: a just-for-show gimmick that adds nothing to the finished product.