March 17th, 2014
09:00 AM ET
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Jeremy Harlan is a CNN photojournalist. He has previously covered, veterans in the kitchen, veal farming and life on the campaign trail.

Is there no greater signal of spring than a grocery store’s meat section overflowing with corned beef briskets? I really can’t think of one.

I’m not Irish, and I don't pretend to be the biggest beer drinker or have a vast collection of emerald threads in my closet. So boiling a large pot of corned beef and cabbage has been my go-to tradition in honoring Ireland’s patron saint.

My wife, on the other hand, does not share my appreciation for this annual March feast. I believe her exact words (a nod to Anchorman) are, “Ugh, that smells like Sex Panther.”

Sixty percent of the time, she hates it every time.

So this year I’ve scrapped the corned beef and cabbage menu in hopes of finding a meal more authentic to Ireland. Come to find out, it was never really an Irish tradition in the first place.

“We just don’t eat it on St. Patrick’s Day or ever,” explains Cathal (pronounced Ka-HALL) Armstrong, a native of the Emerald Isle and executive chef of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s really more of an Irish-American tradition now.”

He does admit the process of boiling everything in a big pot is very much in-line with the Irish way.

“We always laugh about it when we’re cooking and I’ll say, ‘The Irish cooking technique is boil the ba-jay-zus out of it,’” jokes Armstrong.

“You see this so much in these cultures, where they cooked their food an awful lot to deal with the fact that sanitation was poor and no refrigeration. Pretty much everything in Ireland and all the way up until the '50s and '60s was overcooked and boiled to hell.”

He believes Irish cuisine changed for the better a few decades ago when Ireland’s economy grew and native-born chefs returned to the homeland with new techniques to fully utilize the country’s agricultural wealth and overwhelming abundance of fresh produce.

“There’s a reason it’s called the Emerald Isle. We can graze cattle and sheep outdoors 365 days a year. We can grow crops year round, too,” explains Armstrong adding that cooking in Ireland is almost entirely driven now by what’s available seasonally. Parsnips, carrots and other root vegetables are in abundance in the winter. Berries and tomatoes make a brief appearance in the waning months of summer. The arrival of spring brings lamb to the dining table.

“Probably eighty percent of households on St. Patrick’s Day are going to be eating leg of lamb,” predicts Armstrong. “It’s going to be what matches the climate of good, rich, hearty, wholesome like almost hospitable dishes that make you feel good.”

Armstrong’s book, My Irish Table, has a vast collection of those hearty dishes he knew while growing up in Dublin. He also has a few ideas for those of us with anti-corned beef spouses.

Shepherd's pie is a real hearty, traditional Irish dish. Very often you see recipes made with ground beef, but that doesn’t really make sense to me, because shepherds herd sheep as far as I remember,” says Armstrong.

“So it makes sense to use lamb. I dice the lamb and braise it more the way you would in a restaurant. In the end you get this really complex delicious dish that shows what Ireland is capable of being.”

Problem solved. And for those still hungry for an authentic, long-cooked Irish feast, Armstrong has a simple lamb recipe. It may not as easy as ripping a brisket out of a sealed package, dropping it in a pot of water, and boiling it for a few hours with a head of cabbage, but it will definitely taste better and hopefully for my beloved wife, smell better, too.

Roast Leg of Lamb au Jus with Herb Pesto
Recipe courtesy Cathal Armstrong reprinted from "My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve"

1 9-pound bone-in leg of lamb, H-bone removed by your butcher
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup lamb demi-glace

Herb pesto
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Roast the lamb:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the leg fat side up in a flameproof roasting pan. Rub it with the oil and season with the salt. Roast for 1 1/2 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of the lamb (but not touching the bone) registers 135°F for medium rare.

Make the pesto:
Meanwhile, place the oil and garlic in the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse briefly. Add the basil and process until a coarse purée forms. Add the thyme, rosemary, and salt and process briefly, until incorporated.

Make the jus:
Meanwhile, skim and discard the fat from the roasting pan. Add the demi-glace to the pan and place over medium-high heat. Use a flat- edged wooden spatula to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

Present the dish:
Pour the jus into a small pitcher or gravy boat. Spoon the remaining pesto into a small serving bowl. Transfer the lamb to a serving platter and carve it at table. At about the middle of the leg, use a carving knife to cut a horizontal wedge the width of the leg and about 2 inches wide, cutting at a 45° angle from both sides until you hit bone. Then cut thin slices from both sides of the wedge.

Once you’ve carved as much meat that way as you can, grasp the bone and stand it on its end with one hand, using your other hand to cut slices off the leg. Spoon some jus over each serving and place a little pesto on the side. Serve with your chosen side dishes.

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Filed under: Cathal Armstrong • Cooking • Make • Recipes • St. Patrick's Day

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. pops

    I thought Parsnips were from Lord of the Rings....

    April 1, 2014 at 9:41 pm |
  2. macksmith345

    It's trully Its an American Irish tradition, and I also know about this but little bit but not too much so it's good to know.



    April 1, 2014 at 5:14 am |
  3. Irish

    I understand the lamb...but pesto? C'mon thats a bit too far-fetched. Serve some potatoes and cabbage–that's more authentic.

    March 20, 2014 at 7:40 pm |
    • Thinking things through

      Working on a true Old World authenticity - what did the Irish eat before Columbus? Just curious, but for sure it wasn't potatoes.

      March 20, 2014 at 8:22 pm |
      • BOOGER


        March 24, 2014 at 6:29 pm |
  4. Paul

    The author of this article has no knowledge whatsoever of what real Irish families eat on St. Patrick's Day. Corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes is 100% the dish of the Irish, and anyone arguing otherwise is grossly unqualified to claim any knowledge of the matter. Most of the population of Ireland moved to America, where cattle production was much more common and practical. Just because the tradition of eating corned beef did not originate on the Irish isle does not change the fact that it was started by 100% Irish families. I am 100% Irish, my family descending from Irish immigrants who mined copper in Butte, Montana and gold in the Black Hills. Corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes is a centuries-old traditional family meal started by my Irish ancestors. My grandparents and even parents would be greatly amused and offended by this article, as am I to a lesser extent.

    March 19, 2014 at 6:49 pm |
    • Thinking things through

      Just noting the distinction made in the article between Irish-Irish and Irish-American cooking. It was, for me, something interesting to learn. Sheesh....carry on.

      March 19, 2014 at 7:13 pm |
      • Paul

        If the intent of the article had been to simply make a distinction between Irish-Irish and Irish-American cooking, that would make sense. However, the clear intent of the article is to claim that eating corned beef on St. Patrick's Day is not an Irish tradition. See the line "it was never really an Irish tradition in the first place." Unless you claim that those who migrated from Ireland to America are magically no longer Irish, that is a false and laughable claim.

        March 19, 2014 at 8:04 pm |
        • tom LI

          Oh, so you're going to define what IS the Irish tradition!?! Nice try but no!. You dont get to set the table for me and my Irish family – as CB and Cabb is not on our table for St Pats – its always been a variety of better meats to celebrate. Not some boiled piece of uber-salty blandness.

          March 20, 2014 at 11:33 am |
        • Thinking things through

          Paul, I understand, and thank you for the clarity. As a student (very informal) of history, I'm just simply wanting to understand the bifurcations from the Old Country to the New Country. AND what they are doing back in Ireland, proper, on St. Paddy's Day.

          March 20, 2014 at 8:37 pm |
    • rob

      When they came to America they became Americans. I am American with ancestors from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Norway and Lithuania but I do not declare that because I eat something all those countries eat it as well. What I eat only contributes to what Americans eat.

      March 27, 2014 at 1:41 pm |
    • John

      you are not 100% Irish unless you yourself were born and raised in Ireland as I was. Can you even speak a few sentences of Gaelic?

      April 2, 2014 at 8:31 pm |
  5. Thinking things through

    Interesting, I'd always assumed corned beef and cabbage was Irish, not just Irish-American - but lamb makes sense. Ireland isn't really known for its cattle production.

    Next year, I'm inventing corned lamb and cabbage... ;)

    March 18, 2014 at 5:48 pm |
  6. Emmi

    I like corn beef, and cabbage.

    March 18, 2014 at 10:51 am |
  7. Grandfather immigrated From County Cork

    My grandparents were in Ireland until their early 20's when they came to the US and settled in Pennsylvania. My Grandmother always made lamb or mutton on Sundays and on "special" occasions. She would also occasionally make a braised roast of meat in stout as the braising liquid and with veggies that had been browned briefly then added to the braising liquid to finish. Can't say that it was brined before she braised it but I can say it was tougher cuts of mutton or beef. When I go to cork I always get real Shepard's pie with just to enjoy the earthiness or the dish.

    March 18, 2014 at 9:53 am |
    • Thinking things through

      I would love to try real shepherds' pie with mutton!

      Years ago we (the family and me as a wee one) were in Scotland, and mutton was readily available. When I went back for a visit in 1995, it was not findable - although probably at markets, just not in restaurants. Ireland might be parallel on mutton availability. It was indeed an earthy meat, and we loved it.

      March 18, 2014 at 5:51 pm |
  8. Cthulhu

    Remember the Potato Famine of the mid-1800s? The fact that a lot of the Irish population either died or emigrated to America implies that they were too poor to eat any sort of meat or anything else The English had stolen their corn and made them eat potatoes.

    March 18, 2014 at 9:20 am |
  9. steve

    Its an American Irish tradition, we know its different and no biggie in Ireland.

    March 18, 2014 at 8:41 am |
  10. pmmarion

    "Come to find out, it was never really an Irish tradition in the first place."

    It became an Irish tradition when the Irish came to America. Since Corned Beef was a cheaper cut of meat in American the Irish who came to America traded their lamb or mutton in for beef. DON'T EVER say that Corned Beef is not an Irish tradition.

    March 17, 2014 at 6:18 pm |
    • Heinz 57, incl Irish

      DON'T EVER tell me what I can and cannot say. The point being corned beef & cabbage didn't originate in Ireland. Sorry that remedial reading comp class didn't pan out.

      March 18, 2014 at 6:38 am |
  11. luckyponytoo

    I've done lamb the past couple of St Paddy's days...soooo yummy! The corned beef tradition started with Irish immigrants who lived in the city slums with other poor immigrants and yearned for something resembling the food they grew up on, particularly Irish bacon. Corned beef, available at Jewish delis, was the closest thing available. The corned beef has trickled back to Ireland, but probably mostly to appease American tourists who want it because they think it's Irish. Either way, corned beef and cabbage is a perfectly traditional Irish American meal, so don't let the purists tell you any different! However, if I'm going to have corned beef, I prefer it in the form of a Reuben. :)

    March 17, 2014 at 3:13 pm |
    • John

      let me put an end to this, I`M Irish born and bred, have been living in Ireland since I was born to Irish parents, you dont get more Irish than that, I can promise you we dont eat corned beef, we will be eating Bacon and Cabbage (not Lamb and not beef but bacon) or beef stew some may have lamb stew while my personal favourite is shepards pie mad from beef not Lamb, (of course shepards mind sheep but if he ate them he wouldnt be a very good shepard would he)

      April 2, 2014 at 8:41 pm |
  12. RogTy

    A wee bit o'funny for the holiday:

    Happy St. Patrick's Day!

    March 17, 2014 at 2:30 pm |
  13. cali girl

    No corned beef and cabbage at my house, too salty and cabbage gives me a stomach ache.

    March 17, 2014 at 2:20 pm |
    • Little timmie

      ... until you fart.

      March 17, 2014 at 2:30 pm |
    • shawn l

      Cabbage is great for you.

      March 17, 2014 at 10:25 pm |
      • Desmond

        Sure is – if you're trying to slow down your metabolism. It's one of several foods one should avoid if one has an overactive thyroid. Otherwise, knock yourself out.

        March 18, 2014 at 7:35 am |
        • coffeeisgreat

          Raw cabbage, in large quantities (like 3 or more cups) may affect thyroid in those who already have hypothyroid issues. You can still safely eat cabbage and be hypo. You can safely eat large quantities of cooked cabbage.

          March 19, 2014 at 7:24 pm |
  14. Mark L

    Why didnt you post the recipe for the sheppard's pie? Or mutton stew?

    March 17, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
  15. Mark L

    Mutton is grown up lamb. They are eating the babies, no the parents who give them the wool.

    March 17, 2014 at 12:25 pm |
  16. Solomon Walker

    They call this dish, "mutton," in Ireland – not roast leg of lamb!

    March 17, 2014 at 9:55 am |
  17. Solomon Walker

    Even my Irish cousins in Ireland haven't the genuine artifact of what a real Irish meal is as my family has.

    I wonder why.

    March 17, 2014 at 9:54 am |
    • southerncelt

      Maybe the Irish treat it like the Catholic Feast Day it is instead of commercialising it out of existence.

      March 17, 2014 at 2:39 pm |
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