The Irish potato famine is over!
When you travel in Ireland today, it is truly difficult to imagine the horrific potato famine that occurred in the 1800’s. The Irish people were poor and looked to the potato for their main source of vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates. They ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner; sometimes with a little cabbage or fish on the side.
In 1845, a fungus started killing off the plants, and the wind spread the blight countrywide. Everyone thought it would go away soon and things would return to normal. But the blight lasted six years, killing more than a million people, and forcing another million to flee to the United States to begin a new life.
Fast forward to my Ireland trip with family; roaming the countryside, scouring ancient castle ruins and staying in remote bed and breakfasts. The breakfast part always consisted of the traditional fried eggs, fried sausage, fried bacon and fried potatoes.
Pub lunches included french fries, no matter what you ordered. You could order the diet plate and get a scoop of cottage cheese, a few tomato wedges and a mountain of fries. (And I’d eat every salty one.)
Dinner was the same: Often fish, battered and deep-fried with a generous side of greasy potatoes – and a minuscule sprig of parsley (which began to look more and more appealing to me).
After four or five days of this, I was feeling downright lousy. My body was screaming for something light, something healthy, something green. The next day, we stopped in a small village restaurant for lunch. I asked the waitress, "please, Lord have mercy, can I just have a small piece of broiled fish and a big salad?"
She returned with a platter of beer-battered fish and enough fries for six people. Then she went back for my salad. Potato salad. I kid you not.
Here’s my recipe for a potato casserole featuring Irish Cheddar cheese:
IRISH POTATO CASSEROLE
4 large Idaho potatoes, peeled and chunked
2 medium-large onions, chopped
2 large tomatoes, chopped
8 ounces Irish Cheddar cheese, cut into 8-10 slices
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large saucepan, boil potatoes until tender. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, sauté onions in a little olive oil until soft. Add tomatoes and cook over medium heat, until almost all the liquid is gone, but it is still very moist. Drain potatoes (do not rinse), return to saucepan and coarsely mash with a fork. Season with salt and pepper. Butter a 9” casserole dish. Spread half the potatoes in the bottom. Top with half the onion-tomato mixture. Arrange 4 – 5 slices of cheese on top. Repeat. Bake for about 40 minutes, uncovered, until golden (I like to turn the oven to broil for the last couple of minutes so the cheese is extra brown). Serves 4. Goes well with corned beef and a great big SALAD.
Robin Benzle lives in Bay Village and hosts the food and travel website, www.robinbenzle.com.