Sunday, March 17, 2013

Celebrating The "Demon of Gluttony"

While it is widely accepted that the "corned beef and cabbage" dinner we have come to associate with Saint Patrick’s Day did not truly originate in Ireland because Irish peasants were too poor to actually eat the beef they were farming for exportation, there is some historical evidence, in a medieval poem "The Vision of MacConglinne", that corned beef (a rare and valued dish in 12th century Ireland) was consumed by a king to purge himself of the "demon of gluttony".  It was actually much later, in a young United States where salted (cured) beef imported from Ireland was far less expensive than in the homeland, when Irish immigrants first began to embrace the dish and make it their own. Regardless of heritage, it has been my tradition for many years to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by gathering friends at my table for a hearty repast centered around the humble fare. That we might need to extricate ourselves from the clutches of a demon afterward just made the occasion all the more provacative.

My "uncorned beef" is marinated in exotic spices,
simmered in beer and orange juice and served on a bed
of  savoy cabbage leaves with a kumquat garnish
I used to buy corned beef at the supermarket and prepare it two ways: half the slab, simmered for hours in seasoned broth, would be served without further adornment.  The other half would be finished in the oven with a mustard-brown sugar glaze, both recipes from my first husband’s father, a captain (now retired) in the Berkeley, California, Fire Department and an avid firehouse cook. But several years ago I discovered a recipe for corning my own beef brisket which was so much better than any commercially corned beef I’d ever eaten that now I make it no other way. Marinated for a day in an intensely flavored paste of salt, pepper, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground clove, vinegar, garlic and mustard, the brisket is then braised in beer and orange juice, producing a juicy roast imbued with exotic depth.

Before going into the oven to bake,
my veggie pate was very colorful!
Two weeks before Saint Patrick’s Day I mailed out my dinner invitations and set about planning my menu: It would be an intimate gathering of six friends for a peasant meal of meat and vegetables, enlivened with a new vegetarian paté I wanted to try and a trio of elegant desserts. I hung a wreath of forsythia vines on my front door and dressed my dining room in spring branches.

With the beef curing in its briny coat on the eve of the big day, I turned my attention to the appetizer and desserts. The vegetable paté looked amazing when it emerged from the oven, with its ring of blistered cherry tomatoes and toasted walnuts crowning a standard mire poix combined with mushrooms, spinach, breadcrumbs and spices, enhanced with tahini and miso pastes. It would be cut it into wedges and served on warmed baguette slices.

A decadent caramel sauce moistens
Moroccan date cake
Oranges soaked in rosemary-infused
honey lighten the dense cake
I baked a Moroccan date cake, steeping plump Medjool dates in dark rum and espresso to infuse the batter with Mediterranean flavor. The dense cake, drizzled with rich caramel sauce, cried out for something citrusy, so I prepared a topping of sliced navel and blood oranges drenched in rosemary-infused honey.

Green was the theme as I wrapped
my dining room chairs in Celtic-
patterned cloth bows to honor
the occasion
I followed step-by-step instructions
to make this spring bouquet
I also planned my apparel. Since emerald is Pantone’s official "color of the year" for 2013, I chose that jewel-toned shade for my evening’s attire: a bright St John’s Bay tank with silvery studs detailing the neckline, which I wore over my most comfortable vintage "travel" slacks from JCPenney. I accented the outfit with a mixed-metal necklace and matching earrings from Tina’s Antiques & Jewelry (410-833-9337) in Reisterstown, Maryland, and an emerald "Dea Dread" hair accessory made by Thea Osato of Baltimore ( I finished my look with sky-high platform pumps decorated with green glitter by Rachel Rachel Roy, a fabulous find on the clearance rack at Macy’s a few months back.

Once baked, my
vegetarian pate was
sliced into wedges and
served with slices of

Multicolored fingerling potatoes are
par-boiled, then deep fried and served
with a rich aioli seasoned with sweet
smoked paprika, sea salt and parsley
On the day of my dinner, I nestled my "un-corned" beef in a pot of sliced beets, onions and carrots, poured in the beer-orange juice braising liquid and let it simmer in the oven for most of the afternoon. One of the nice things about traditional St. Paddy’s day fare is that the entrée is fairly low-maintenance. Turning my attention to the dining room, I dressed my antique mahogany table in a pale green cloth and napkins, my grandmother’s china, and gilded flatware that was a precious gift to me from my mother many decades ago. I wrapped six chairs in covers of gold velvet and adorned each one with a wide bow of chartreuse cotton in a festive Celtic-knot print that I’d found on sale at Jo-Ann Crafts that morning. Having printed out some instructions from White House floral designer Laura Dowling, I set about trying my hand at creating a cheerful spring arrangement using white hydrangeas, yellow Asiatic lilies and green apples pierced with floral picks, all items I grabbed at the grocery store a few days prior.

Pears are basted with a rich sauce,
then the wine is reduced to a
syrup and used as a glaze
It may seem complicated,
but my St. Patick's Day menu
was fairly stress-free
With so much of the day’s effort done ahead of time and the entrée practically cooking itself, I concentrated on a second dessert of sturdy bosc pears baked in tawny port and then drizzled with a reduction of the wine sauce. Since I made the glaze with Splenda instead of sugar, the calorie count for each pear was held at less than 200, making any potential leftovers an ideal finish to busy weeknight dinners to come.

Sparkling wine always makes a festive
occasion more... sparkly! 
When my dinner guests arrived promptly at 7:00 p.m., I greeted them with flutes of Champagne embellished with Peach schnapps, and we dug into the paté. Dinner was enhanced by fabulous bottles of Pinot Gris and Riesling from my friends Fred and Barbara, and a splendid Pinot Noir from dear acquaintances Robert and Jan. Everyone loved my take on "corned" beef, and the desserts were a hit, made all the more lovely with a superb Muscat from Robert and Jan to finish our meal.

Did we fall victim to the Gaelic demon of gluttony?  Perhaps just a little.  But it’s nothing that couldn't be exorcised by a brisk hike in the woods while searching for four-leaf clovers the following day. My guests lingered over coffee with Bailey’s Irish Cream Saturday night, chatting with the ease of long-known acquaintances. That, for me, was a sure sign that my St. Patrick’s Day celebration was a happy success, gluttony demons notwithstanding.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds really divine! I should have taken you up on your offer...