(CNN) – 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 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
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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