Call me crazy, but I think the Irish have finally caught on to the benefits of spirits. I'm talking about their benefits in cooking, not drinking. Over the course of decades of visiting Ireland, I've been the beneficiary of some of the most spirited cooking the country has to offer. Come St. Patrick's Day, there's no better time to enjoy some yourself.
For centuries, the marriage of wine with food has been a happy one, with chefs, food writers and wine critics constantly extolling the perfect partnership and the way that ordinary recipes are elevated to extraordinary dishes with a splash of red or a dash of white.
The late Alexis Lichine, wine grower and author of the landmark Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits (Knopf, 1968), called the use of wine in cooking "a positive pleasure in which the two combine in a gastronomic treat infinitely more delicious than either could provide alone."
History tells us that in countries without a wine-growing tradition, such as Ireland, beer becomes a nation's favorite drink - think Guinness or Murphy's stout, Smithwick's ale and Harp Lager. And like wine, which chefs long have known enhances the taste and flavor of food, Irish stout, beer and ale long have been partners in traditional dishes ranging from plumping up the fruit in a Christmas pudding to tenderizing the meat in a slow-simmering casserole or deep-dish pie. The malty flavor of Guinness, for example, adds a surprising sweetness to brown bread, a heartiness to onion soup and a serious kick to brownies.
Irish whiskey, which sixth-century monks first distilled and called "uisce beatha" (pronounced isk'ke ba'ha, meaning "water of life"), is another drink that has been spooned into many a kettle and cake.
When the soldiers of Henry II first visited Ireland in the 12th century, they were greatly impressed with the liquid but had difficulty pronouncing it. Eventually "uisce" was anglicized to "fuisce" and finally to the word "whiskey" (with an "e" to distinguish it from Scotch whisky) we know today. It's an excellent flavor enhancer in marinades for grilled meats and seafood, and the warming touch in Ireland's national drink, Irish coffee.
During the Middle Ages, cider was a popular beverage in Ireland, particularly in areas where water supplies were often unreliable and tea and coffee were as yet unknown. As a result, cider, which often was fermented into an alcoholic beverage, became another popular drink and it, too, found its way into dishes and sauces where a little sweetness was required.
Like cider, ancient mead's distinctive sweet wine flavor is a terrific addition to many modern dishes, especially chicken and pork. Bunratty Mead is the most popular brand in the United States.
Irish cream liqueurs probably need no introduction when it comes to enhancing a dessert. The first of many brands, Baileys Irish cream was launched in 1974. The origin of the drink, some say, harks back to a tradition in the west of Ireland where one "dropped a dab of fresh cream into some Irish whiskey, stirred, shook and tossed it down."
These days, it's more likely to find its way into a cheesecake, chocolate pot or adults-only chocolate chip cookies. But who's complaining? It's St. Patrick's Day!
Margaret M. Johnson writes for Tribune Media Services.
Chops in Locke's
1/2 cup Locke's Irish whiskey
3/4 cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 ( 1/2 inch) piece ginger root, peeled and grated
6 (4 to 6 ounces each) lamb cutlets, chops or steaks
Combine whiskey, olive oil, garlic, onion, thyme, rosemary, cayenne, salt and pepper to taste, and ginger root in a sealable jar and shake to blend. Place lamb in a shallow dish and pour marinade over. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, preheat a gas grill to medium-high or preheat the broiler. Remove lamb from marinade. Grill or broil 4 inches from heat source, for 5 minutes on each side (for rare). Brush once with marinade after turning.
Note: This marinade uses Locke's Irish whiskey, but you can substitute another brand and plenty of thyme.
Per serving: 392 calories, 22 grams protein, 33 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 1 gram carbohydrate, trace fiber, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 66 milligrams sodium