St. Patrick’s Day: Two Recipes to Celebrate the Apostle to the Irish

In Ireland on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day has become an elaborate national holiday that allows people to attend church, celebrate Irish heritage, and join in meals honoring the saint. Although the holiday began in Ireland, Americans joined in, though it is unclear whether it involved the Charitable Irish Society in Boston in 1737 or the Manhattan parade hosted by the influx of Irish immigrants there. Regardless, many people around the world have now joined in this colorful St. Patrick’s Day, holding parades with marching bands, parties, banquets, and dances.

Another important way for people to celebrate? Going green with clothing, baked goods, and so much more, such as wearing green shamrock pins. After all, St. Patrick’s celebrators in the early days believed that wearing green would keep them invisible to the roaming leprechauns. In addition, green symbolizes not only springtime and the shamrock but this revered saint of Ireland.

Among all the thousands of Catholic saints in the world, why is St. Patrick so prominent? Because he is credited for converting a basically pagan though partially Christian society into Catholicism. He was born Maewyn Succat in Britannia about 385 A. D. into a wealthy family. According to the autobiographical Confessio of St. Patrick, he was only 16 years old when he became a prisoner of a band of Irish raiders attacking his family’s home. They took him to Ireland, probably to County Mayo, where he was held as a prisoner for six years.

During those very lonely years, he worked outdoors as a shepherd. He also turned to God in daily prayer, apparently saying, “For the love of God.” As a result, he became a very devout Christian. He also began to learn about the local rituals and customs of the Druids, the pagan society he eventually converted. A legend says that one night Patrick dreamed that God or an angel urged him to flee from Ireland by ship to return to Britain.

Back in Britain, he decided to devote his life to God by serving as a priest. To reach that goal, he attended a university in Auxerre, France to study the history of Christianity for about 15 years. He then was ordained a priest by St. Germanus, a Bishop in Auxerre. Later, St. Patrick received an angelic vision to return to Ireland as a missionary.

Upon his return, St. Patrick began his work to establish Ireland as a Catholic country. At that time, despite a small number of Christians living there, he found that most people practiced a pagan religion. What helped him to reach these people was his familiarity with both the language and the culture. For example, he used several Celtic symbols, such as the shamrock, sacred to the Druids, to symbolize the Trinity. He learned that the people used bonfires to praise their gods, so he used bonfires to celebrate Easter. He even created a Christian cross using the Irish symbol of the sun for what is now known as the Celtic cross.

For the next 20 years, he journeyed with great zeal around Ireland, teaching the people about Christ. He baptized many thousands; he ordained priests to establish Christian communities; and he founded convents for women. His work was challenging and as a result he lived in danger of being slain. However, St. Patrick continued on, building in Ireland a strong Christian foundation.

St. Patrick died in 461 A. D. on March 17, in Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland, turning this day into a national holiday. He is known as the patron saint and the “Apostle of Ireland. Tradition suggests that he was the first bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland and that he had performed many miracles.

Cottage Pie

(Recipe credit: Chef Terry Walline, the now-closed Brion’s Grille, Fairfax, Virginia)
Serves 9

A comforting meal, this Irish dish is composed of ground beef and is topped with mashed potatoes. Depending on what supplies are in your kitchen, you may use vegetables such as peas, chopped carrots, and/or diced celery.

Chef Terry Walline said about the roux, or thickener: “Using oil or butter is just a flavor preference depending upon what you are thickening. A quick reheat and stir will loosen it so it will pour out of the pan slowly while thickening your liquid. The key is to drizzle in the roux while whisking so you don’t over-thicken your liquid. Liquid must be at least 185 degrees for it to thicken; this also applies to whitewashes using arrowroot or corn starch as a thickening agent, in case you want to make this recipe gluten-free.”

For the mashed potato topping

  • 1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Milk as needed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 pound sharp Irish cheddar, shredded

About 1 cup diced scallions

For the roux

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • For the meat filling
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 large onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1/8 cup minced garlic
  • 1 cup Guinness beer
  • 1 cup red wine           
  • 1 cup strong beef broth
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried sage
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan, and cover them with cold water. Place over high heat, cover, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, uncover, reduce the heat to a medium-low, and cook until fork tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, and return them to the saucepan. Mash the potatoes while adding butter, milk, salt and pepper, and continue to mash until smooth. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

To make the roux for thickening, melt the butter over medium heat, and whisk in the flour. Cook until the flour is absorbed, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat. (For more thickener, repeat this step with more ingredients.)

Prepare the meat filling by placing 1 tablespoon vegetable oil into a 12-inch sauté pan, and heat over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef, and cook until browned and cooked throughout, about 3 minutes; drain off the fat. Add the onions, peas, carrots, and garlic, and sauté just until they begin to turn golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the beer, wine, beef broth, basil, oregano, and sage, and stir to combine. Bring to a rapid boil, and whisk in roux slowly to thicken to desired consistency; reduce the heat to low; add salt and pepper to taste, and cook 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the meat filling mixture, and spread evenly into a 9- by 9-inch baking dish. Top with the mashed potatoes topping, starting around the edges to create a seal to prevent the mixture from bubbling up, and smooth with a spatula. Place on the middle rack of the oven.

Bake for 25 minutes or just until the potatoes begin to brown. Remove to a cooling rack, and sprinkle with cheese and scallions; cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

March 17—Feast of St. Patrick

St. Patrick’s Day Pistachio Cookies

(Recipe credit: Kate’s Kitchen, adapted)

Yield: 3 1/2 dozen cookies

These green cookies honor St. Patrick on his feast day when green is the go-to color. Note: Some recipes may instruct that you use a pestle to crush the nuts, but you will get a finer texture by grinding the pistachios in a blender or food processor. Adding ground cinnamon, especially homemade, to the applesauce intensifies the spiciness.

  • 1/2 ripe fresh avocado, peeled and pit removed
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup applesauce with 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Two 3.4-ounce packages instant pistachio pudding mix
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup peeled and ground unsalted pistachio nuts
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 300 to 325 degrees. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

Combine the avocado and butter in the container of a blender or food processor, and process until creamy and smooth. Add the applesauce, sugar, and milk, and process to combine. Add the egg and vanilla extract, and process to combine. Add the pudding mix, baking powder, and salt, and process again. Fold in the ground nuts, and finally, the flour, and stir to blend well. Place heaping teaspoonfuls of dough onto the baking sheets.

Bake the cookies for about 20 minutes. Watch closely and remove from the oven when the bottoms of the cookies begin to brown. Let them rest on the baking sheets for 5 to 10 minutes before removing them to a cooling rack.

image: St. Patrick detail of a stained glass window in Knock, Ireland / Thoom / Shutterstock

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A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world — from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith. Her latest work is Cooking with the Saints.

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