Tim James is cooking corned beef today and Monday.
St. Patrick’s Day weekend means celebration of Irish heritage. For James, head chef at The Local Pub and Teahouse — a Saratoga Springs restaurant that includes bunches of Irish-style dishes — there may be whiskey in the jar. But there will also be bangers on the plate.
Bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie and the ploughman’s lunch may be kitchen favorites as the long Irish weekend heralds the arrival of spring. Longtime Saratoga area chef James, who is of Irish and Ukrainian descent, talked about the appeal of dishes from the Emerald Isle.
Q: Why do some people find Irish cooking so appealing?
A: It’s simple, very simple, rustic. French food is always fancy and all crazy, not a lot of people could always do that at home. Irish cooking is simple. It’s hearty, it’s basic, it’s family food.
Q: What are the most popular Irish foods at your restaurant?
A: Our bangers and mash are incredibly popular. Fish and chips, although not Irish necessarily — they’re English — but that’s our biggest special. We do a lot of specials. Corned beef, we cook our own, Irish breakfast is a huge seller.
Q: Bangers and mash are sausage and mashed potatoes. Why are they such a big seller?
A: We use a very good product. I use a local butcher down toward the Troy area, he makes them fresh for us in-house whenever I order them. That’s a big thing. Same thing with the potatoes, done every morning. So obviously, a fresh, good home meal is preferable.
On a nice cold day, even on a nice warm summer day, a little sausage and mashed potatoes is a good, stick-to-your-ribs meal. Our sales in the summer are still very popular, you get a lot of tourists up who haven’t tried them. Everybody’s kind of heard of bangers and mash, but nobody’s really tried a decent one.
Q: How do bangers differ from other types of sausage?
A: Bangers are usually made with either cracker or corn meal, so they usually have some form. They’re not gluten-free, which some people don’t realize. Cracker meal, it’s kind of like when you’re making a meatloaf and you put bread crumbs in. Typically, the cracker meal keeps it a little dryer and gives it a lot of nice flavor, a smooth texture.
Q: Is shepherd’s pie more Irish or English?
A: That’s always a debate as to who actually did that one first. As Irish people, we like to claim it’s ours. The English people will fight you on that one tooth and nail. I’d have no problem claiming that as an Irish dish.
We actually make what’s called a cottage pie. Cottage pie is using ground beef. If you’re using ground lamb, then it’s technically a shepherd’s pie. So we kind of cheat on the name there, but if we put cottage pie on the menu, nobody would know what it was. Not too many people notice the difference. It’s simmered ground beef with vegetables. I use a little tomato in mine, a little Guinness, of course, a little Irish whiskey, a little fresh garlic. If you’re making it at home, it’s usually just topped with mashed potatoes and then baked into a crock dish. It’s baked in the oven so she’s all nice and browned up and the cheese is all melted.
Q: How about the ploughman’s lunch?
A: That actually comes from back in the day. The ploughmen out in the field, the farmers, they would take a little box of vegetables and breads and cheeses and that would be their lunch for the day. We use warm bread, some field greens, just for health.
Q: What’s an Irish breakfast like?
A: Irish breakfast is variable between regions. . . . But usually, it consists of eggs, sausage and meats. We use an Irish bacon, which is similar to a Canadian bacon in a way. We use a smoked Irish bacon, we use our bangers. We use grilled tomatoes, we throw in a little corned beef hash just to make the Americans happy, and fresh eggs.
Q: About corned beef — I know it’s not a big deal in Ireland, but Irish Americans love corned beef and cabbage dinners in March. What’s behind the fascination?
A: Honestly, I don’t know, I really don’t. I guess it’s just part of American tradition now to do that. St. Patrick’s Day to me used to be go to church, have a quiet drink at home, think about the relatives and have a small gathering at home. I’m glad they like it but it’s the same reason for “Why do you wear green?”
Q: Can you offer any tips on cooking corned beef?
A: I try not to trim mine down too much before I cook it. A lot of people swear you should cut off all the fat before you cook it, I don’t believe in that. I’ll take off some larger piece, but I leave some of the fat on. I trim it when it’s done, because you don’t want to be biting into the fat.
A lot of people make the mistake, as silly as it is, of boiling it. You don’t ever want to boil, it toughens up the meat. . . . The best thing to do is bring your water to a boil, put the meat on and just turn it on for a simmer, just long and slow. I put mine on five or six hours. Don’t ever boil it. People say “I’m in a hurry, so I’ll crank it up.” Cooking is an art — no, it’s not an art, it’s a love. You have to be patient, you can’t rush it.
Q: Irish culinary traditions always seem to take a back seat to Irish spirits and beer. Is that unfair?
A: I do find that funny. It’s the same thing with the English. Everyone’s always saying, “Oh, English cooking is disgusting.” They have a lot more interesting things. Some places, for the Irish breakfast, will use the blood sausage. We try to stay away from those because from a business standpoint, people just don’t like them.
Q: Well, just the name.
A: Blood sausage is actually very good, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s simple peasant cooking. . . . Have you tried it?
Q: Not for me.
A: I’ll make it for you one day. It will be perfectly fine.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at email@example.com.