Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back..." - Traditional Irish blessing

The giant Babe family Saint Patrick’s Day party is almost upon us.

H’s aunt hosts the shindig in her tiny little Cape Cod. It’s usually wall-to-wall people, and if it’s warm enough – and even if it’s not, frankly – people hang on the front and back porches, and linger on the sidewalk in front of the house. EVERYONE wears green, or shamrocks, or a t-shirt with some cutesy “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” sort of sentiment. (I wore orange for years, but no one ever got the joke.)

The kids are banished to the basement, or the backyard if it’s nice out, where they run amok, and only emerge to stuff their faces, or until the live music starts. A boombox plays canned Irish music but later in the evening, the oldsters croon “DannyBoy” and “Four Green Fields,” or H takes his guitar in hand, obligingly playing everything from tear-jerking Irish classics, to Springsteen and Husker Du, to Wiggles and Raffi tunes for the kids.

Sometime during the night we all line up and gamely stumble our way through a few hands of a reel, or energetically mangle a Keel Row or the Siege of Ennis. H’s sister and cousin learned step and ceili dancing years ago as children; I met H at a ceili dance; and our young cousin-once-removed is a competitive step dancer who will do a hornpipe and some hard-shoe dancing for us, in the itsy-bitsy space cleared for her in the living room.

The liquid offerings run the gamut, from IC Light to Guinness, complemented by a complete selection of hard liquor and soft drinks. The food is an even more dizzying array of convenience, traditional, and experimental cooking. There is always the compulsory ham, and plenty of cabbage and potatoes. There are always shamrock-shaped Eat-n-Park cookies. There is always soda bread, often several different types (everyone is devoted to their own recipe). You can always count on H’s younger cousins to bring slightly more healthful if avant-garde (for the Irish) things like strawberry-gorgonzola salad, or spinach-and-red-pepper pasta. Otherwise, you bring what you want, and it almost all gets eaten eventually, except for the year that a just-legal-age far-flung relation drank too much, puked in the taco dip, and passed out. We all lost our appetites after that. (I never eat the taco dip anyway, I thought it was revolting to start with, but I know that some family members have never looked at it the same way since.)

People come and go all evening long, taking kids home, parents switching off babysitting duties, or diehards party- or bar-hopping. You can invite whomever you want since there are usually so many people that one or two more won’t make a bit of difference. The first couple years we were married, H and I missed most of the party, since H’s band was an Irish rock band and much in demand the week of St Pat’s. A paying gig always preempts a gratis gig, and no way was I going without H, not then, not pre-kids. But once my kids came along, it was fun to go for a bit and have all the old ladies fawn over the babies, and brush up on my rusty sevens-and-threes and jig steps. Now we wouldn’t dream of missing it, and H will coerce one of his bandmates to come along and play guitars with him.

Except this year – this year Aunt K is going to Las Vegas. We think she just grew tired of the craziness and mess, and booked herself a flight to Nevada, leaving tomorrow and not returning until next week sometime. We all stood around and scratched our heads – figuratively, mostly – and within moments H and I declared, “We’ll take St Patrick’s!” God certainly knows we will never wrest Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving from my mother-in-law’s steely grip; why not take Saint Pat’s and do it up right? We’d hosted a small kids’ party two years ago, in the afternoon after the parade – why not just extend that into the evening and invite hordes of people, and move the party to our giant-if-decrepit house? Our hardwood floors, exposed by rolling up carpets, are perfect for dancing, and while the backyard is indeed a mud pit, there’s always the alley for the kids to play in. Why the hell not?

Unfortunately we will have to give the parade a miss this year, since Primo has a hockey game that morning, but we are geared up for the party, counting down till Saturday. I have to go do the grocery shopping today, and buy decorations (or I should say, MORE decorations), and H has been squirreling away cases of Guinness.

My dilemma: what to feed the fifty or so people who are going to come and go all evening long? It has to be enough to feed a crowd, easy to handle, and filling and starchy enough to soak up all the beer. At the childrens’ party I served shepherd’s pie, but that’s way too labor-intensive for the amount I’d need. My solution is to make several giant batches of my mother’s beef stew, doctored up with Guinness and extra potatoes for that Irish spin, and several loaves of Margaret Murray’s soda bread. (Margaret Murray is a matriarch of the city’s Irish community, and the goddess of soda bread.)

Cheap and easy and filling; kids like it, adults like it, you can’t go wrong.
Enables you to leap tall buildings in a single bound – or at least to drink a few Guinness without passing out.



Mom’s Newly-Irish Beef Stew

2 lbs. stewing beef
flour, salt, pepper mixed in a bag or closed container
1 TBSP melted fat (bacon or Crisco)
¾ cup (about two stalks) thinly sliced celery
1 medium onion, chopped finely
4-6 cups hot water
4 beef bouillon cubes
1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce
5 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1” cubes
6 carrots, peeled and cut into 1” chunks

Cut beef into 2”-ish cubes.
Drop into flour mix and shake well.
In a heavy, high-sided skillet or Dutch oven (I use the Dutch oven), slowly brown meat in melted fat for 15-20 minutes, turning to avoid sticking, adding more fat if necessary. (The meat just needs to be lightly browned.)
Add water, bouillon cubes, celery, onion, Worcestershire sauce, carrots, and several healthy handfuls of basil (I used dried) and bring pot to a boil.
(This is where I intend to add about half a can of Guinness.)
Cover, and simmer for 2 hours. Add more water if/when necessary and stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
After two hours, add the potatoes, cover, and cook another hour.
You can serve immediately, but honestly it’s better after sitting for a day or so.


Margaret Murray’s Soda Bread

3 cups flour
1 TBSP baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 TBSP sugar
1 cup raisins
3 TBSP butter or vegetable oil (I use oil)
1 egg, beaten
1 ½ cups buttermilk

Sift the dry ingredients together.
Add the raisins.
If you use the butter, cut it in now, until the mixture is coarse; if you use the oil, add it in next step.
Mix liquids together in small bowl.
Make a hole in center of dry ingredients and add the liquids.
With a wooden spoon, start at the center and mix in the dry ingredients, moving the spoon in the same direction the whole time.
The mixture should come together to form a ball and not stick to the sides. You can always add more flour or more buttermilk. Put a little flour on the ball and knead by turning just once or twice.
Turn bowl upside down and empty the ball into a greased iron skillet or 9-inch cake pan.
Flatten it out, not quite to the edge of the pan, and make a cross on top (not too deep).
Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees and let it cook 45 minutes. You have to keep an eye on it. As Margaret Murray says, “Use your head.”

This is very similar to my scone recipe; in fact, you can make it into scones by cutting the disk into eighths, or by patting it out to about 1-inch thickness and cutting out rounds with a glass or biscuit cutter. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 375 for 5 minutes.


Sarah Louise said...

What a feast it will be! Sounds like fun. This post really brings in such a homey feeling, of bringing people together...and today it is so Irish out there--warm and wet wet wet.

May the road rise to you, indeed!

BabelBabe said...

test comment, per Joke....

Joke said...

I am LMAO at that orange thing. LMAO even more at the fact it went under the collective radar.

Perhaps you could bring a couple of bags of oranges and nickname one "William" and the other "Mary?"


Kathy said...

When you said you wore orange for years, I laughed out loud. Maybe they did get it but chose to think, "Oh that bb! She's so crazy she'll do anything." So they chose not to comment on it. If that's not the case, they have no sense of humor at all. The stew and soda bread sounds perfect.

blackbird said...

Sounds like fine feasting will be had by all...
we always joke about wearing orange -
just joke though.

Velma said...

I always go for crockpot stuff (usually chili) for the big gatherings. The stew and the soda bread sound great...I'll probably be boiling up some corned beef and cabbage here at home. I kind of wish we were having a big party, but we'll probably sit around and watch our annual St. Pat's double feature: The Matchmaker/The Quiet Man.

Caro said...

I bet you throw a heck of a party.

The party-hosting gene passed me by along with the house-keeping gene.

Your stew sounds delicious.

Rogue Librarian said...

Man I would totally make that stew for my St. Patties day party, but as the people I hang out with most these days are vegetarians (Swiss Miss, but I’m gonna break her of that eventually) or Hindu and can’t eat beef, I may have to find an alternative dish.

By the way I practically still have a hangover from the Hurricane party you threw oh so many years ago.

Suse said...

Whoa, you really did get the party-throwing gene, didn't you? I deeply admire you.

And I have to tell you that that blessing (May the road rise with you, may the wind be always at your back) is Son #3's class goodbye verse. They sing it at the end of every school day. (Steiner/Waldorf children in class 2 have a Celtic theme throughout the year). He can play it on his recorder too.

Katy said...

I just wanted to report that if you freeze half the loaf and then defrost it in the oven at 350 wrapped in foil, it survives very well. I shall make it again!

P.S. If you use whey leftover from cheesemaking, you need more flour. Buttermilk must be thicker?