Every single spring, there are three sure, inescapable things that overtake Savannah: pine pollen, taxes, and St. Patrick's Day.
On the outside chance that you're experiencing your first Savannah celebration of the feast of Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, it's a community-wide affair, crossing just about every line you can think of (including, at times, the line of good taste, but that's another story).
It's one big party in which many Savannahians participate, whether we're Irish, sort-of Irish or not-remotely Irish. Picnic baskets along our parade route will be filled with everything from kosher fare to pulled pork barbecue.
You'll find lox and bagels (with green cream cheese, no less), shamrock-shaped scones and sugar cookies, green dips of every sort and description, Reuben and other corned beef sandwiches, as well as spare ribs, roast beef tenderloin, shrimp in remoulade sauce, crab salad with green onions and capers, even green hummus and, at times, Asian-style cold noodles.
Many serious hosts begin planning their menus almost before they've taken down their Christmas trees. But if, perchance, you've let it creep up on you, or you've had the picnic planning thrust upon you at the last minute, or just happen to be a world-class procrastinator, it's no cause for panic - yet.
You still have two days, which is plenty of time to plan and execute a terrific menu of Irish, sort-of Irish or not-remotely Irish fare. The easy, make-ahead menu included here is perfect both for the parade picnic hamper or for a buffet spread at home. It all can be made a day or even two days ahead, and none of it is time consuming.
I've mostly stuck to things that really are Irish, but feel free to tailor it to your own and your guests' tastes. If lamb isn't your thing, you've still got time to put a corned beef brisket into your slow cooker: it's done to perfection while you're sleeping and is great with the horseradish sauce. If you prefer a more traditional potato salad, haul out your grandmother's recipe.
You get the idea: the object is to have fun both in the making and in the eating of it, so relax (if need be with a wee drop of Irish courage), and let the party begin.
Potted Irish Whiskey Cheese
You can make this with extra-sharp white cheddar and European-style butter other than Kerrygold from Ireland, but only that cheese and butter will lend the flavor and rich, creamy texture that makes this worth having, and they're not paying me to say so.
Some contemporary recipes for potted cheese add minced scallions. It does brighten and freshen the flavor and will lend that requisite bit of Irish green to it, but unfortunately it also shortens its shelf life. If you choose to add scallions, wait until just before serving to do so.
Without the scallions, potted whiskey cheese will keep for weeks, if not months, well-covered in the refrigerator. Once you add them, use it up within a couple of days.
Makes about 2 cups
8 ounces aged Kerrygold Irish cheddar, reserve cheddar, Dubliner or other extra-sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
4 ounces (8 tablespoons) salted Kerrygold Irish butter, softened
1 tablespoon prepared English or Dijon mustard
Â¼ cup Irish whiskey
4 small slender scallions, washed, trimmed and minced, optional, for serving
Crackers, for serving
1. Combine cheese, butter and mustard in bowl of food processor and process until smooth, or combine in mixing bowl and whip with electric mixer at medium-high speed until smooth.
2. Whip in whiskey a tablespoon at a time. Taste and adjust salt, adding a tiny pinch or two as needed. Transfer to crock, cover and let sit at least 1 hour or refrigerate if made more than a few hours ahead. Let warm to room temperature at least 30 minutes before serving.
3. If liked, just before serving, fold in minced scallions and stir until evenly mixed. Serve with crackers of your choice.
Irish-style Butterflied Leg of Lamb
From the picnic hamper, serve this with rolls and horseradish sauce (recipe follows) and let each guest make his or her own sandwiches. From the buffet, offer the sauce on the side.
You can bone the lamb yourself, but it's much easier to get a boned roast and butterfly it: lay it fat side down on a work surface and cut through at the joints in the muscles, then flatten.
I actually prefer lamb roasted to medium, a little more done than it's usually cooked nowadays. Adjust the time to suit your own tastes and keep in mind that boned and butterflied lamb cooks more quickly than a whole leg, so watch carefully if you want it rare to medium-rare.
4 Â½ to 5 pounds boned leg of lamb, butterflied
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
4 large cloves garlic, crushed, peeled and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons prepared English or Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons Irish whiskey
4 tablespoons Irish butter, melted but cooled
Â½ cup finely chopped mint
Â½ cup finely chopped parsley
1. Wipe lamb dry with paper towels, trim excess fat and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle garlic with salt and crush to paste with side of knife blade, mix with mustard and beat in whiskey. Beat in butter and brush over lamb on all sides. Cover with herbs, pressing into surface. Rub bottom of large roasting pan with butter and put in lamb, fat side up. Let sit 30 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 450 F. Sear lamb in oven 25-30 minutes, or until browned. Reduce temperature to 375 F and roast until done to your taste, about 20-to-35 minutes more for medium.
3. Remove meat to warm platter, cover with foil and let rest 20 minutes before carving. Or if serving cold, leave uncovered, cool completely and wrap well in foil. Refrigerate until needed.
Fresh Horseradish Sauce
This lovely cream-based horseradish sauce is beautiful with any cold roasted meat and makes a very nice dipping sauce for shrimp or spread for cold-smoked salmon or gravlax.
Makes about 2 cups
1 Â½ cups heavy cream
â…” cup prepared horseradish, or to taste
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Pinch dry English mustard (such as Colman's)
1. Lightly whip cream until holding soft peaks.
2. Fold in horseradish, vinegar, mustard, sugar and salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Can be made a day ahead.
New Potato Salad with Sour Cream, Dill and Horseradish Dressing
3 pounds small red-skinned new potatoes
1 cup sour cream
Â½ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish, or to taste
1 tablespoon prepared English mustard or Dijon mustard
1 rounded tablespoon chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1 rounded tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
About 1 bunch scallions (see step 2)
About 2-3 tablespoons dry white wine or vermouth
About 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or cider vinegar
6 slices thick cut bacon, cooked and crumbled, optional
1. Scrub potatoes under cold running water. Put in large pot and add water to cover by 1 inch. Remove potatoes, cover and bring water to rolling boil over high heat. Return potatoes to pot, cover and bring to boil. Adjust heat to gentle boil and cook until potatoes are just tender, about 20-30 minutes depending on size of potatoes. Drain and let cool barely enough to handle.
2. Meanwhile, blend together sour cream, mayonnaise, horseradish, mustard, dill and parsley until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper, keeping in mind potatoes will also be seasoned. Let stand at least 15-20 minutes, taste and add horseradish and mustard if needed to suit. Wash scallions under cold running water. Pat dry, trim and slice enough to make 1 cup.
3. While potatoes are still very warm, cut into bite-sized chunks and put in large bowl. Sprinkle with wine, toss and let stand 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle with vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Toss and let cool.
4. Add dressing and scallions to potatoes and gently fold in. Cover and refrigerate if possible for 4 hours or overnight. Garnish if liked with crumbled bacon, or instead of using bacon as garnish, it can also be folded into salad just before serving. Garnish with more dill and parsley and serve.
Cold Asparagus with Herb Mayonnaise
For Herb Mayonnaise:
1 large egg
1 Â½ tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
1 teaspoon salt
1 large sprig each fresh parsley, rosemary, and basil (do not used dried herbs), tough stems removed and discarded
Â¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup vegetable oil
For the Asparagus:
2 pounds asparagus
1. To make mayonnaise: Put egg, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, salt, herbs and 1 tablespoon olive oil in bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Process 1 minute.
2. If processor feed-tube pusher has pin hole in bottom, put in place, turn on machine, and with machine running, pour oil into pusher and let dribble into egg mixture. If there is no pin hole, add olive oil in slow, very thin stream through feed tube. Add other oil in thin stream until incorporated and emulsified.
3. Process about 15 seconds more, or until mayonnaise is quite stiff. Transfer to a storage bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight, if possible, to allow flavors to blend and mellow before using.
4. Prepare asparagus: trim cut tips, cut to uniform size and peel tough stems with vegetable peeler. Prepare basin of ice water. Put enough water to cover asparagus in deep, wide skillet that will hold in no more than two layers. Bring to boil over medium high heat.
5. Stir in small handful of salt and carefully add asparagus. Cover and return to boiling, uncover and cook 1-2 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Drain and drop into prepared ice water. Gently toss until cold. Drain and pat dry. Asparagus can be made several hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.
Chocolate Mint Cream Cheese Brownies
An old Savannah St. Patrick's Day staple that never goes out of style. From my book "Damon Lee Fowler's New Southern Baking." (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
Makes 2 dozen
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
Â¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 Â¼ cups sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Â¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound (2 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, softened
Â¼ cup green creme de menthe liqueur
1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch by 13-inch sheet cake pan. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt onto sheet of wax paper.
2. Put chocolate and butter in saucepan and melt over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Pour into mixing bowl. Stir in sugar and beat in 4 eggs one at a time. Stir in vanilla, then gather up wax paper and pour in flour mixture. Mix until batter is smooth.
3. Beat cream cheese with mixer at medium speed until fluffy. Beat in remaining 2 eggs, Â¼ cup sugar, 2 tablespoons flour and liqueur until smooth. Pour half of chocolate batter into baking pan and level with spatula. Spoon cream cheese batter evenly over and spoon in remaining chocolate batter over top. Make marble-like swirls through batter with tip of knife blade.
4. Bake in center of oven about 30 minutes, or until set but still soft. Cool in pan about 15 minutes and then cut into uniform squares.
The secrets to great Irish coffee
I've published this before, but considering how much bad Irish coffee one routinely encounters, it never hurts to be reminded of how to make it well.
â€¢ Start with good, dark or medium-dark roasted coffee, brewed extra strong. Weak coffee can't stand up to being laced with whiskey and its bland flavor practically disappears.
â€¢ Use good whiskey. I'm a Jameson's man, myself, but wouldn't turn my nose up at a drop of Murphy's or Tullamore Dew.
â€¢ The proper cream topping for this drink is not whipped to firm peaks, but only until it's thick enough to float on the top. It should be quite thick, but still be pourable.
6 shots Irish whiskey
6 rounded teaspoons raw sugar (or to taste)
About 5-6 cups hot, strong-brewed dark-roasted coffee
1 Â¼ cups heavy cream
1. Heat 6 mugs with boiling water, drain and wipe dry. Add whiskey. To blunt alcoholic sharpness, carefully ignite whiskey with long match and swirl in mug until flame extinguishes. Use care: mug will be very hot. You may omit flaming for stronger drink.
2. Add sugar and stir. Fill mug to within Â¾-inch of top with coffee and stir until sugar dissolves.
3. Using whisk, lightly whip cream until just beginning to thicken, but still pourable. Pour or spoon a thick layer of cream over top of each coffee and serve immediately.