Thursday, August 17, 2006


In an email recently from a correspondance friend who is in some financial straights she really brightened my day when she said "I have learned to do amazing things with a bag of potatoes." Which sent me right back to when I was growing up out in the sticks. We were not only poor, we were reservation poor. The brightest spot in that was the monthly "Indian Commodities" of surplus government food. Me Da, bein' Irish an' all, also knew from growing up poor and had more than a few tricks up his sleeve. So, in honor of my friend (who shall remain nameless but if you're reading I want to tell you again how much I admire you) I present traditional poor folk's food from the beautiful green isle.

3 pounds of potatoes
2 sticks of butter
1 1/4 cup hot milk
1 head of cabbage, cored and shredded
1 pound of ham or bacon (in keeping with the spirit of the dish get what ever is on sale or the cheapest)
4 scallions finely chopped
chopped parsley for garnish
freshly ground pepper

If using ham, cover with water and boil 30 to 40 minutes, drain and cool and cut into cubes. For the bacon, chop and fry till it's cooked but not crispy (except around the edges) drain well and set aside.

Steam or boil the potatoes in their skins. Peel sloppily (little bits of skin add to the charm of this dish but you don't want so much that it will discolor the dish) then cut and mash with a hand masher. Some people want all totally smooth, but I likes me some lumps here. Not choking size, but big enough to remind your teeth that they have a job to do and that these are potatoes. When you're about half way done with the mashing begin adding the hot milk and 1 stick of the butter a chunk at a time. When it's all incorporated, give it a few grinds of the pepper.

Boil the cabbage in lots of unsalted water until it changes color, then add 2 tablespoons of the remaining butter to help tenderize it. Boil for two more minutes after that, then drain it well. You can also chop it again here, but I prefer to leave it in shreds. Some people insist on mushy colcannon but I'm not one of them. I picture this dish being made by a woman who doesn't know when himself is going to tear away from the pub and she's trying to stretch the table money he left of a Friday and besides all o' tha' worra isn't she tryin' her blessed best to be keepin' track o' the wee ones who tear around like red indians don't they. . .whew! That made me tired. You get the picture? Not a lot of energy, time or effort will be expended on nuance here. This is a boil it, mash it, mix it dish.

Mix in the cabbage, bacon or ham, the scallions (you can also add some ground mace for good measure) to the potato mash, stirring gently.

To serve, put in soup bowls, make an indentation with the back of a wooden spoon and put a pat of butter in the middle.

This is good, solid, peasant food. Potatoes, cabbage, a touch of pig meat for flavor (although Mom used to skip the meat part all the time and blame some innocent but conveniently obscure saint) is all good, simple food. It will fill you up and nourish the soul too.

My kids all love this when I make it for St. Paddy's or Halloween. I love it too. I like simple poor folk's food enough that I might even do Government Macaroni and Cheese next.


For those who don't care for cabbage a substitution may be made of either kale, mustard, or collard greens. Make sure to wash them in a full sink of water and to completely remove the center stems. Increase the boiling time until they are al dente

To use leeks (which is a wonderful, unfairly neglected vegetable way out here in the West) Cut off the bulb roots at the shoulder (widest portion of the bottom bulb) and separate outer layers to make sure you get all the dirt while scrubbing with a brand new sponge. Trim off about an inch off the top. Then shred like cabbage. Increase the added butter by a tablespoon and increase the cooking time until tender.

For everyone who reports in the comments that they have tried this dish I will donate $5 to my friend's tip jar. I'm trusting in the small readership of this blog but also in you. Really make this dish, really eat it. I bet you'll really love it.


Blogger Melissa McEwan said...


I would totally love this, but Mr. Shakes hates cabbage. Or so he says. I bet if I just made this and served it to him, he'd gobble it up without a second thought!

I imagine your friend admires you very much, too. ;-)

9:08 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

you can also substitue kale or leeks for the cabbage.

9:44 AM  
Blogger maurinsky said...

I did not make your recipe, but I loves me some colcannon.

9:41 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

it is wonderful, good food.

10:07 PM  
Blogger FriĆ°vin said...

I love cabbage, but would like to try it with kale or collard greens too. I can substitute veggie ham without violating the rules, right?

2:45 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

no problem at all to even leave off the meat entirely. you, being vegetarian, wouldn't have to dream up some obscure saint to blame it on. but substituting a veggie ham or what ever else suits you wouldn't even be bending the concept.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Tata said...

When I was pregnant and totally broke, I survived on potato-cabbage-margarine combinations. I didn't know they had names!

3:47 PM  
Blogger BadTux said...

If you are using collards, it is *IMPORTANT* that you add them to *BOILING* water. Otherwise they will be bitter. Also, collards are better after they've made it through a light frost, it tenderizes the leaves a bit, but I boiled up plenty a mess of collards before then.

Collards are a member of the cabbage family, so I don't know whether the person who doesn't like cabbage could cope with them or not. Only reason we grew collards in the South where I'm from is that they could tolerate the summer heat (as long as you irrigate from time to time), unlike cabbage, which was done by the time the weather turned hot in late May. We still grew lots of cabbage, though -- even though most of it ended up as pickled cabbage relish. Easy to grow (unlike, say, lettuce or asparagus), and easy to cook up into a filling meal.


8:51 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

thanks for the technical support bt, we don't get much collard action here in the desert. we do, however, have some stands of wild asparagus in the foothills of the mogollon rim.

10:03 PM  
Blogger BadTux said...

You can often find collards at Albertson's in the Phoenix area, I don't know about up in the Flagstaff area. They are a smooth dark green leaf, unlike the bright crinkled green of mustard or the darker but jagged leaf of turnip. They look much like spinach, actually, but the leaves grow quite a bit larger and have more of a cabbage taste to them with just a hint of the spinach tang (assuming you add them to *boiling* water -- if you put them in cold water then turn the heat on, chemicals in the collard will seep out and make things bitter before they have a chance to be neutralized by the heat).

As I noted, we grew them in the South because they are weeds. If you planted collards in the early spring, you would be gathering leaves by late spring all the way until the first hard freeze of the year in late December or early January. The light freezes starting in November would only tenderize them and make them taste better. They take cold, they take heat, the only thing they don't take is drought but because they grow so well, a small bed of collards irrigated twice a week during the hot dry late summer period will keep a family of four well supplied with greens for 9 months of the year. That was nothing to sniff at for poor people in the South.

Nowdays, of course, they get food stamps and commodities so they don't bother growing their own food. Even in rural areas where there is plenty of rich soil and land, few people plant personal gardens of their own, their food comes from the grocer, not from the land. Perhaps that loss of connection with the land, that loss of connection with reality, has something to do with the derangement which has swept that part of the land. Or perhaps it's merely the same old derangement as always, the derangement of bigotry and hatred that led to the KKK, lynchings, and segregation...


11:43 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i too, regret the connection with the land that is missed. there was still a shitload of savagery and stuff out here but, almost like the bond that exists between sailors from warring nations, there is a transcendant ethic that one should not allow and enemy to die of thirst. i have always planted a truck patch and i don't even like gardening all that much. it began because we were poor and needed the extra calories. now, it's because the stuff from the garden is vastly superior, possesing flavors and textures that city bred folks don't even know they're missing. sometime in the near future i'm going to post a recipe for "fricassie of rabbits that tried to eat my spinach."

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