When Ireland native Mike Callaghan thinks of traditional Irish food, corned beef and cabbage doesn’t make the list.
The chef’s recommendations for an authentic St. Paddy’s Day meal are simple — and heavy on the meat and potatoes.
Callaghan was born in Brittas, a small town southwest of Dublin. He has lived and cooked in Billings for nearly 20 years, and he recently took time to share some traditional Irish recipes fit for an authentic Irish meal.
Fish and inexpensive cuts of beef are cooked with beef, chicken or vegetable broth. Beef cuts he listed included brisket, belly meat and ground beef as well as a lot of organ meat: liver, kidneys, tongue, sweet breads.
“Corned beef and cabbage, it’s not eaten in Ireland on St. Paddy’s Day,” Callaghan said.
Corned beef became a popular export of Ireland in the 17th century because Irish salt was taxed at a favorably low rate, making it appealing to British beef importers, according to a 2013 article in Smithsonian Magazine. But many Irish people were unable to afford the meat.
Cheaper American meat became popular with Irish immigrants, who began purchasing and consuming meat, including American-style corned beef, from kosher butchers, according to the article.
Concerns about bacteria and parasites from cow manure fertilizer used in earlier generations created an emphasis on overcooking for food safety, Callaghan said.
“My mother used to say, ‘If it’s not cooked to death, it’s not safe to eat,’” he said.
Additionally, Callaghan said root vegetables were popular because of their easy storage in root cellars.
He said a typical Irish dinner goes heavy on the potatoes, sometimes serving them up three different ways.
“One could be mashed, one could be roasted and one could be boiled,” he said.
Roasted potatoes are usually roasted with meat drippings, “so they’re horribly, horribly bad for you, but, oh my God, it’s like candy,” he said.^p
Callaghan recently prepared a dish of Irish boiling bacon.
Irish boiling bacon is a pork loin cut, like Canadian bacon, complete with a belly cut of bacon fat, seasoned, wrapped and held in twine. The Irish traditionally boil ham, as opposed to the North American method of smoking the meat, he said.
Served with an onion-parsley cream sauce, Callaghan plated the Irish boiling bacon with creamy colcannon potatoes and buttered heaps of carrots and cabbage — a vegetable he said is probably second to the potato in terms of popularity.
He said the items on the plate should be combined on-fork or mixed on the plate for an ideal combination of flavors and textures.
His drink of choice may surprise, as well: Guinness would be too heavy for the meal, Callaghan said. It would be best complimented by ales or lagers like Smitwhick’s or Harp.
For dessert, Callaghan served up a bread and butter pudding with whiskey-soaked “drunken raisins” and a flavorful whiskey tea sauce.
It’s a more upscale variation of “goody,” a dish he grew up looking forward to at the end of every month when is father received his paycheck. His mother would cook up a mix of bread, warm milk, sugar and raisins, and chocolate chips were added on special occasions.
The bread used for goody was often stale, Callaghan said, but he and his nine siblings looked forward to it as a break from their daily servings of starches and vegetables consisting of root vegetables, potatoes, soda bread scones and, when available, small helpings of meat.
Another traditional food Callaghan served was a Dublin coddle, a stew-like dish featuring a traditional Irish garlic sausage, bacon, onion, cubed potatoes and chicken broth. Drippings from the meats give the dish a savory, comfort-food flavor. It often is served to fishermen returning to the docks in the early morning or bar patrons sobering up late at night, Callaghan said.
A new home
Callaghan came to the United States in 1985, having earned his European chef’s certification in London. Despite a promising academic career that provided scholarship opportunities in engineering, Callaghan chose a culinary school education in cooking and hospitality.
He lived with a friend for eight months in the Bronx in New York, before eventually moving down to Philadelphia. There he became the executive chef at Firehouse Jack’s during a period when the restaurant was ranked among the top 10 in America by “Food & Wine,” “Bon Appetit” and “Gourmet” magazines.
Callaghan decided to move to Montana after he learned a co-worker in Philadelphia was moving to Billings to open a restaurant and suggested Callaghan join him. The co-worker, Bill Honaker, opened Walkers Grill, where Callaghan was head chef for four years.
“I’d never even heard of Billings, Montana,” Callaghan said. “I went around, toured Red Lodge, Columbus, Absarokee. I said ‘Gosh, this is just really cool from living in the city with nine million people.’”
After leaving Walkers, Callaghan worked for 17 years for Food Services of America as their director of business development and as a corporate chef, doing menu consultation, food safety training and cooking instruction.
He then ventured out on his own to form Callaghan Enterprises, a local business that performs similar services in addition to catering and offering cooking classes.
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States can be baffling to the Irishman.
Roving bands of green-clad and green-beer-soaked Irish-for-a-day crowds dominate U.S. celebrations.
In contrast, March 17 is “a day of reverence” comparable to Thanksgiving in America, Callaghan said. The day begins with mass and includes a family meal much like the one Callaghan plans to serve to neighbors this year.
Though he visits Ireland, where much of his family remains, roughly every year and a half, Callaghan hasn’t had a St. Patrick’s day in Ireland for years. But he remembers his mother traditionally cutting shamrocks from a backyard patch for the family to pin to their breasts before morning mass.
“She loves Montana because it reminds her of Ireland,” Callaghan said. “That’s why I live here.”