World Chefs: Cathal Armstrong returns to Irish roots in first cookbook

NEW YORK Tue Apr 22, 2014 11:11am EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Dublin-born Cathal Armstrong dug deep into his Gaelic roots for inspiration for his first book "My Irish Table," which includes recipes and stories about his journey as a chef.

Critics have praised Armstrong, who immigrated to the United States when he was 20, for his creative and healthy dishes that highlight vegetables and meat raised in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

With his Irish upbringing and classic European training, Armstrong takes a more global approach in the kitchen. At his fine-dining restaurant, Eve, in Alexandria, Virginia his menu often displays an Asian flair.

Armstrong, 44, spoke to Reuters about his career, the book that he co-wrote with food writer David Hagedorn, and the renaissance in Irish cooking.

Q: Do you think Irish food is misunderstood?

A: The biggest misunderstanding about Irish food is that it is limited to two to three dishes that are boiled until they are beyond recognition to what the food originally was. There was a reason for that. Ireland was oppressed for hundreds of years by a neighboring country. Because of its history, it had very limited access to raw materials widely available in the country.

It has a moderate, temperate climate. We grow green grass 365 days of the year. We graze cattle and sheep 365 days of the year. We could grow crops 365 days of the year. It is a tiny island surrounded on all sides by rich seas with the best oysters, the best lobsters you could find and Dublin Bay prawns,

which is a langoustine that is the most luxurious food you could find anywhere. So she has all the raw materials available to make the most exquisite food.

Q: Is there a revived interest in Irish cuisine?

A: In the early to mid-1990s, a resurgence happened when people stopped immigrating and people returned from the continent and brought home their experiences. That's when a modern Irish cuisine happened with some of the ingredients indigenous to the island.

Q: How did you modernize familiar Irish dishes in the book?

A: I wanted to illustrate the difference between braising and boiling the hell out of something. Because the climate is mild there all the time, there are a lot of dishes there which are traditionally braised dishes.

When those dishes are cooked properly and the meat is browned properly and delicately cooked with all these interesting flavors, these complex layers of flavors could meld together. You could get some extraordinary, comfortable, warm dishes that make you feel good.

I also want to illustrate to the extent that it's possible the rich seafood Ireland has and how to handle that seafood properly and purchase seafood properly ... I also want to illustrate the fact that we have a broad range of vegetables. I talk at length about potatoes which is obviously a big part of Irish culture but there were so many other things my father grew in the garden. There is more to Irish vegetables than spuds.

Q: You've lived in America for more than two decades. How do you define your cooking?

A: I would define my cooking as modern American. The only problem with that label is that like America itself, it's such a broad label that really opens the door to anything ... I have dishes on the menu which are very heavily influenced by Korean food because in recent years I have been participating in Taekwondo and learned about the Korean culture and language ...

My wife is Filipino so I bring some of the Filipino influences into some of my dishes. I think out of any cuisine on the planet modern American allows you to do whatever you want to do.

Q: Which dish reminds you of Ireland?

A: Shepherd's pie. My parents made it with ground beef. To me that doesn't really follow since a shepherd herds sheep so I switched it to lamb.

Q: How has the dining scene in Washington and the nearby northern Virginia area evolved in the last 10 years?

A: When I started in fine dining in 1993, there were three or four fine-dining restaurants that are competitive on a national level as far as quality in what they were offering. In the last 10 years, there are probably 50 restaurants that you would say are as good as any bistros in the country or as good as any Italian restaurant in the country or as good as any Indian restaurant in the country.

Q: What is your "go to" ingredient at home?

A: Sriracha sauce (served in the U.S. and made from chilies). If you have a piece of leftover roast pork and you get home late at night and you are hungry, you could put it between a couple of pieces of bread, slather some mayonnaise and put a good dash of Sriracha.

Irish Soda Bread (Makes 1 one-pound loaf)

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, diced, plus more for serving

2-1/4 cups buttermilk

Make the dough: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly dust a baking sheet with flour. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Using your fingertips, rub the butter pieces into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, pour in the buttermilk, and work it into the dough with your hands just until it is incorporated. Do not over mix the dough.

Bake the bread: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form it into a round loaf about 8 inches in diameter. Place it on the baking sheet and, using a sharp knife, cut a cross into its top 1/2 inch deep. Bake for 1 hour, until well browned. Transfer the bread to a wire rack and let it rest for at least 20 minutes before serving with lots of butter.

(Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Patricia Reaney and Chizu Nomiyama)

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