Café Paradiso is a Cork institution. Between gracefully winning awards, being listed as an ‘icon’ in the Bridgestone Restaurant Guide, and serving movie star Cillian Murphy when he’s in town, the restaurant produces some of the tastiest dishes in the city - a combination of the freshest ingredients from local suppliers, and innovative recipes from chef and owner Denis Cotter.
We especially applaud him for his gentle crusade to celebrate the humble, but ever-delicious staples of the traditional Irish diet. Here, he explains his love of potato mash, and offers a brilliant modern twist on vegetable mash in the recipe for wild garlic mash with grilled asparagus below.
One of the more unusual chapters in my new book is given over to a variation on a theme that has recently become something of an anthem of mine – the spud. Not just the spud, but the idea of making a bowl of mash the focus of dinner rather than a side show.
Mash has long been my favourite comfort food, the one I turn to when afflicted with sore head or sorry heart. That’s not to say that it’s a good idea to go around making recipes – or chapters of them, for that matter – from your favourite hangover food. I let this one brew a long time before tentatively talking about it, and then actually feeding it to other people in the full of their health. I shouldn’t have waited so long; everyone loves mash.
Where and when I grew up, there was only one conversation around the dinner table, and that was the potato. Okay, there was also religion, politics, the state of the roads and plain old gossip, but only after the crucial issues of where you got your spuds, how good they were, and which variety you were using now.
There were the regional and seasonal variations to consider: best variety for good mash? Proportion of milk and butter to potato? Do you go French and use cream? Heat the milk before mashing? Steam the spuds or boil in their skins? (I did a blind test on that last one. While I prefer to steam, the boil-in-skins method won the test. However, not by enough of a margin to justify the scorched hands suffered by peeling hot potatoes.)
I began to think about how other cultures have built up a sense of respect, and sometimes even an air of mystique, around their simple staple dishes. I’m thinking of the exalted Italian peasant rice dish, aka risotto. Then there’s pasta, Indian dal, Japanese vinegar-soaked rice, Mexican avocado mole – nice dishes all, but no match for a bowl of mash, right?
Mash is slowly curating a mystique that will suggest it is a dish fit for international restaurants, and that the best mash is found in renowned areas of Ireland, from recipes passed down through generations of mashers. Once Ireland re-adopts the potato, it’s a short step to creating dishes from it – and mash, especially – that will have visitors flocking here to eat in renowned destination restaurants and learn to make for themselves. And, of course, we can sell millions of recipes books to replace the pasta, curry and risotto books the world will be shunting aside.
The essence of turning mash into a satisfying and balanced meal is to serve it with a side dish that adds contrast of flavour and texture. My prototype would be a simple mash with greens – try broccoli, sprouts, cabbage or green beans – with lentils, cherry tomatoes, garlic, chillies and enough olive oil to make a rich gravy to be mopped up with the mash. Add some grated cheese on top for the full ‘risotto’ effect, but no need to buy Italian, there are plenty of great Irish hard cheeses.
The recipe below is a seasonal variation on mash as main course, taken from ‘for the love of food’.
Wild garlic mash with grilled asparagus and puy lentils in tarragon & citrus
For the Mash:
1200g /42oz floury potatoes, peeled and chopped in large chunks
150mls/5 fl oz milk
100g/3.5 oz butter
4 tablespoons chopped wild garlic
1tablespoon olive oil
2 medium shallots, finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
For the lentils:
60g/2 oz puy lentils, cooked
2 tablespoons butter
rind of 1 orange and 1 lemon, finely grated
juice of ½ lemon
1 tablespoon orange juice
12-16 spears of asparagus
- Steam the potatoes until soft and drain them.
- Put the milk and butter in the pan, warm gently until the butter softens, then add the potatoes and mash.
- Stir in the wild garlic and season with salt and pepper.
- In a small pan, heat one tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Fry the shallots for a minute, then add the tarragon and cook for a few seconds more.
- To prepare the lentils, mix with the butter, citrus rind and juice. Wait for the butter to melt, then remove the pan from the heat, and season with salt and pepper.
- At the same time, turn a grill on to high heat, or heat a griddle pan over high heat on the stove.
- Snap the ends off the asparagus spears. Drizzle the spears with olive oil and salt and grill them for a few minutes, until just tender and lightly coloured.
- On warm plates, serve up portions of the mash, with 3-4 asparagus spears beside each, and a spoon of the lentils and their pan juices drizzled over.
Denis’s book ‘for the love of food’ is available, signed by the man himself, from the Cafe Paradiso website.