The tasty, healthy benefits of my favorite St. Patrick’s Day staples

Although I’m only Irish by marriage, I always look forward to celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by enjoying a few delicious traditional dishes that remind me of the Emerald Isle.

Of course, most people think about making corned beef and cabbage on St. Patty’s Day. But there’s more to good Irish cuisine than that. And not only does Irish food taste great, but it’s good for you too…

Food from the ancient Emerald Isle

The diet in ancient Ireland included a variety of healthy, whole foods — including oats, barley, dairy products, root vegetables, wild herbs, fruits, and berries. Later, apple orchards appeared, primarily for making hard ciders.

The original Irish diet also relied on meat — namely deer (venison). But beginning in the 8th century, as wildlife became scarce, the country began gravitating more to domestically raised pork.

They also enjoyed locally caught shellfish, herring, white fish, and wild salmon as seasonal delicacies. Many Irish folk smoked or salted their fish for later consumption during the leaner times of the year. Salmon, specifically, was said to have magical powers. In fact, wishing someone the “health of the salmon” meant you were granting them a long, fortunate life.

Historic, archaeological, and folkloric records suggest Ireland’s first cows were probably brought by boat from mainland Europe more than 6,000 years ago. And in the times since then, dairy has been a mainstay of the Irish diet. Even today, the country is well known for its rich, golden-hued butter and other dairy products.

Originally, Irish butter, cheese, cream, and milk products got their signature golden tones from the carotenoid-rich grass, which cows in Ireland consumed during the late spring and early summer.

So, depending on the season, the Irish regularly enjoyed fresh milk, fresh or old curds, sour cream (“thick milk”), butter, buttermilk, and a sour drink made from whey and water. (It turns out “curds and whey” is more than just a line in a nursery rhyme…)

Then, starting in the 12th century, the Irish began combining butter with other foods, such as garlic and onions. They also made “bog butter” by placing butter deep in a bog, for extended periods of time. The butter absorbed the bog’s peaty flavors and was preserved by its tannic acids.

Barley and oats also grew well in medieval Ireland. And they remained popular because they could be stored for extended periods. Irish cooks often added them to soups and stews, or made them into porridge.

Other grains, such as wheat, were harder to come by in Ireland. For one, they didn’t grow well in Ireland’s wet and rocky terrain. Secondly, wheat was regarded as a luxury of the aristocracy. In fact, Britain landlords restricted its consumption and shipped most of it to England, which ended up adding to the devastation caused by Ireland’s potato famine in 1848.

Of course, even despite this devastating famine, it’s hard to imagine the traditional Irish diet without the potato…

Potatoes take some time to catch on

Spanish explorers returning from South America first introduced potatoes to Europe in the mid-1500s. But they weren’t an instant hit.

Uncooked, the strange new food was bitter. And the pious rejected them since they grew underground in “Satan’s realm.” In fact, Great Britain let their original “colony” — Ireland — test them first. And Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have first planted them on his absentee landlord estate near Cork, Ireland, in the late 1500s.

But it wasn’t until the late 1700s and early 1800s that potatoes caught on as a viable food source in the rest of Europe. And that change occurred because of French agronomist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737 – 1813).

A French officer in the Seven Years War, Parmentier first came across the lowly potato as a thrifty food source in prison, after his capture by the Prussians. Later, in the early 1800s as a Quartermaster in Napoleon’s Army, Parmentier remembered the “lowly” prison food. And he convinced the Emperor that potatoes could serve as a nourishing, portable food for the French Army — thus starting the lasting association of potatoes with the army.

I’ll tell you all the surprising nutritional benefits of potatoes in Thursday’s Daily Dispatch. But in the meantime, here is one of my family’s favorite potato recipes. You can even put it on the traditional St. Patty’s Day menu — along with corned beef and cabbage.

Potatoes Parmentier


  • 1 1/2 lb. of potatoes
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste


  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  • With the skins on, cut the potatoes into small cubes.
  • Season the diced potatoes with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Melt butter on stovetop in an oven-ready pan.
  • Add potatoes to pan and coat them with butter.
  • Transfer pan to oven.
  • Bake for about 25 minutes, turning occasionally.
  • Remove pan from oven when potatoes are golden.
  • Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
  • Serves four.

I hope you enjoy this dish from my family recipe box. If you decide to try it, feel free to post a photo on my Facebook page. Enjoy!

You can also learn a lot more about the nutritional aspects of potatoes and other traditional Irish fare in the March issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter.

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