Mashed Potatoes and Kale Flavor this Traditional Irish Dish
When the topic is Irish food, what do you think of first? If you live in the US, the answer is likely Corned Beef. With cabbage, of course. Second? Probably potatoes (who hasn’t heard of the Irish Potato Famine?).
Potatoes have been an important food in Ireland since the late 17th century, and historically formed the foundation for many a meal. Equally important historically are cabbage and kale (kale is actually a form of cabbage). These two foods would appear on most tables many times each week. So of course someone eventually decided to combine them — in a dish that became known as Colcannon.
Colcannon mixes mashed potatoes with kale (or cabbage). For extra flavor, many cooks add onions, leeks, or scallions. It’s a hearty dish that’s almost a meal in itself (and at times it no doubt was). Today most of us would probably serve it as a side dish. It pairs well with almost any meat, but particularly shines with ham, sausages, or corned beef.
Almost everyone will love this dish! After all, mashed potatoes are a near universal favorite, and the addition of kale adds terrific healthy flavor. Best of all, this is a pretty simple recipe to make.
So with St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner (a week from today), maybe it’s time to try Colcannon. Once you taste it, you may contemplate moving to Ireland. I may join you.
Although many recipes for Colcannon use cabbage, I think kale tastes (and looks) better. So that’s how I make it. But in the Notes, I include instructions for substituting cabbage if that’s what you prefer.
Colcannon is one of those “concept” dishes where exact measurements aren’t that important — you can vary things quite a bit to suit your individual taste.
This recipe takes about 10 minutes of prep time, plus another 20 minutes or so cooking time (some of it unattended). So figure 30 to 35 minutes total to make this dish.
This recipe yields 6 generous side-dish servings. Leftovers keep a few days in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
- ~2½ pounds potatoes (use whatever kind you like; I prefer russets or Yukon Golds)
- salt for seasoning potato cooking water
- 1 bunch kale, cleaned, stemmed, and chopped (generous 4 cups)
- 1 bunch scallions (you can substitute one medium leek)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter (you’ll be using additional butter for flavoring and serving; see below)
- ~1 cup milk or cream (higher fat milk or cream improves the flavor, but you can use skim milk if you prefer)
- additional butter for flavoring mashed potatoes and garnishing the finished dish (to taste, but traditionally you’d use a ¼ pound or more; see Steps 8 and 9 of the Procedure)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Scrub the potatoes, peel them, and cut into chunks of 1 to 2 inches square. Make sure the chunks are roughly uniform in size (so they’ll all take the same amount of time to cook).
- Place potato chunks in a large pot filled with cold water (enough to cover the potatoes), add salt to flavor the water (a teaspoon for every quart), and put the pot on the stovetop. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until potatoes easily yield when you insert a fork. Cooking time is usually about 20 minutes, but this varies depending on the size of your potato chunks.
- Meanwhile, wash the kale (don’t dry), stem it (just pull out the stems as you would when you clean spinach), and chop into pieces of an inch or less.
- Wash the scallions, cut off the root ends, and slice thinly (both whites and greens). If substituting a leek, wash thoroughly, cut off the root end and the dark green leaves, cut into quarters, and slice thinly.
- About 5 minutes before you judge the potatoes to be done (exact timing isn’t critical), place a large Dutch oven on medium heat (you can substitute a 12-inch skillet with a lid — see Notes). Add 2 tablespoons each of oil and butter. When the butter is melted and hot, add the kale and scallions. Sauté for a minute or two, then turn down the heat a bit and cover the pot with a lid. You want the kale to both sauté and steam in the residual water that clings to it from the cleaning (if there’s not enough water to produce steam, add a couple of tablespoons from the potato pot). I prefer to cook kale no longer than 5 minutes; it’s often still a bit crunchy at that stage — just how I like it. If you like it softer, keep cooking. If the kale is finished before the potatoes are, no worries: Just remove it from the heat and let it rest.
- While the kale is steaming, the potatoes will probably finish cooking. Take them off the heat, drain them, then add them back to their cooking pot (off heat) and cover. Shake the pot a couple of times so the potatoes don’t stick, and allow them to firm up for 2 to 4 minutes (exact timing isn’t critical).
- When the potatoes are firm and the kale has cooked, add about half of the milk or cream to the pot containing the kale. Cook for a few seconds, then turn off the heat. Remove the pot from the stove and place on a nonslip heatproof pad on a sturdy work surface (the heatproof pad will protect the work surface; you can ignore this if your counters are heatproof).
- Add the potatoes to the pot with the kale, and using a potato masher or large spoon, begin mashing. Add more milk or cream if needed, and butter to taste ( I usually end up using a total of about a stick of butter when I make this, plus extra for Step 9). Add salt and pepper to taste. You can mash the potatoes to whatever consistency you prefer, although I think this dish is better with a rough, chunky consistency rather than a “whipped” texture.
- Empty the mashed potatoes into a bowl. It’s traditional to make a well in the potatoes with the back of a spoon, and add a couple of tablespoons of butter (which will melt from the heat of the potatoes) as a flavoring and garnish. Or you can dish up the potatoes on plates, and then make wells and add the butter. When eating the Colcannon, it’s traditional to dip forkfuls into the melted butter.
- If you want to substitute cabbage for the kale, I’d use half a head (about a pound and a half). The easiest way to cook it is to cut it up and steam it until tender as discussed in out post on Steamed Vegetables — it’ll take perhaps 10 minutes. Or I’d think you could cut it up and boil it with the potatoes (I haven’t tried this). If you do that, I’d add it when the potatoes are half cooked — overcooked cabbage is quite unpleasant.
- This recipe uses a lot of butter. You can use less, but I wouldn’t omit making the well and adding butter (Step 9 in the Procedure) — it looks pretty, and is mighty tasty.
- If you don’t want to use scallions or leeks for this dish, you can use a small onion; or omit altogether.
- Some people like to garnish this dish with rings cut from the green stems of the scallions. If you make the dish with kale, I don’t think it’s necessary — the kale is plenty attractive. But if you make it with cabbage, the dish looks a little bland and may need a garnish.
- If you prefer to cook the kale in a skillet, just follow the same general procedure as described in Step 5. But then in Step 8, add the kale to the potatoes, and go from there.
- The English dish called “Bubble and Squeak” is similar to Colcannon, though it is fried in a pan (it can also be made with potatoes and vegetables leftover from a roast dinner).
- In the US, Colcannon is eaten mostly around St. Patrick’s Day — because that’s the only time many of us think about Irish dishes. In Ireland, the big occasion for Colcannon is Halloween.
- There are several traditions surrounding Colcannon. One involves serving it with a ring and thimble hidden inside for people to find (hoping that no one breaks a tooth!). The person who finds the ring is supposed to be the next to marry, while the one who finds the thimble will remain a spinster. Another tradition substitutes coins as prizes; the finder is supposed to experience good fortune the next year. In yet another tradition, an unmarried woman might put some Colcannon in a stocking and hang it outside her front door; the next man to enter through the door would be her future husband.
We’re All Irish
The potato may be the reason that St. Patrick’s Day is so widely celebrated in the US (and in other countries around the world).
By the 1820s, potatoes had become a principal food of many Irish people, particularly the poor. So they lost a major source of nutrition when the potato blight hit in the 1840s. The blight actually returned several times during the 19th century, but the worst period was between 1844 and 1850, when it hit every year, resulting in widespread suffering and starvation.
No one knows how many people died during the potato famine (many deaths were from disease triggered by malnutrition, and not directly from starvation), but a realistic estimate is 1 million people. Many more emigrated to escape the misery. It’s estimated that somewhere between 1.5 to 2 million people left Ireland for other countries, including England, Scotland, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Although many Irish emigrated before and after the potato famine of the 1840s, the largest population shift by far occurred during that period. By 1850, Irish immigrants made up a quarter of the population in the US cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In Canada, half the population of Toronto was Irish by 1851.
Today in the US, the descendants of those Irish immigrants think of St. Patrick’s Day as a time to wear green, drink Guinness or Irish Coffee, and have some Corned Beef. It’s a ritual many of us enjoy, even those who have no Irish blood. I always look forward to it. And for the record, I do have some Irish ancestry, as does Mrs. Kitchen Riffs.
But I’d celebrate even if I didn’t, just to honor those brave people who, facing misery and famine, struck out into the relative unknown to find a new and more prosperous life. Starvation isn’t a problem for most of us these days, but we all sometimes face what seem to be insurmountable challenges. So we can identify: At one time or another, we’re all Irish. And what better way to remember and celebrate than with a dish that features the potato — Colcannon?
Erin go Bragh.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Corned Beef Hash
Fennel and Tomato Gratin
Hungarian Noodles and Cabbage
Red Beans and Rice
Red-Braised Beans and Sweet Potatoes