Irish star chef and author Clodagh McKenna appears every month on "The Rachael Ray Show" in New York, which means that her inspired brand of traditional Irish cooking is not just receiving national attention; it’s also a worldwide hit. Cahir O'Doherty talks to her about her latest book "Clodagh's Irish Kitchen" and her mission to bring tradition and innovation together in Irish cooking.
Food connects you to a place. Just think of how much you sometimes miss a real Irish soda scone or a properly made breakfast to know it’s true.
Irish chef and cookbook author Clodagh McKenna, 39, who has trained in Paris and New York and worked at the world famous Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, deeply understands the power of food to transform a mood, a day and even your health.
With a series of successful cookery books and two popular Dublin restaurants to her name, her star is on the ascent in the U.S. too, which means that she visits constantly.
“I’m back and forth every month,” she tells the Irish Voice. “I’m back in New York on the weekend of the 14th of March to do 'The Rachael Ray Show' and later I’m hosting a party at Soho House doing the food. Then I’m flying up to Canada for St. Patrick’s Day to do a live show there as well. It’ll be a full week!”
How does she make the case for Irish cooking and baking to an international audience which may not know there's more to the Emerald Isle than 50 shades of potatoes?
“I do it by cooking really. I’m sharing the dishes I love, or my interpretation of old traditional dishes that I put a fresh or modern take on,” she says.
“I always think the proof is in the pudding, and since mine is a Guinness cake or a whiskey caramel bread and butter pudding it’s the kind of recipe that often gets picked up by magazines like Better Homes. I make the case for Ireland by cooking and showing people, which makes them want the recipes and want to try them.”
Her creativity in the kitchen is astounding and explains her success. McKenna nimbly cross-references Irish recipes with European and even eastern influences and makes easy-to-prepare dishes that are notably Irish and yet consistently sophisticated.
“I’ve always been cooking,” she explains. “I’ve been doing it professionally for 17 years and I’ve always been interested in food so it was a natural progression for me to adapt traditional Irish recipes.
“Luckily I was able to make a career out of it. The creative side, creating the recipes, comes really easily to me and I love it.”
McKenna says that nowadays her whole world revolves around Irish food, whether it’s eating out or writing or reading cookery books and testing new recipes.
“I cook every single day. I’m not one of those chefs who writes a book but doesn’t cook at home. I like to share them on my Instagram page,” she says.
McKenna’s enthusiasm and skill have made her one of the most recognizable faces of Ireland’s cooking renaissance, and her influence can be felt nationwide.
“It’s great that in the last 10 years, perhaps especially in Dublin, everybody is using a lot more locally produced and seasonal food and thinking about how they can make it really good and coming up with lovely recipes,” she says.
Her own innovation when it comes to recipes has come from tried and tested experience, she reveals.
“I wasn’t doing the same thing 10 years ago. It comes with being confident and knowing your own style and growing your own style of cooking,” McKenna says.
“My friends are all in the food industry as chefs or restaurateurs or something related. Every night I’m going to something related. I’m either cooking at home or I’m going to the launch of a new restaurant.”
Good cooking makes for memorable days and nights. It also turns a house into a home, McKenna says.
“We’re similar to the Italians in that so many Irish stories are centered around the kitchen. We were having cups of tea and bread and butter rather than great pasta dishes, but there was so much home cooking that went on from stews to casseroles to soups to breads,” she says.
“It’s such a massive part of our lives. There are so much stories and nurture and attachment to cooking and I think that we don’t look at that enough. I’d like to help us to.”
She thinks of her cookery books as efforts to put traditional Irish flavors on the culinary map and be proud of them and to remember that we did all our growing up around the kitchen.
“The minute you walk into an Irish home you’ll be offered a cup of tea and something to eat. Ireland is great for baking tea bracks and porter cakes for example and while they might seem a little dull and everyday to us, visitors to or country think they’re beautiful and unique,” McKenna says.
“A well-made tea brack is just as good as a panettone from Italy. That’s how I think.”
In "Clodagh's Irish Kitchen" McKenna reminds us that a picnic on the shore with a flask of tea and a good tea brack to share (delicately spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg) is her idea of a perfect day. “Especially if it’s home made!”
We've been sitting on a gold mine in Ireland for decades and it's time we realized it. Her book takes our traditional dishes and connects them to the world's great cuisines.
McKenna wants to share two seasonal recipes from "Clodagh's Irish Kitchen" with Irish Voice readers. In Ireland in spring lamb is often served, and McKenna has a recipe for it that would be welcome and timely on St. Patrick’s Day or Easter. In this one she has added barley, as the Irish often do, to make them more substantial and tasty.
“This is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods,” says McKenna. “I grew up having this exact recipe once a week, and I would imagine the same goes for most Irish people. We all have our own variations of Irish stew and, when cooked right, this dish is so delicious.
“Make a very well-ﬂavored stock, use good-quality lamb, and thicken the casserole juices to make a gravy. It’s a fantastic mid-week supper for the whole family. It can be made the night before and reheated.”
“At least once every month I will bake a tea brack at home. It is possibly one of the easiest and most satisfying recipes to make,” McKenna says.
“You do have to soak the fruits for a few hours, or overnight, but the rest is just weighing and mixing together.
It’s delicious fresh on the day it’s made but, to be honest, I prefer it a couple of days later, toasted with butter and jam. The cake is dense and moist – a real crowd pleaser!”