Lots of foods have become synonymous with Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day — Soda Bread, Shepherd’s Pie, and corned beef, to name a few. But have you ever heard of colcannon? It might be lesser-known on a global scale, but to the Irish, it’s a true taste of home.
Colcannon is a traditional Irish dish made with mashed potatoes, cabbage (or kale) and leeks, yet somehow, most parade-going, Irish heritage-loving Americans have never heard of it. It’s tasty (picture rich potatoes and lightly crunchy cabbage cradling a pool of melty butter) and easy to make, so it’s surprising it never caught on here on our side of the pond.
The name colcannon is said to have originated from the Gaelic phrase “cal ceannann,” meaning white-headed cabbage — the vegetable most commonly mixed into the potatoes. During the 17th and 18th centuries, potatoes, cabbage, and leeks were considered to be food for the common man, so it makes sense the Irish would eventually combine all three into one meal.
Potatoes are a major part of Irish history. For hundreds of years, the people of Ireland were forced to pay their English landlords with crops grown on their plots of land. Less than ideal growing conditions meant centuries of hard times for the Irish. When the adaptable and resilient potato was introduced to the continent by Spaniards via South America in the late 16th century, it quickly rose as the nation’s top crop of choice. It also meant potatoes became a huge part of their own diets. While it’s unclear exactly when colcannon was first prepared, given Ireland’s history with poverty and famine, it’s safe to assume it was invented out of a necessity for hearty fare — and likely an excess of potatoes.
Leeks are usually mixed in for extra flavor. Irish sometimes add other affordable vegetables, herbs, or dairy to make the dish more substantial. Other recipes call for the addition of kale or bacon.
The dish is so adored today that it even appears in children’s songs.
Excerpt from “The Auld Skillet Pot“:
Well, did you ever make colcannon made with lovely pickled cream
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the ‘melting’ flake
Of the creamy flavored butter that our mothers used to make.
Colcannon is served for St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, but it also became a favorite dish on Halloween — a holiday with Celtic and Irish origins. On Halloween colcannon was molded into a large ring with small trinkets hidden inside the mash, according to Irish Central. Those who found the trinkets were said to receive different fortunes. Find a coin and find wealth soon. Pull out a thimble and stay single for another year.
What started as a necessity can now be found on menus across the county. It’s served alongside other favorite Irish meats and delicacies. To make Colcannon part of your St. Patrick’s Day party, simply combine mashed potatoes with chopped cabbage and kale, leeks, milk, salt, pepper, and plenty of butter. Or follow this traditional recipe:
- 6 large Irish Potatoes, peeled and boiled
- 6 spring onions, scallions or chives, finely chopped
- 1/4 pint of milk or cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- 8 ounces boiled green curly kale, finely chopped
- 2 ounces butter
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley
- Mash the potatoes finely.
- In a separate pot, add the milk and onions. Bring to a boil. Add the kale and half the butter.
- Add milk and kale mixture to potatoes and beat well, until light and fluffy.
- Serve with a sprinkling of parsley and remaining butter.