Irish Leek and Potato Soup & Wheaten Brown Bread
First published December 2016
As every good cook knows, a finished dish depends on the quality of the ingredients and imagination that goes into it. Born and raised in Ireland, I was fortunate enough to have the best of both. I could be typically found at my mother’s elbow learning how to bake and cook with the succulent fresh ingredients my dad grew in our garden.
My mother, like most Irish mothers, followed recipes passed down from the generations before her. I believe she had only one recipe book, which she used primarily for baking, with handwritten notes hidden between the pages.
My dad was before his time, growing organic vegetables and fruits well before organic became popular. He would carefully select his seed potatoes, and plant and nurture them before finally harvesting them in mid-summer. These potatoes, along with his onions, would then be carefully stored to last us through the winter months. He grew many different types of cabbage, also, depending on the season. In the summer we would have an abundance of lettuce, scallions, and strawberries. My siblings and I fondly recall being sent out to the garden to dig potatoes for our family dinner. The Irish call baked new potatoes “balls of flour,” because they are so fresh and plump they are bursting out of their jackets.
Our meats and fish were also fresh, purchased each morning with a trip to our local butcher.
Mother made the best “brown bread” by combining 40 percent wheaten flour to 60 percent plain flour, binding it together with buttermilk. There were no kitchen scales and no measuring cups needed for her recipe. She had a “feel” for the right amount of flour versus wheaten flour, determining amounts by using her sieve as a measure. In fact, there was never a flat loaf of bread coming out of her oven. One of our favorite lunches in winter was her leek and potato soup, served with this homemade bread slathered with rich yellow Irish butter. When I became interested in baking, it took some time for me to perfect her recipe.
The phrase “take-out food” was not even mentioned under our roof, as Mother cooked daily. In the 1960s and 70s, Irish family dinners were eaten at mid-day, with a lighter meal called “tea” served at 6 pm. We had the luxury of a homemade dessert five days a week, which could be as simple as a rice pudding or a Pavlova topped with freshly whipped cream.
Now Ireland, along with the rest of the world, is changing both in its eating habits and its economy. While I enjoy the variety of foods and the numerous good restaurants when I visit there, I’m grateful that I got to experience the simpler life of sharing freshly-made home-cooked meals while growing up.
My mother had continued to cook for herself into her 90s and my parents have both passed away. Now it’s my turn to make my mother’s much-loved brown bread. I’ve never believed my bread was as good as hers, but she always told me she couldn’t tell the difference. No matter, her leek and potato soup and brown bread always take me back to Ireland and home.