Colcannon, like Irish stew, is one of those dishes so synonymous with the country that it has become, as Darina Allen puts it, a cliche – and, yes, there is more to Irish cooking than lamb and ham and cabbage and potatoes, but, truly, they’re not a bad place to start. Immortalised in the 19th-century folk song, Colcannon (aka The Skillet Pot), which comes in countless variants, it clearly occupies a special place in the Irish heart, and with a sales pitch such as this, it’s easy to see why:
“Did you ever eat colcannon when ’twas made with yellow cream,
And the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful, and dip it in the lake
Of the heather-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?”
Though particularly associated, in many places, with Halloween – when, like barmbrack, it may be studded with coins, thimbles and other devices to tell your fortune for the year ahead – potatoes, greens and dairy are available all year round, as is colcannon. Served with spiced beef or boiled ham, tofu sausages or just on its own with extra butter, I reckon there’s never a bad time for a bowl of buttery mash and greens.
Allen calls for “old potatoes” in her collection Irish Traditional Cooking. In theory, that could refer to an all-purpose or floury variety, as opposed to the denser, waxy new potatoes such as jersey royals or charlottes, which are better in salads and for creamy French pomme puree. But in practice, “old” generally means the very floury sort favoured in Ireland. As regular readers will remember from Irish stew at the beginning of the year, varieties such as golden wonder and kerr’s pink are hard to get hold of in many parts of the UK, but having tracked some down in an Irish butchers on the Holloway Road, north London, I can confirm they make lighter, fluffier mash than maris pipers or desirees. Roosters, which are gaining in popularity here, are the closest substitute.
Boiling them in their skins, though not mandatory (Bord Bia, the Irish food board, suggests peeling them), not only improves their flavour, but keeps the potatoes dryer and fluffier, especially if, like Allen and Clodagh McKenna, you tip out most of the water halfway through cooking, so they steam instead. Keep an eye on the pan, though; burnt potatoes are not delicious.
This revelation will actually change the way I cook potatoes full stop: as The New Best Recipes from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated explains, “peeling and cutting before simmering increases the surface area of the potatoes, through which they lose soluble substances such as starch, proteins, and flavour compounds, to the cooking water. The greater surface area also enables lots of water molecules to bind with the potatoes’ starch molecules.” Cooked whole, they retain both flavour and fluff. Returning them to the hot pan after draining and covering them with a tea towel, so they “steam and dry off”, as Richard Corrigan recommends in his book The Clatter of Forks and Spoons, helps further.
Interestingly, the first recorded mention of colcannon, in English at least, comes in the 1735 diary entry of Welshman William Bulkely, who was served it on Halloween in Dublin alongside a roast mutton shoulder, describing it as “cabbage boiled, potatoes and parsnips, all this mixed together. They eat well enough, and is a Dish always had in this Kingdom on this night.” Allen confirms that parsnip is still added in parts of Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford. As perhaps the only person in the British Isles to dislike the parsnip, I’m predisposed to be suspicious, but here, with its woody sweetness softened by the dairy and starch, and offset by copious amounts of onion, it’s actually rather good. If the idea takes your fancy, feel free to replace a third of the weight of potatoes in the recipe with parsnips, but peel them and cook them separately, because they’ll cook faster than the potatoes.
When it comes to mashing, Corrigan uses the back of a fork, and Maura Laverty prefers a ricer or even a fine sieve, which gives a lighter result. I’m not that keen on the faff either involves, however, so I prefer a solid potato masher, and am prepared to accept a slightly more solid result in return. Make your choice.
There’s some debate over the translation of “colcannon”: Garry Lee on twitter tells me that “Cál is an Irish word for cabbage or kale (more usually cabáiste, nowadays), and related, I’d say, to kale. Caineann usually means leek,” while Wikipedia informs me that cál ceannann means a “white-headed cabbage”. (Bulkely describes cabbage, of course, but he’s eating in Dublin.)
Corrigan believes “there’s no such thing as a recipe for colcannon, really. It’s something that is put together with love, not measurements,” so if you happen to have spring greens or curly kale or white cabbage, use them. Having tried all of the above, plus Kevin Dundon’s savoy, I’d recommend kale or savoy when all options are open; the more robust, frilly texture makes for a more interesting result, and my testers and I all prefer the earthier flavours to the simpler sweetness of the smooth varieties. When all’s said and done, however, they’re all cabbage. (If you happen to have already boiled a ham to serve with your colcannon, you should definitely cook whatever you go for in the same liquid, though.)
One innovation, in a recipe found on a Galway community page, is to blitz the greens and spring onions, not to a puree, but just enough to distribute them evenly throughout the mash, and to allow them to colour it a vivid green, too. Finely chopping will yield the same result.
Dundon sautes his cabbage in bacon grease before use. It’s completely delicious, and if you’d like to serve the dish on its own, I’d highly recommend it – but it does change the flavour from mild and creamy to salty, fatty and slightly caramelised. Both are good in their own way, of course (as is the bacon that also goes into his recipe).
Leeks don’t get much of a look-in, apart from in Diana Henry’s recipe in Plenty – which is a shame, because they’re delicious with potatoes. She sweats them, and then savoy cabbage, with potatoes, then stirs them and their buttery juices into the mash – lovely, but my testers slightly prefer the more savoury flavour of the more popular scallion, or spring onion.
Indeed, McKenna uses nothing else, making her version rather like what is also known as champ. It’s lovely, but we do miss the greens. If you don’t have spring onions, you could infuse the milk with ordinary onion, as suggested by All in the Cooking from Dublin’s Coláiste Mhuire Cookery School, first published in 1946 and widely used in domestic science until the 1970s, but the greener flavour of the scallions is preferable.
Henry tells me that butter is what makes colcannon wonderful, “and I have never honestly said in any recipe just how much I put in. It’s basically a vehicle for butter.” This is promising news indeed. I’ve noted a suggested amount below, but feel free to up it according to taste and conscience.
America’s Test Kitchen informs me that melting the butter beforehand coats the starch molecules in the potatoes quickly and easily, making for “smoother, more velvety mashed potatoes” without bringing down the temperature too much. (They also claim it’s better, texture-wise, to add butter before any milk or cream, making for “a silkier, creamier, smoother” result.)
Not everyone thinks the dish needs anything more in the way of dairy: the recipe from Galway uses just butter, but cream, or more particularly milk, will make it looser and lighter. I try double cream in Dundon’s version, but this does make it rather dense – hot whole milk (this would be a good opportunity for Jersey) or even single cream are a better choice. Beat it in gradually, as McKenna recommends, until you reach your desired consistency.
Alton Brown adds a slug of whiskey, too. I can’t say I’ve been brave enough to try this, but if you do, please report back below.
Jane Grigson gives a recipe for a baked potato and cabbage cake under the name of “Colcannon, the northern bubble and squeak”, in her Vegetable Book, using previously cooked potato and cabbage. I can’t find any other examples of this sort, but it sounds delicious should you have leftovers to use up.
Extra butter. Obviously. If you want health food, make a salad.
Prep 5 min
Cook 30 min
- 700g floury potatoes (eg, golden wonder, kerr’s pink, rooster or, if none of those are available, maris piper)
- 150g kale or savoy cabbage
- 6 spring onions
- 75g butter, plus extra to serve
- 125ml whole milk, or single cream
- Salt and black pepper
Scrub the potatoes clean, then put them into a large saucepan, with the larger spuds at the bottom. Cover with cold, salted water and bring to a boil, then simmer for about 15 minutes, until just soft but not cooked through. Tip out two-thirds of the water, cover and simmer until the potatoes are cooked through – keep an eye on the pan to make sure it doesn’t boil dry.
Blanch the greens in salted, boiling water, until tender but not overly soft. Drain and finely chop with the spring onions (or blitz briefly in a food processor until chopped, but not pureed).
Once the potatoes are done, drain and put them back in the hot pan. Cover with a tea towel and leave to steam for five minutes. In the meantime, melt the butter and bring the milk or cream to a simmer; keep both warm. Put a serving dish into a warm oven or fill with boiling water.
Peel the potatoes, holding them in a tea towel to protect your hands, then mash or pass through a ricer. Beat in the melted butter, followed by the milk, until the mash is of a consistency you like.
Stir in the greens and season to taste.
Spoon into the warmed dish, top with a big knob of butter and serve immediately.
• Colcannon: kale or cabbage, leeks or scallions, cream or milk, marge or butter? What do you put in yours, and what do you serve it with?