Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Céad Míle Fáilte!

I forget in which book I read this line, and I’m paraphrasing, but the Irish are always so very melancholy. Of course, this is a huge generality and I don’t know this for a fact, having never been to the Emerald Isle, but in every book I’ve read set in Ireland or with Irish characters, there is a sense of pensive wistfulness. I would imagine, knowing the civil wars and violence that seems to be so much part of the history of the Emerald Isle, might have something to do with it. I also get such a sense of beauty, storytelling, a joie de vivre, and a sense of the ridiculousness in so much of Irish literature. Angela’s Ashes is no different.

Angelas Ashes

I love Frank McCourt’s writing. He brings that sense of humor, ridiculousness and sadness to the reader from those magical opening lines: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” That’s some funny stuff, even if sad at the same time. And especially if you’ve grown up Catholic! I was raised in a Hispanic Catholic family, and the miserable childhood is a given. But to be raised in an Irish Catholic family? Holy monkey, as my friend Elizabeth (another Irish Catholic) would say! Can you imagine the sheer level of guilt you’d have put on you by your mother or grandmother? Not to mention the number of times you’d have to go to confession once you learned about profanities and French kissing!

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I digress. Frank McCourt illuminates the often-dark world of his childhood in such a beautiful and heartbreaking way. The poverty his family endured simply blows my mind. I was often depressed reading this book, picturing the dirt-poor house in which they live, and his father Malachy’s alcoholism was particularly difficult for me to read about, having had my own father die of the disease. But as is always the case when you’re a child, hope does spring eternal and this is so clearly reflected in the book. And the humor with which McCourt is able to look back, despite the grinding poverty and illness and alcoholism that colored most of his young life, brings color to this otherwise grim, gray story. There is nothing like a wake for having a good time” was one of the lines that made me bust out laughing so hard I spit wine out my nose. It also broke my heart. But that is what life is all about – laughter in the face of pain, and the strength of the spirit inside all of us. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day and the indomitable spirit of the Irish people, and in memory of Frank McCourt, I give you this yummy food passage, when Frank wants to go on a field trip and needs to borrow his father’s bicycle, purposely waiting until his father has a bellyful of food and booze and will be in a good mood.

“The best time to ask him for anything is Friday night when he’s in a good mood after his night of drinking and his dinner. He brings home the same dinner in his overcoat pockets, a big steak dripping blood, four potatoes, an onion, a bottle of stout. Mam boils the potatoes and fries the steak with sliced onion. He keeps his overcoat on, sits at the table and eats the steak out of his hands……He drinks his stout and laughs that there’s nothing like a great bloody steak of a Friday night and if that’s the worst sin he ever commits he’ll float to heaven body and soul, ha ha ha.”

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I don’t know about you, but I don’t care for plain boiled potatoes, so in McCourt’s honor, I decided to go all out and make steak with my own marinade, traditional Irish pan boxty with green onions (recipe from this marvelous blog), some sauteed kale and roasted radicchio for veg, and in true Irish fashion, washed down with some marvelous Tullamore Dew. Erin go bragh!

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This is the method that worked for me.


For the steaks:
2 T-bone steaks, about an inch thick with plenty of marbling (vegetarians, turn away now!)

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1/2 cup Worchestershire sauce
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup soy sauce
4-5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

For the pan boxty:
2 strips good streaky bacon
5-6 new red potatoes, peeled (You can also use 2 larger Yukon Gold potatoes, I just had the red ones on hand)
2 green onions
1/2 cup pre-made mashed potatoes (from any grocery store or deli – I got mine at Sprouts Market)
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
salt and pepper

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Let your steaks come to room temperature while you make your marinade. Combine the Worchestershire sauce, red wine, soy sauce, olive oil and sliced garlic in a large plastic bag. Tenderize your steaks by wrapping them in some plastic cling wrap, then whacking the hell out of them with a rolling pin. Excellent stress relief. Put the pounded steaks into the bag with the marinade and leave up to 3 hours. When you’re ready to cook, remove them from the refrigerator and again, let come to room temperature while you start preparing your boxty.

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Get out your peeled potatoes and grate them over a paper towel and leave to drain and dry off a bit. Put your bacon into a pan and fry it until crispy, then put aside and leave to cool.

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Slice up the green onions, and add them a bowl with the grated potatoes, the mashed potatoes, a bit of salt and pepper (but not a lot because the bacon is salty), the crumbled bacon, the flour, and the baking soda. Mix well either with a wooden spoon, or your very clean hands. Form small patties, about this size.

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I’ve heard of other methods that include making a large ball, rolling it out like dough and cutting small rounds out, like making cookies. You can do that if you want to give yourself more work and added stress, not to mention more dishes and utensils to wash afterward. Me, I want to relax and drink Irish whiskey while cooking, so I just formed patties by hand. It was all good.

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Add olive oil to your pan with a little bit of butter, to keep the oil from burning, and turn up the burner to medium high. When the oil is nice and hot and shimmery, add your potato cakes and fry, browning on one side for about 4-5 minutes, then flipping over and browning the other side. They will probably splatter a bit, so be careful of burns.

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Set aside, and start cooking your steak. Turn up the heat under the pan as high as it will go, add a bit more oil and butter, and again, when the oil is hot and glasslike, sear your steak for 1 minute on each side. Lower the heat to medium and cook for a minute on each side of the steak, flipping so that it doesn’t burn but maintains a consistent heat.

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For 3/4-inch thick T-bone steaks, I cooked for 10 minutes, 1 minute per side, flipping constantly. You can test your steak by pressing the center with a finger and testing the consistency. You want some bounciness. Remove the steak from the heat, let cool and rest so the juices run back into the meat, about 10-12 minutes.

Serve your steak with the pan boxty and some veg, and wash it down with Irish whiskey or any beverage of your choice, though if you don’t drink some kind of Irish or alcoholic potable, I seriously question your Celticness. Sláinte!

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Boxty on the griddle,
Boxty in the pan,
If you can’t make boxty,
You’ll never get a man.


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