In early Ireland, the weeks before the November 1 celebration of Samhain, the Celtic new year, were the time to harvest the season’s crops, butcher the livestock—and ward off malevolent spirits.
Legends say that the line dividing the human and spirit worlds became blurred as the new year approached. To appease any otherworldly visitors, households left offerings of food out on their doorstep—often colcannon, mashed potatoes studded with green vegetables such as kale, cabbage, scallions, and leeks and topped with a glistening well of melted butter. Inside the house, families might be sharing their own bowl of the mash, often served for Samhain with hidden trinkets folded in to make predictions about the upcoming year. Find a ring in your portion, and you’d be married by year’s end; find a coin, and you’d soon be rich.
Today colcannon (minus its fortune-telling knickknacks) is a side dish widely available at pubs and restaurants. Traditionally, however, it was a main course, especially during periods of fasting. “You can’t get a better comfort food,” Pádraic Óg Gallagher, the owner and chef of the Dublin restaurant The Boxty House, told me. Colcannon was a favorite dinner for Gallagher and his eight siblings during his childhood in the Irish countryside—his family would gather around a large bowl of colcannon and take turns scooping it up with a fork and dipping the bite into the pool of melted butter. “I have fond memories of the games we would play not trying to break the well,” he said. “You daren’t let that leak out!”
The butter might be colcannon’s most beloved feature, but the jade-hued inclusions define the dish. A recipe designed to use up vegetables on hand, colcannon typically includes both an allium—leeks, onions, chives, or scallions—and a hardy, seasonal vegetable such as kale, cabbage, or nettles. In my take, I chose earthy kale and scallions, chopping both small so that they’d fold effortlessly into the potatoes, and including the kale’s stems in the thrifty spirit of the dish (plus, their slight bitterness helped balance the rich, creamy potatoes). I sautéed the greens in butter and then stirred in milk, simmering it briefly so that the liquid would take on subtle flavor from the vegetables.
Technique: Stems and All
While kale stems are often scrapped, their mild bitterness provides welcome balance to the rich, creamy potatoes. Because the stems can be fibrous and tough, we chop them small and cook them slightly longer than the leaves to ensure they fold effortlessly into the creamy mash.
I strained the milk into a pot of peeled, sliced, and boiled Yukon Golds and then mashed the tender potatoes to my desired smoothness (separating the milk from the solids allowed me to cream the potatoes without crushing the vegetables). Then, I gently folded in the scallions and kale and seasoned the mash with salt and pepper.
I transferred the potatoes to a large bowl; fashioned a divot in the center; and placed a large knob of butter in it, allowing it to melt and fill its pool. To share this cozy bounty with spirits would be generous indeed.