Sunday, 29 April 2012

Irish Broth - my favourite food?

For many things in life, if someone were to ask "what's your favourite?", I'd find it impossible to answer. It's all about context and mood - I could give you a favourite for "right now" but couldn't commit to an all-time top of the list. In music, my tastes are wide-ranging and pretty eclectic, and expanding all the time - what's on the stereo right now depends what musical mood I'm in, or what mood I want to get to. When it comes to beer, I used to have a favourite (Orkney Dark Island) when I was in the very early days of discovering ale, having been a predominantly real cider drinker who didn't know what a hop was. But now, having travelled the length and breadth of the beer spectrum, and watching it change and mutate all the time, I could tell you what beer or flavours in a beer would suit me right now, but picking a single favoured beer out of the multitude of amazing brews out there would be out of the question. Food-wise, it's kinda the same.

But, if someone were to ask me what meal I couldn't do without the prospect of eating ever again, it would have to be Irish Broth. Since moving to England, I've come to appreciate it even more - because back home, you can find it pretty much on every street corner - it feels like every pub, café, restaurant or hotel will have it on the lunchtime menu, always tasty and sustaining. I've adjusted a bit to it not being so available now, but it's usually the first thing I'll eat when I get off the plane back home.

It's also a staple of home kitchens, and every little Spar shop carries a pre-packaged 'soup veg mix' - so I guess gallons of the stuff is made and yummed up across the country in homes every day. Again, that's something I've had to get used to not being able to find - the veg that is chopped and packaged usually contains a fair whack of celery leaf, used here as a large part of the flavouring component - but it seems impossible to find in any soup-making quantity in English markets or shops, I guess maybe because people here don't know what to do with it. It's reduced me to furtively messing with the packaged celery in supermarkets, tearing off any leafy bits from the other bunches and stuffing them inside the bunch I'm going to buy, just so I have enough to add to my soup. This doesn't feel like stealing from other celery-shoppers, 'cause I reckon it's only going to be chopped off and discarded anyway, so at least I am putting it to good use.

You can make Irish broth with any leftover stock you happen to have - best examples from family experience are a roast chicken carcass (as you end up with lots of little shreds of chicken meat in your stock) or what's left over when you've boiled up a big ham. But currently I tend to use a good-quality chicken stock cube for convenience (though for my last batch I was lucky enough to have some homemade chicken stock donated to me by my friend Emma).

The recipe I follow was provided by another chum who grew up with broth's tasty delights, and is rather inexacting, but once you've had broth a few times, you kind of know how to guide it towards your own preferred consistency and greenery anyway. As well as 'soup veg mix', there is another component called 'soup mix' of dried barley, lentils and split peas, which again you can buy ready-mixed in packets back home, but you may have to buy all three then mix them up yourself here to get the right kind of thing. Or just use the barley if that's easier.

Note - you'd need to start the prep the evening before for pulse soaking, or in the morning, then make the soup in the evening after work.

  • Soup veg mix - chopped (1cm dice or small slices) carrot & leek (maybe 2 med carrots, 1 v large leek), very thinly sliced celery stalk (about 2 large stalks), a large quantity of roughly chopped celery leaf and flat-leaf parsley
  • Soup mix - about 2 handfuls (more if you have tiny hands) of the dried barley, red lentil and split pea mix. Place in a large bowl, cover with lots of cold water, cover with a lid. Leave overnight or for around 8 hrs. Then rinse well in a sieve and it's ready to use.
  • Stock - couple of litres of good quality chicken stock, ham stock, or veg bouillion.
  • Chicken or turkey - about 1 large breast chicken or 1 leg turkey, ready-cooked and with the meat shredded. (If you have uncooked meat on the bone, like a turkey leg, you can boil it first until the meat is separating from the bone, skim off the fat, and use the stock for the broth).

So, to make:
1. Put your stock and soup mix into a large pot, bring to the boil. Simmer for 30 mins, skim off any scum.
2. Add your soup veg, cook 20-30 minutes on a simmer.
3. Add your shredded meat and cook a bit.
4. Ladle into bowls, add plenty of fresh ground black pepper before slurping up.

It's really good with a few slices of buttered wheaten bread and will most often be served that way in cafés, but also makes a more substantial evening meal if you pop a couple of leftover boiled potatoes into it like my granny used to do. I can never get enough of it once I've made it, and it's a struggle to retain some for freezing or for lunch the next day; there always seems like there'd be room for one more bowlful!

If anyone does come across somewhere with proper Irish broth on their menu outside its homeland, please do let me know so I can check it out - until then, I think I'm bound to scouring the greenery aisles of supermarkets, sneakily gathering in the celery leaf crop!


  1. Yum! I do love a good broth! There are a few variations you can do too - it never seemed to be made the same way twice in our house! Possibly just depended on what meat & veg were to hand. My father used a bit of parsnip in it which tends to add a little sweetness. He also used to make it with beef sometimes which was good - I think it was beef shin. I love white pepper on serving, which is unusual as I don't use white pepper on anything else! For some reason it just works really well with broth.

    Very wholesome & healthy, whichever variation you use!

    1. Oh I'd forgotten about putting a shake of white pepper in it - that was my granny's preference, whereas a hefty quantity of black pepper is what we most often have in it. May put a bit of white pepper in when cooking next time though as it adds a subtle warmth to it. I'm certain that just like Bolognese sauce there is no 'right way' to make broth - it'll originally be rural peasant food I'm sure - chuck into the stovepot whatever was lying around and cheap! I'm sure with all the greenery it's full of vitamins, and is like an Irish version of the 'Jewish penicillin'. I do remember a school colleague insisting his granny's broth could make his hair grow faster ;-)

  2. Weird. I've lived in Ireland nearly 40 years, about half of it in the North, and I've never heard of "Irish broth" nor seen it on a menu anywhere.

    1. That's *really* strange! Maybe if it's something that's eaten at home all the time, as it was in our house, then it's something you look for on menus and notice a lot more - I swear that whatever cafe or pub I've ended up in for lunch after getting off the plane, has had it on the menu - it's generally what my whole family will order when were in a pub, coffee shop, shopping centre cafe, visitor attraction cafe, etc. in N Ireland. Maybe there's some kind of further cultural or geographic divide to it's distribution - perhaps it's a County Antrim/County Down thing more than anywhere else (as that's generally where I'd be eating it). Maybe it isn't found much 'down south'? I'm really surprised you haven't come across it as it was so ubiquitous in my youth and still seems to be whenever I'm back home, I never have a problem finding it available to order! Will have to do a bit more digging on this as I'm intrigued now. Generally at home and on menus we don't call it 'Irish broth' - it's just labelled as 'broth' - but it's called Irish when distinguishing it from Scotch broth as it's quite a different soup.