Colcannon (cál ceannann, “white-headed cabbage”) is a traditional Irish potato dish eaten at Halloween. Frank Bruni, former food critic at the New York Times, might be perplexed by the Irish love affair with spuds, but here, they’re the stuff of poetry and song.
Did you ever eat colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?
Yes you did, so you did, so did he and so did I.
And the more I think about it sure the nearer I’m to cry.
Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made colcannon in the little skillet pot.
Colcannon is a first cousin to champ, another mashed potato dish that has scallions or chives instead of kale. In Irish Traditional Cooking, Darina Allen writes, “A common folk custom was to offer a bowl of champ to the fairies at Hallowe’en. This would be left on field posts or under trees, such as hawthorns or whitethorns, which where particularly associated with fairies.” Regional varieties of colcannon include using cabbage instead of kale or adding parsnips to the mash.
Whichever way you make it or whatever charms you put in it, colcannon is one of Ireland’s most iconic dishes.
Serves 4 as a side
You could use finely shredded Savoy cabbage instead of kale, though Darina Allen says in Forgotten Skills of Cooking that kale is the most traditional.
1 kg (2 lb) floury potatoes, such as Kerr’s Pink, Maris Piper or Yukon Gold
125 g (5 oz) butter
200 g (7 oz) kale, tough centre ribs removed and the leaves finely chopped
125 ml (1/2 cup) milk
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peel the potatoes and slice them 5 mm (1/4 inch) thick. Put them in a large pot of generously salted water and bring to the boil. Simmer until the potatoes are tender, then drain. Return the potatoes to the pot off the heat, cover with a clean tea towel and allow to sit for 5 minutes (this helps to dry out the potatoes, resulting in a fluffier mash).
Meanwhile, melt 25 g (2 tablespoons) of the butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add in the chopped kale and cook for about 10 minutes, until it has softened and turned a vibrant green. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Place the milk and remaining 100 g (1/2 cup) of the butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat, until the butter has melted. Mash the potatoes or press them through a ricer, then pour in the hot milk mixture and beat with a wooden spoon, stand mixer or electric mixer until the mash is fluffy and light. Stir in the cooked kale and some salt and pepper. Transfer the colcannon to a serving bowl, make a small well in the top and add in a pat of butter. Tradition says you should dip each forkful of colcannon into the little lake of melted butter.
In Irish Traditional Cooking, Darina Allen says that any leftover colcannon can be formed into potato cakes or farls and fried in bacon fat until crisp on both sides.