Boxty: A Cleveland Pub's Traditional Irish Treat for St. Patrick's Day
Coming up next week: a great day for the Irish, as well as those who merely claim to be when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around. There’ll be lots of wearing of the green and downing of the pints on Thursday.
But as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite, Irish eyes will also be smiling about good things to eat.
Barkeep and restaurateur Karen O’Malley will be hard at work on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s been her busiest day ever since she opened her pub 15 years ago.
“I am the owner of The Harp.”
Why that name?
“Because the harp is the ancient symbol of Ireland.”
An Ohio City landmark, the tavern at West 44th and Detroit turns up often on lists of the top Irish bars in the U.S. The décor is authentically cozy, with a fireplace, a stained-glass backdrop over the bar, dark wood, and wall murals painted by Irish art students.
The Harp was designed by an Irish firm and built by the owner’s father, Michael, who’s in the construction business. He hails from Ireland.
Raised on Irish cuisine in Lakewood
Owner Karen O’Malley grew up Irish in Lakewood. Fairview Park, Bay Village, Rocky River and Lakewood have the highest concentrations of Irish Americans among Ohio cities.
“We had traditional Irish fare. Every Sunday everyone went to my grandma’s house and we had a proper family meal: shepherd’s pie and boxties.”
You can get shepherd’s pie, and soups and sauces flavored with Guinness at other Irish bars in Cleveland, Twinsburg or Canton.
But for boxties, you have to go to The Harp.
Boxty is the traditional Irish potato pancake, also known as poundy, or potato bread. It got its start as a peasant dish. The Gaelic name means “poor-house bread.”
A dish that originated in hard times
Boxty was a way to make potatoes go further. It’s been an essential part of Irish cuisine since the potato
famines of the mid to late 19th century that killed a million Irish and sent a million more escaping starvation to America.
Most immigrants to Cleveland fled from Ireland’s rugged western coast. Karen O’Malley says that’s where her family comes from.
“Dooega, Achill Island, county Mayo.”
Achill is the largest island off the Irish coast, but only 2,700 people live there.
“A lot of Clevelanders are from Achill,” says O’Malley. “They love to come in, and it’s nice when you go back to Achill they say, ‘I’ve been to The Harp.’ Cross the Atlantic, we welcome many people.”
County Mayo is famous for its boxty
Karen O’Malley visits her grandmother’s home on Achill Island every summer. You can look at a mural of its front gate on the Harp’s back wall.
“There’s one pub and one church in the village. Everyone walks and visits everyone. You’re always popping by someone’s house for tea.”
And you’ll probably be offered boxty to go along with it, because County Mayo is known for perfecting the dish.
“Yes it is,” O’Malley confirms. “And we brought that here. So we make boxties fresh every day.”
The Harp offers six different boxties, in variations created by the Irish pub’s executive chef, Joseph Nagy. His ancestry is Hungarian, but he cooks like he just came over from County Mayo.
“I’ve been doing it for over 15 years now.”
How to make a proper boxty
And he’s glad to give us a demonstration.
“Today we’re going to make a boxty pancake. It’s a traditional Irish pancake. And I’m going to start that for you now.”
He’s already mixed the batter. “There’s shredded hash browns, scallion, heavy cream, flour, salt and pepper.”
But that’s not going to be all. “We stuff them with different things,” says the chef, “varying from salmon, steak, chicken, turkey and corned beef. Each one is accompanied with a different sauce.”
First, though, Chef Nagy has to brown the pancake, watching the skillet very closely.
“I’m looking for the edges to get brown. When they get brown, and it doesn’t stick, then we’ll be able to flip it to brown the other side."
A special sauce for each filling
Sauce is lightly added as a final touch after the pancake is cooked and rolled around the filling.
“For the corned beef and the turkey, we’ll do a Russian dressing,” says Chef Nagy. “For the chicken we do a sun-dried tomato pesto cream sauce. For the salmon we’ll use the sun-dried tomato and a fresh vegetable cream sauce. And then for the vegetarian one, cream sauce with spinach.”
He predicts boxty with corned beef will be the popular choice on Thursday. The Harp always beefs up its corned beef supply for St. Patrick’s Day.
“Between 500 to 700 pounds,” says the chef. “And we usually start cooking our corned beef toward the end of February just so we can get the quantity we need to get through St. Patrick’s Day.”
A quibble about what’s traditional
Corned beef and cabbage might sound Irish to most of us. But not to everyone.
“They call me Irish Mike. I’m from Buncranna County, Donegal.”
And what does Irish Mike want with his pint of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day?
“Bacon and cabbage and potatoes, or a roast leg of lamb.”
Corned beef? Not for this Irishman.
“I didn’t eat corned beef until I came to the United States,” he claims. “Somebody made it especially for me. They thought that it would make me feel at home. I said, ‘I’ve never eaten this stuff. I don’t know what the hell this is.’ ”
It might be blarney, but Irish Mike advances a theory about why corned beef became traditional fare for St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S.
He says both early Irish and Jewish immigrants living in the tenements of New York favored cheap cuts of beef like brisket.
“The Irish used the brisket to make corned beef. And that’s how it became a tradition. But corned beef was never eaten in Ireland. I never ate corned beef in Ireland,” says Irish Mike. “And I never will.”