Colcannon - A Classic Irish Potato Recipe That’s Always In Style

By Regina Sexton

In the last 10 to 15 years, Ireland’s food culture has changed profoundly. The country has, unfortunately, embraced the world of industrial, mass-produced food. But at the same time our younger, economically buoyant generation has taken an interest in finer cooking. Dining out is also more in fashion than it has ever been. Happily, this new interest in food has helped revive some very traditional Irish dishes. Colcannon, one of Ireland’s most appealing potato recipes, was once considered too quaint for any self-respecting restaurant. But it’s one of the simple, wholesome dishes that’s now back in fashion. Colcannon is a mashed potato dish made with cabbage or kale, and is a hearty, warming dish that’s great in winter.

A Halloween favorite

The word colcannon comes from the Gaelic cál ceannann, which means “white-headed cabbage.” The dish we recognise today probably originated during the seventeenth century, because that is when potatoes were first introduced to Ireland. At the time, the cauldron and potato came together to produce a wide variety of satisfying, starchy creamed dishes,later recognised by a series of odd names like champ, and pandy, bruisy, poundies and thump-names – all of which refer to the pounding or thumping process used in their preparation. Colcannon was made by mixing cooked curly kale or cabbage and sometimes turnip into the creamy mess of potatoes. It was served in bowls, topped off with a good lump of melting butter.

Many poor, rural families prepared Colcannon on festive occasions, particularly Halloween and St. Brigid’s day. It was considered a luxury at a time when plain boiled potatoes, taken with a little salt (if available) or buttermilk dip, predominated the diet. Cream, milk and butter were little available to the poor in rural Ireland, right on through the 18th and 19th centuries.

Eager brides

There were even rituals involving Colcannon. On Halloween, games of marriage divination were played by the young, the old and, most importantly, the unmarried. Young girls eager for marriage slept with a bowl of colcannon under the bed or in a sock under their pillows, hoping its presence would promote dreams of future suitors. Quite often, a wedding ring was hidden in the communal bowl of colcannon — the lucky girl who found it in her scoop was sure to marry within the year.

For festive occasions, consider the addition of warming and comforting colcannon. It is easily and quickly prepared, taking no more than 40 minutes. As a side dish, it’s almost a meal in itself. But it makes an excellent accompaniment to roast beef, roast chicken or roast pork. For best results, use floury varieties of potato. Here in Ireland we use two predominant floury varieties: Golden Wonders and Kerr’s Pinks. In America, you can use Idaho potatoes.

Recipe for Colcannon

Serves 6 – 8

2-3lbs/900g-1.3kg floury potatoes
1lb/450g spring or Savoy cabbage
9floz/250ml milk salt and freshly ground pepper
2oz/50g butter

  • Scrub the potatoes well and place unpeeled in a covered saucepan of cold water.
  • Add a good pinch of salt (to heighten flavor) and bring to the boil, keeping the lid on the saucepan.
  • When the potatoes are half cooked, approx. 15-20 minutes, pour off most of the water, replace the lid and allow to steam on a very low heat until they are tender.
  • When the potatoes are just cooked, strain off any remaining liquid, (if any) return the potatoes to the pot and cover with a tea towel to steam and fluff up further
  • Prepare the cabbage by removing the tougher outer leaves. Wash the remaining head and cut into quarters, making sure to cut off the white core from each quarter.
  • Cut the cabbage finely across the grain and place in boiling salted water.
  • Continue to boil until tender.
  • Strain and season with a salt and pepper and toss in the butter.
  • While the cabbage is cooking heat the milk in a saucepan and bring to the boil.
  • Skin the potatoes and mash quickly. To achieve best results make sure that the potatoes are still hot while mashing, add the hot milk and beat to a fine puree.
  • Stir in the cooked, hot cabbage, taste for seasoning and serve immediately in hot large or small bowls with the must-have knob of melting butter.

Always top off with a generous knob of butter—yes, real cream butter—that melts into a golden lake as your creation is presented to table.

Regina Sexton is a food historian and food writer living in County Clare.