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A Springtime Champ

Of the three great Irish dishes starring the potato — champ, colcannon, and boxty — I think champ is my favorite. Boiled potatoes mashed with hot milk, butter, and sautéed green onions or other alliums is so simple and so delicious. It's one of my favorite comfort foods in the winter or fall. But I also think of champ as a springy dish because it can incorporate the fresh green shoots of vegetables just poking up through the earth.

Colcannon is essentially the same recipe, but with sautéed cabbage (or kale) instead of the onions. I once waited tables at a restaurant in Dublin where we served both dishes to a touristy clientele. Not having grown up with the dishes, I had trouble at first remembering which was champ and which was colcannon so I could explain it to diners unfamiliar with Irish food. I came up with the mnemonic device "col-cabbage" and I never forgot again.

Champ is easy to make. It's one of those recipes that's barely a recipe. Just boil and mash all the potatoes you have, simmer sliced green onions (scallions) in milk and let the milk soak up all the flavor of the onions. When the milk is hot, add it to the potatoes and keep whipping/mashing until smooth. I like to go one step further with the onions though and also use leeks. I also like to use cream in place of milk. When I made this dish last night, I also ventured out into my just-awakening herb garden and snipped some chives. If you have access to wild leeks or garlic, that would be good too.

Darina Allen's Irish Traditional Cooking has a nice history of the dish and details of all of the variations she's found around the island, including champ recipes using peas, stinging nettles, and dulse (seaweed). Her basic recipe is as follows:

6-8 unpeeled potatoes

3-4 scallions (*I use a lot more than this. A lot more! Plus two or three leeks and chopped chives)

1 and ½ cups milk (*I use cream because . . . )

3/4 stick butter

salt and pepper

Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets. Chop finely the scallions or chives (*or leeks). Cover the scallions/chives with milk and bring slowly to a boil. Let simmer for 3-4 minutes, then turn off the heat and the let infuse. Peel and mash the potatoes and while hot, mix with the boiling milk and onions. Beat in some of the butter and season to taste. Serve with a generous knob of butter melting in the middle.


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