The Lighter Side of St. Patrick's Day

No, corned beef does not involve actual corn. But our humorous look at the holiday will hopefully help you enjoy it, without stymying your weight loss.
Published March 6, 2016

St. Patrick’s Day is upon us! It’s that special holiday that doesn't get you a day off, but it sure is fun, isn’t it? To celebrate, we've deconstructed traditional Irish dishes, with an eye toward cutting SmartPointsTM values, while still kicking up our heels with a frothy mug of green beer. Erin go bragh! (That means “Ireland forever!”)

Here are a few quick bites about St. Patrick’s Day:

  • The Irish historically considered green to be an unlucky colour to wear because it meant fairies would snatch you up and steal you.
  • The traditional Irish diet consisted mostly of lamb and garden and root vegetables.
  • Corned beef was most likely created on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1800s, when Irish immigrants made brisket their own.

St. Patrick's Day is all about celebration and merriment. Just be mindful that holiday fare can be wrought with land mines quietly lying in wait to destroy your hard-fought weight-loss progress.

There are no real surprises below: Corned beef in copious amounts can derail your weight-loss efforts. As can too many overflowing mugs of green beer (made by simply placing a few drops of green food-colouring into a glass of light ale). And a McDonald’s McCafe Shamrock Shake? You don’t want to know (though you really do: 12 ounces is 27 SmartPoints).

Corned beef
What exactly is corned beef? The “corn” part refers to the grains of coarse salt used to cure the meat, and has nothing to do with actual corn.

The meat’s origin is dicey. Some say Irish families cured the meat to keep it from spoiling. Others say there was no way Irish peasants could afford such a delicacy more likely reserved for nobles.

Scholars seem to have settled on the idea that Irish immigrants borrowed brisket from their Jewish neighbours on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1800s. It was said that the Irish immigrants sought a substitute for Irish bacon and simply adapted their newfound neighbours’ brisket recipe.

Because it’s one of the least tender cuts of meat, it requires a lot of boiling, low and slow, to break down the fibres. Unfortunately, there aren’t really many ways to reduce the SmartPoints value on this one, since the recipe basically calls for stewing a slab of fatty meat in flavourful water containing peppercorns, bay leaves and assorted root vegetables.

The best ways to trim the SmartPoints value of corned beef is to trim the fat before cooking and strain the top of the boiling water frequently to collect the fat that cooks off of the meat and rises to the top.

At a SmartPoints value of 6 per 3-ounce serving, this, like other fatty meats, is a dish best eaten in moderation.

Ah, good old cabbage, the quintessential accompaniment to that steaming plate of corned beef. Although it’s likely to make many wrinkle their nose, the weight-conscious should regard cabbage as a friend, as it contains fibre and is rich in vitamins C and K, with red cabbage also being rich in vitamin A. It’s said to be brimming with antioxidants, and some research has even suggested it may help to stave off certain cancers.

For the uninitiated, cabbage in its traditional Irish culinary form is cubed and added to the boiling pot of corned beef during the last 20 minutes of cooking. Heavy amounts of pepper help bring it to life.

Because it’s fat-free and has a SmartPoints value of 0, this is the stuff to pile high atop your plate when you're sitting down to toast good old St. Patrick.

The potato
Peruvian origins notwithstanding, the potato has become a bona-fide Irish original if ever there was one. That glorious tuber vegetable with a bad rap is a must-have for any authentic Irish meal.

Historians will point out that the potato meant life or death for the Irish between approximately 1845 and 1852, when the Great Potato Famine killed about one million and eventually caused another estimated two million more to flee Ireland. The famine is a flashpoint in Irish history, and historians often refer to the Emerald Isle’s timeline in pre- and post-famine terms.

No hard-core traditional Irish feast is complete without colcannon, a (sort of) mix between potato-leek soup and a mashed potato. Traditionally, leeks are boiled in milk and removed. Boiled potatoes are added to the leek-flavoured milk and mashed. The chopped, boiled leeks, along with cream cheese, are added back. (Tip: Use fat-free milk and fat-free cream cheese to cut the SmartPoints values.)

So who is St. Patrick?
Five random facts about the name behind the holiday:

  1. St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born in 387 AD in Britain and given the name Maewyn Succat. He died March 17, 461. 
  2. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. He was 16 when he was captured and carried off from Britain to be a slave in Ireland before escaping six years later. 
  3. St. Patrick is said to have popularized the shamrock by wearing the three-leaved plant on his garments to teach the Irish about the Holy Trinity: The Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
  4. St. Patrick was credited for banishing snakes from Ireland, but evidence has since suggested that the Emerald Isle never had any snakes. 
  5. St. Patrick was never officially canonized by a pope, but he is included in the list of saints.