Molly Malone: A Soup And Song For St. Patrick's Day

Mar 14, 2013
Originally published on March 26, 2013 6:48 pm

There's always the temptation of heading to an Irish pub, grabbing a pint of Guinness and chowing down on some cabbage and potatoes when March 17 rolls around.

However, there's much more to Irish cuisine than that, says Rachel Allen, a well-known TV chef in Ireland who is appreciated for her simple, doable recipes that champion the country's fresh produce, meats and seafood.

Allen offers one such dish, Molly Malone's Cockle and Mussel Chowder, for All Things Considered's Found Recipe series.

"This is the kind of dish I just love to give to family and friends," Allen says. "It's warming, it's cozy, it's like a big hug in a bowl. And our children love it."

The creamy chowder uses cockles and mussels — although Allen says you can use clams if you can't find cockles — as well as smoked bacon, leeks, carrots and potatoes.

It's a version of a mussel soup her husband used to make for her when they had just started dating. One time, they couldn't find enough mussels, so they added cockles, which reminded Allen of the old Irish folksong, "Molly Malone."

"They say she's a fictional character, but I think she was real. She was a fishmonger, and she used to wheel her wheelbarrow through streets broad and narrow," Allen says of the song's lyrics.

Allen says the song always reminds her of this recipe, and of the early days when she and her husband were falling in love.

Recipe: Molly Malone's Cockle And Mussel Chowder

Molly Malone was a beautiful girl who sold cockles and mussels and died tragically of a fever while still young, or so the song goes. Molly may not have been a real girl, but since at least the 17th century, there have been fishmongers on the streets of Dublin who sell "cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!" Cockles, with their distinctive flavor and lovely curved shell, are traditionally eaten in Ireland with oatcakes. If you can only find mussels, this chowder will be just as good.

Serve either as a substantial appetizer or with chunks of crusty bread as a meal in its own right.

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

4 ounces smoked bacon, diced

2 tablespoons butter

4 ounces leek, trimmed and very finely diced

4 ounces carrot, very finely diced

10 ounces potato (about 1 medium), peeled and finely diced

2 1/4 pounds mixed cockles and mussels

1 1/4 cups dry white wine

3/4 cup milk

3/4 cup light or heavy cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley

Heat the sunflower oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and saute for about 1 minute, until crisp and golden.

Add the butter in the pan and melt. Then add the leek, carrot and potato. Reduce the heat to low and saute gently for 4 to 5 minutes, until soft but not browned.

Meanwhile, prepare the cockles and mussels. Scrub the shells clean and discard any that remain open when you tap them against a hard surface. Remove the beard — the little fibrous tuft — from each mussel.

Bring the wine to a boil in a large saucepan and add the cockles and mussels. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the shells have opened.

Remove from the heat, drain the shellfish in a colander (reserving the cooking juices) and discard any shells that remain closed. Return the shellfish to the empty pan to keep warm. Place a fine sieve over a measuring cup and strain the cooking liquid. You should have at least 2 1/2 cups; if not, add water to make up that quantity.

Add the pan juices and the milk to the bacon and vegetable mixture and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer for 6 to 8 minutes, until the potato is tender. Add the cream and simmer for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the soup is reduced and thickened slightly. Season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, remove half of the cockles and mussels from their shells and add them, with the remaining cockles and mussels still in their shells, to the chowder. Stir in the parsley and serve at once.

Recipe reprinted from Rachel's Irish Family Food by Rachel Allen, copyright 2013. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins.

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Get out your green, St. Patrick's Day is nigh - this Sunday, in fact. But don't worry, you will be prepared. Or at least your table will be. See, we have an Irish chef.

RACHEL ALLEN: Hi, I'm Rachel Allen and I'm from a place called Ballymaloe in County Cork. You know, this is not a day that I'm going to have a Southeast Asian broth.

BLOCK: Because, while delicious, Southeast Asian broth isn't Irish, which, hello, is the point of celebrating St. Patrick's Day. Rachel Allen says, for her, it's a day spend with family enjoying good home-cooked Irish food. And one of those dishes is today's found recipe, a hearty soup she named after a popular folksong.

ALLEN: Molly Malone's cockle and mussel chowder.


ALLEN: This song, "Molly Malone," is a song that any self-respecting Irish person knows exactly. They say she's a fictional character, but I think she was real. She was a fishmonger and she used to wheel her wheelbarrow through streets broad and narrow. And she sold the fish and lots of cockles and mussels.


ALLEN: Alive, alive-o, as in fresh, fresh. Cockles, mussels, you know I have on my barrow. So my recipe, Molly Malone's cockle and mussel chowder, it is a meal in a bowl. As we say in Ireland, it has both eating and drinking in it. Actually, that's what people often say about a pint of stout. You've got obviously cockles and mussels. If you can't find cockles, clams are a perfect replacement for the cockles, but you've also got some smoked bacon.

And I really love using smoked bacon because I love the salty, smoky flavor, how it works with the sort of sweet, salty, you know, cockles and mussels. I also put into this some leeks, carrots and some potatoes, a little bit of wine, white wine and then some milk and cream and lots of fresh chopped parsley over the top.


ALLEN: This is the kind of recipe that I find incredibly comforting to make. It's the kind of dish that I just love to give to family and friends and it's warming, it's cozy. You know, it's like a big hug in a bowl and our children love it.


BLOCK: That's Rachel Allen, sharing her recipe, Molly Malone's cockle and mussel chowder. You can find it on the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED page at One last thing. What became of that sweet fishmonger?

ALLEN: So, poor Molly Malone, it wasn't really a happy ending for her. As it goes in the song, she died of a fever and no one could save her. And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone. So it's kind of sad. It's ever so slightly tragic, but really it's the most beloved of songs. And if you walk into any Irish bar or pub on St. Patrick's Day, you are bound to hear people singing that song.


BLOCK: That's the Dubliners there and you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.