Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Irish stew

Stew. A four letter word that spells happiness. Fulfillment. Comfort. A release from anxiety.

It can mean love. A mother's, a wife's, a husband's, a friend's. If you are fed a good stew you have been welcomed home.

Of course, stew can also spell disaster, disappointment and dishwater. Easily avoidable.

Stews: a South African waterblommetjie or green bean bredie, French boeuf bourgignon, coq au vin (and bouillabaisse, for that matter). Hungarian chicken paprikash...The list is mouthwateringly endless. Every culture has a slow-cooked, moist dish of meat and vegetables. Each draws ingredients from its points of evolution.

Purists maintain that Irish stew should contain no more than meat, potatoes and onions. Which is fine. Others add root vegetables. I am an Other, and we are still on the cusp of root vegetable season. I also use lamb that is still on the bone: shoulder chops are economical, have good seams of fat and the bones do wonderful things for the broth. Good stew is all about the broth. Serve it with a spoon.

I add a little, just a little, Guinness. First I added a lot and the result was just a bitter disaster. I mean, I don't like drinking it so why did I try and cook with it? In a word: pressure. And then, in the spirit of Guinness and Black (a drink surely invented to make the hard core beer more palatable), I added a dollop of black currant syrup - look for Ribena, or use Crème de Cassis. Success. But use a paler beer if you like. Hardly anyone in Ireland actually drinks Guinness...

Another thing. There IS no modern culinary herb native to Ireland. Unless something grows in the hedgerows of which I am unaware. I need to forage in Ireland. So I add no herbs. At first this induced some panic, because herbs, well, they flow in my blood. But it will be OK. I promise.

For the last hour I finish the stew in the oven (I see eyebrows rising) after stirring in a little flour and butter paste (beurre manié)...Caramelizing, thickening, all good things in the land of stew.


Irish Stew for Four:

2 Tbps butter. This is no place for olive oil.
4 lamb shoulder chops, cut quite thick, fat intact, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 large onion, cut into 1/8ths
2 large, mature carrots (yes, they are sweeter), peeled and cut into even batons
2 medium turnips, peeled and quartered
1 cup Guinness
1/4 tsp salt
3 Tbsps black currant cordial or Crème de Cassis
3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut down the middle
1 Tbsp butter plus 2 tsp flour, mashed to a paste
Salt, pepper

In a heavy bottomed pot (with a lid for later), melt the butter and add the seasoned lamb chops (whole) when it sizzles. Brown on each side, and don't overcrowd the pan. The browning starts the long process of flavour-building. Remove chops and add onions, cooking over medium high heat but never scorching. Be patient here, about five minutes to take on some colour at the edges. Remove the onions, return meat to the pan, pile onions back on top, and add carrots and turnips. Pour in the Guinness and black currant cordial, stir to scrape up the bits stuck to the bottom and add enough water to barely cover the top layer of vegetables. Add the quarter teaspoon of salt. Turn the heat up to bring this all to a boil and when it does immediately lower to a simmer and cook, covered, with a whisper of steam allowed to escape, for an hour.

After an hour add the potatoes and parsnips (earlier and they can turn to mush). Check the liquid level - add water to cover them if necessary. Cook another 30 minutes on top of the stove, covered. Stir in the butter and flour paste.

Heat the oven to 375'F/190'C.

Pop the pot, with lid, into the oven and cook another hour and a quarter.

When the pot comes out, the sides will have browned with concentrated juice. With a wooden spoon wet the sides with the broth in the pot and scrape them down as much as possible. Taste the juice. If necessary, add a little salt.

Have warm bowls ready for serving the stew. I like to spoon it over a pile of wheat berries or barley - their texture is a firm foil for the falling-apart meat and soft vegetables and they suck up the delicious juice.

Or just dunk hunks of warm soda bread into the gravy. You won't be sorry.


  1. Yum. Now I want stew, not homemade chicken fried rice with sauteed bok choy! The only modern herb I know that's indigenous to Ireland/England is chives (if you consider alliums herbs). But that would be superfluous here anyway. And I hope you're serving with Irish wine (begins with w, ends with y).

  2. Hm. You've got a good idea there, Janet. Next time I will add some whiskey after browning the meat, and burn it off. Then just water or stock.

  3. Whiskey in irish is "uisce beatha" which means "water of life." I've always loved that. It will make your stew extra magical.

  4. If it were more magical, it would come with a leprechaun! sounds divine. May need to make a trip to the store for lamb chops tonight! thanks.

  5. Mmmmm! Nothing better than stew on a cold winter's day!


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