- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

DUBLIN (AP)Meat, potatoes and vegetables.

It’s the quintessential trio for the quintessential Irish dish — Irish stew. But don’t be fooled by the one-pot simplicity; this hearty stew can pack astounding depth of flavor.

The best combination of ingredients for Irish stew is hotly debated, including whether lamb or beef belongs in the pot, and which variety and ratio of other vegetables should accompany it.

Here’s what you need to know:

THE MEAT

Though the dish often is made with beef, especially in places to which it has migrated, such as the United States, Irish chefs swear by lamb as the most authentic and best-tasting choice.

Irish stew evolved as home cooks threw together readily available ingredients for family meals and special occasions, and grass-fed lamb often was the easiest and cheapest option.

“Everything was thrown into the pot,” says Darina Allen, director of Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, explaining the stew’s humble origins. “It would have been what you had around you.”

Miss Allen prefers lamb meat on the bone because it significantly amplifies the flavor of the stew. In fact, some chefs even add more bones during simmering.

Thick-cut shoulder chops are the preferred cut, ideally from a young lamb.

“It would be the tenderest cut for cooking, for boiling in Irish stew, and the best value,” says Mark Downey, whose family owns John Downey & Son, an award-winning organic foods and butcher shop in Dublin.

He says the meat should be a pale pink color, indicating a good quality young lamb.

If thick-cut shoulder chops aren’t available, Mr. Downey says any tender cuts would work. He says it’s best to ask the butcher for the best, most tender bone-in cut available.

THE METHOD

For the best flavor, the meat should be browned in lamb fat before stewing, which Miss Allen says imparts more flavor than cooking oil. The easiest way to get this fat is to trim it from the meat and render it in the pan.

For additional flavor, the vegetables also do best when quickly browned in the lamb fat before stewing.

Though the browning is done on the stove, most of the cooking is done in the oven, which allows for slower cooking over about 1½ hours, leaving the meat “virtually falling off the bone,” Miss Allen says.

THE SEASONINGS

Tradition calls for simplicity — generous amounts of salt, freshly ground black pepper and thyme are standard.

Rosemary is a traditional seasoning for lamb, but it isn’t often used in Irish stew. Mary Gleeson, a member of Good Food Ireland and owner of Gleeson’s Townhouse & Restaurant in County Roscommon, likes to add it anyway for the savory kick it provides. Also critical for great flavor is the stock. Tradition demands lamb stock, an item few American cooks will be able to find at most mainstream grocers. Even fewer are likely to be willing to create their own.

Good flavor still can be had by using the next best thing, beef stock. The meat and vegetables are simmered slowly in this before being drained and defatted, then returned to the pot.

The defatting step is key. Using lamb fat for browning the ingredients not only adds flavor, it also adds a tremendous amount of fat. Remove excess fat at the end of cooking for the best flavor and mouth feel.

THE POTATOES

Potatoes are the backbone of the stew, contributing not just flavor, texture and bulk, but also the starch that helps thicken the stew.”We like floury potatoes best, so they’ll break up a little bit but get fluffy around the edges,” Miss Allen says. The ideal variety in the United States is the widely available Yukon Gold, which has just the right floury consistency.

Freshness is key, says Michael Hennessy, a potato expert with the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. A fresh potato should be very firm, and the skin should be unblemished.The potatoes are best peeled and halved, allowing them to break into large chunks as they cook, adding flavor and texture. They also are added to the pot halfway through cooking to prevent them from becoming too mushy.

OTHER VEGETABLES

Carrots are a must — though some parts of Northern Ireland omit them — as are onions. Miss Allen believes baby onions are the best fit for stew because they develop wonderful sweet tones during long simmering. However, chunks of larger yellow onions are a fine substitute.

White turnip is another traditional ingredient, adding a pleasant sharp flavor. Miss Allen warns that a little goes a long way. Too much turnip will overpower the other ingredients.

Though most Irish chefs avoid cluttering the stew with any other vegetables, saying they would detract from the core flavors of the dish, others add parsnips, beans and celery, which, Miss Gleeson says, add depth.

“The recipe for Irish stew is not carved in stone, but we tend to stick with the tradition and not fiddle around with it too much,” Miss Allen says.

Irish stew

Simple ingredients and slow cooking are the key to a succulent Irish stew. This recipe calls for thick-cut shoulder lamb chops, but any tender cuts could be substituted. Lamb stock is the best base for the stew, but if you can’t find that, use beef. From start to finish, this recipe takes 2 hours.

2 pints lamb stock (beef stock can be substituted)

1 tablespoon dried thyme

2½ pounds lamb shoulder chops, cut into individual portions with the bone left in

10 large carrots, cut into large chunks

12 baby onions, peeled but left whole (or 4 large yellow onions, quartered)

1/4 cup diced white turnip

1½ teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons pearl barley

10 Yukon Gold potatoes

1 cup chopped celery

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large saucepan, combine the stock and thyme. Warm on low while preparing remaining ingredients.

Trim fat from the meat, and place fat in a large skillet. Heat over medium-high until the fat melts.

About ½ pound at a time, add the lamb chops to the stockpot and brown on all sides. When the lamb chops have browned, use a slotted spoon to transfer them to an oven-proof stockpot. Repeat with remaining chops.

Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Return the skillet to the heat and add the carrots, onions and turnip to the skillet and saute until just lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

Transfer the vegetables to the stockpot. Add the barley. Pour the warmed stock over the meat and vegetables, then cover the stockpot and place in the oven. Cook for 45 minutes. Add the potatoes, then cover and cook for another 45 minutes.

Remove the stockpot from the oven. Use a slotted spoon to remove about half the meat and vegetables from the pot. Let the liquid rest for a moment to allow excess fat to collect on the surface. Use a large spoon to skim away and discard the fat. Return the meat and vegetables to the pot, then stir in the parsley and adjust seasonings. Makes 6 servings.

DIFFERENT corned beef

The Chinese have it right when it comes to including meat in a healthy diet. Their secret: more vegetables, less meat. To learn from this cuisine, don’t go by what you see on most American Chinese restaurant menus. Meat-heavy dishes such as sweet-and-sour pork and General Tso’s chicken are Western creations.

The typical Chinese diet consists mostly of complex carbohydrates such as vegetables and rice, plus proteins from soy products such as tofu. Meats are used in small amounts, usually for flavoring, and are likely to be the main course only for special occasions.

Western diets tend to be meat-centered, an approach that can contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

The Chinese approach to using meat in cooking is a great way to enjoy meats that are flavorful but fatty or high in sodium. For example, bacon makes an excellent seasoning because of its intense saltiness and deep smokey flavor.

This recipe for sweet-and-sour cabbage with corned beef borrows many of the elements of the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal and makes them into a healthy side dish.

Thin strips of deli-sliced corned beef, which are lean but quite salty, are used to flavor nutrient- and fiber-rich shredded cabbage and carrots. Cider vinegar, coarse Dijon mustard and a bit of brown sugar create a sweet and tangy contrast to the saltiness of the corned beef.

The dish is easy to prepare, but to save even more time, you can use pre-shredded cabbage (coleslaw mix) and pre-shredded or matchstick carrots, which can be found in the produce section of most grocers.

Sweet-and-sour cabbage with corned beef

From start to finish, this recipe takes 30 minutes.

1 teaspoon canola oil

4 ounces deli-sliced corned beef, cut into thin strips

3/4 cup water

1/4 cup cider vinegar

2 tablespoons coarse Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon brown sugar

6 cups shredded green cabbage (about 1 pound)

2 cups shredded carrots

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a large nonstick skillet with a lid, heat oil over medium-high.

Add the corned beef and saute, stirring often, until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add the water, vinegar, mustard and brown sugar. Stir to combine.

Add the cabbage and carrots and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Check the vegetables midway through and add more water if necessary.

Season with salt and pepper before serving. Makes 6 servings.

— Jim Romanoff

SODA BREAD

St. Patrick’s Day is almost a month away, but you can use it as an excuse to get the children into the kitchen to help with this easy, hands-on recipe for sweet soda bread studded with golden raisins.

The recipe calls for baking the dough as two loaves, but it could be divided into four to accommodate multiple baker’s helpers — and be prepared for a fun mess, for the dough is sticky.

Raisin soda bread

From start to finish, this recipe takes 1 hour, 15 minutes.

2 cups white whole-wheat flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup quick oats

1½ tablespoons baking soda

1½2 tablespoons salt

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups buttermilk

3 tablespoons molasses

2 cups golden raisins

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine the flours, oats, baking soda, salt and sugar, then use your hands or a wooden spoon to mix. Form a well in the center of the dry ingredients.

Into the well, pour the buttermilk and molasses. Mix until combined. Add the raisins, then use your hands to knead the dough (in the bowl or on lightly floured counter) several times to work in the raisins.

On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough in two, then shape each half into a round. Transfer the rounds to the prepared baking sheet. Have an adult use a knife to cut a large X in the top of each loaf.

Have an adult place the baking sheet in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake for another 40 to 45 minutes. The loaves should be lightly browned. Makes 8 servings.

Have an adult remove the baking sheet from the oven and let the loaves cool before eating.

— J.M. Hirsch


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