Okay it’s just Irish stew, but it’s Saint Patrick’s day, so today it’s Saint Patrick’s Day Stew! It’s still chilly out there these days, so what could be more warming or welcoming than a big bowl of that iconic one-pot meal to gird your loins in anticipation of the Irish festivities tonight?
So what makes a stew an Irish Stew? For starters, traditionally Irish stew is made with mutton; and to be more specific, with mutton necks. A little bone here, but you know the old saying, “The closer to the bone the sweeter the meat.” Necks are also preferred as they are a cheaper cut, and when you stew them you get every last morsel of meat, and the hours long process of slow cooking also makes a better stock from the bones and cartilage. Typically the bones are stewed for a couple of hours and then removed and the meat, which at this point is pretty much falling off the bone is picked off and returned to the pot.
Mutton is an older lamb, at least one year old, and has a deeper, “gamier” flavor. It is also less tender, maybe even tough, depending on the age of the animal, so it requires or at least benefits from long, slow stewing, traditionally over an open fire.
On this side of the pond we are more used to dining on spring lamb, lamb chops and lamb leg rather than mutton. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, sheep were more important to the Irish economy for their wool and milk than their flesh, so they were kept on farms much longer. It is only once they got old that they were introduced to the stew pot; the thought of slaughtering a spring lamb more than likely seemed a waste.
Another key ingredient in a traditional Irish stew are potatoes, introduced to Ireland in the sixteenth century from the New World and certainly an important crop in Ireland in the nineteenth century, and the root of the Great Famine of that country in the middle of that century. Onions were also plentiful, so into the cauldron they went. Cover with water and there you have it, the most basic of Irish stews, made with what was on hand, plentiful and cheap.
Nowadays you can tart up a stew til the cows come home, adding red wine, garlic, herbs like thyme and parsley and a variety of other root vegetables like carrots and turnips and grains like barley to thicken it. Here’s a recipe that seems to get it right. Serve with the best bread you can get your hands on, something like this. Or this.
And of course you could use different meats like beef and venison. Some folks add Guinness or a strong Irish stout to the stock. But does this make it Irish? Good question, and one that no doubt will be debated between purists and apostates all over the world today, especially where the stew is hot and the beer is green.