Updated: Mar 22, 2020
Irish stew is the culinary equivalent of a big, woolly scarf" Felicity Cloake
I have done the wrong thing here. Today I decided to make Irish stew for dinner. David wanted apple pie for dessert, and so I thought I would go all out British. Not that Ireland is Britain, but you know what I mean. Besides they had some lamb forequarter chops in the supermarket and so that was my inspiration. What I have done wrong though is that I started late in the day on the post and had only skimmed a couple of web sites before realising that I had to put my Irish stew the oven pretty soon and before writing the post. And so I did, mostly according to vague memories of what my mother did when I was young. And the photograph above is the closest I could find to how I remembered it looking. However I am now wondering whether I am actually remembering Lancashire Hotpot.
Anyway the die is cast. The lamb stew I have put together is cooking slowly in the oven and wafting deliciously into the air. And I will look at Lancashire Hotpot tomorrow to see if I got it all wrong.
Irish stew is of course Irish - hence the importance of the potatoes. Having now checked out various recipes I have come to the conclusion that the genuine article consists of just four ingredients - lamb, onions, potatoes and water - with a few herbs on top perhaps. And the recipe for Irish Stew that comes from a website called 4 Ingredients and from which my main picture comes, is probably the closest to that ideal that I have found. And the 4 Ingredients lady got it from a book called The Easiest One Pot Cookbook Ever.
I consciously erred from the strict version as above by adding carrots and a mix of parsley and thyme to my layers. Well I thought the parsley and thyme were genuine but now that I think about it I don't think my mother ever added such things. And I also added a bit of chicken stock, though most of the liquid is water.
Irish stew as it is today with the emphasis on potatoes could not, of course, have existed before the discovery of potatoes in the New World. However, the Irish were making stews out of tough old lamb well before then. And this is what you are really supposed to make it out of - mutton - old lamb, and my mother did probably make it with mutton. You could get mutton back then. Not so much now. And I think she probably made it with scrag end of neck chops at the end of the month when the money was running out. Nowadays you can only get lamb of course, so I made it with the aforesaid forequarter chops - which is shoulder really I think. Why mutton? Well apparently because young sheep were too valuable.
“the economic importance of sheep lay in their wool and milk produce, and thus ensured that only old or economically non-viable animals ended up in the cooking pot”. Regina Sexton
It was sometimes made with kid though. Which is ironic isn't it because I'm guessing that goat is hard to come by in Britain these days and also probably expensive. Indeed it was interesting to see various writers referring to lamb shanks as expensive. They also used to be a cheap cut - like oxtail. But I digress.
So how do you make Irish Stew? Well basically you layer lamb chops with potatoes and onions, and perhaps parsley and thyme, pour water over the top and cook in the oven for a couple of hours. So simple and so tasty. Robert Carrier was so enamoured of this very simple dish that he included it in his updated New Great Dishes of the World, in the Great Classics section.
"One of the most satisfying dinners in the world is a simple Irish stew - shoulder or middle neck of lamb, or better yet, mutton, cooked, at it's simple best, with a little sliced onion and mixed herbs for flavour, and sliced potatoes for thickening. The cooking medium is, of course, water, or at the most a light broth. A scattering of chopped flat-leaf parsley is enough to garnish this lovely dish."
He does admit that you can add 'illicit flavour and savour to this great dish' by adding carrots and celery and pearl barley. other common additions.
And Felicity Cloake in her Perfect Irish Stew article covers just about all of the illicit extras. Her version - shown here, seems to stray quite a bit it seems to me, but that's what's so good about these classic dishes I guess.
Still the purists are quite adamant about these extras.
“Irish stew without potatoes is not Irish stew – this is non-negotiable.” Niamh Shields
“it is quite wrong to cook carrots with this stew, as the long cooking will leave them insipid”. Monica Sheridan
Which worries me because I did add some carrots.
I have four cookbooks in a series by Theodora Fitzgibbon which presents 'old' traditional recipes from various parts of Great Britain, accompanied by historical photographs. In the one on Ireland (A Taste of Ireland in Food and Pictures), she is adamant about the no extras.
"The pure flavour is spoilt if carrots, turnips or pearl barley are added, or if it is to liquid. A good Irish stew should be thick and creamy, not swimming in juice like soup."
Oh dear - I hope that mine doesn't end up like that. It's probably time to go and take the lid of the casserole so that the potatoes can brown a little, and some of the liquid can boil away.
There are lots of complicated versions of Irish Stew out there - they brown the onions and meat first, they add all sorts of extra things - Worcestershire sauce was a common one. Or the potatoes on top are fancy - delicious had little stacks of thin slices of roast potatoes on top. There's probably a version out there somewhere with sweet potatoes or pumpkin. Maybe even a vegan version.
Here are a selection of some of the more traditional ones - although none of them completely are. Delia has a thing about dumplings in her two versions: Irish stew with parsley dumplings and A bit of the Irish stew with crusted dumplings, whereas Jamie's which looks a bit like how I hope mine will look, has illegitimate pearl barley and carrots in it, whilst Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall's - well technically Simon Wheeler's - has two kinds of chops and turnips too. It's called Mrs. Wheeler's Irish Stew.
So I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that it will live up to this:
"it turns out that, for all of our fancy tastes, meat and tatties can still make us happy on a cold, grey day." Felicity Cloake