Being very interested in traditional recipes, I decided to cook a traditional Irish stew many years ago. This was a famous dish, and the ingredients were few, and the method simple. What could go wrong?
Quite a bit, in fact. There were many different versions, making it difficult to pick one. But whichever one I tried, the result was mediocre, at best. After many failed attempts, over a period of years, I gave up. Maybe this old recipe was not so good, after all.
Three days ago, now being a much better and more experienced cook, I decided to try Irish stew again.
This is an old dish, and one that was quite famous at times. Of course, there is far more than one stew in Irish cuisine, but this one got a lot of press. The ingredients are quite simple:
- A cheap cut of lamb, preferably with bones
- Lots of potatoes
- Some fresh parsley and fresh thyme
- Salt and pepper
This seems to be the simplest, most authentic version, though many would disagree, especially in Ireland, where carrots are traditionally added in some areas. Chefs who make a version of Irish stew tend to pretty it up, adding more ingredients and steps. But I decided to stick with the old version, based on a very old cookbook. This old recipe did not give amounts, or cooking times, but did specify the ingredients and the method.
The traditional cut is grassfed lamb neck, a cut full of bones and fat. The problem was that I had no source of grassfed lamb neck. The lamb I had access to was lean, with the fat trimmed off by the processor. I decided to add a lamb bone from a roast, and some butter to make up for the leanness of the meat.
The recipe called for putting down a layer of sliced potatoes, then a layer of fresh herbs, then a layer of meat, then a layer of sliced onions. This was to be repeated, and topped with a layer of potatoes. Each layer was to be salted and peppered. I decided not to salt the very thin herb layers.
The recipe also suggested adding “just enough” water. After consulting many other recipes, I decided on an amount.
I prepared the pot. Each layer went in, was seasoned as decided, the estimated amount of water was added, the pot brought to a simmer, covered, and into the oven. I had decided that a “low oven” was 250 degrees. The cooking time given was quite common in older recipes — “cook until done.” I decided to test it after a couple of hours.
After about an hour and forty-five minutes, a wonderful smell filled the kitchen, and I got the feeling it was ready. I eagerly removed it from the oven, opened the pot, and was rewarded by a gravy that looked like — water. It seemed that I had failed again. But I decided to add a good amount of organic cornstarch mixed with water, and to simmer it until the gravy reached the “creamy” thickness spoken of by the recipe. This was done, and it was time to taste it.
It was wonderful. The ingredients had kind of melted into each other, though the pieces of meat were still distinct. Everything was permeated with a nice grassfed lamb flavor, not at all strong, but delightful, set off perfectly by the onions and herbs. The texture was creamy, and a joy to eat, very comforting to the mouth and stomach. It was so much more than the sum of its parts. I finally got it right, though I made a lot of adjustments. This is an example of how I am developing traditional recipes for modern kitchens in my upcoming book.
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