Classic Irish Stew
- Servings: 6.
Growing up with an Irish father, I was certainly familiar with Irish stew and we ate it often. There's probably some etymologic explanation about how a simple meat stew became nationalistic, but let's agree that it is generally made with lamb and potatoes. Beyond that, most Irish families add their own touches, as with the addition of onions or carrots, or both. It doesn't get much more complex than that, which is much of its appeal.
I love lrish stew for its savory and satisfying heft. Best eaten in cold weather, it is simple to make but three techniques keep it from becoming too ordinary. The first is to use good lamb so that it has good flavor; I like New Zealand lamb and use it when I can find it. Second, layer the ingredients so that the potatoes are placed on top; this keeps them from becoming mushy. And third, use a beurre marie or roux at the very end to turn the thin cooking broth into a beautiful and silky gravy-like liquid.
This version includes barley, which adds texture and a subtle nutty flavor. But if you make this stew in advance and plan to reheat it the next day (when most stews, including this one, develop more flavor) be aware that the barley will absorb much of the stew's liquid, making it thicker on day two than if you serve it right after cooking it.
This recipe is adapted from one by the charming and gifted Irish chef, Clodagh McKenna who adds the flavor-building step of browning the vegetables before they go into the stewing broth. I've made and eaten scores of Irish stews and this is the best I've ever had. See if you agree.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 pounds boneless, trimmed lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch chunks
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
- 1 large onion, peeled, quartered, and cut into very thin slices
- 4 large or 6 medium waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 cup pearl barley
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme, with leaves removed and stems discarded
- 2 quarts meat stock (lamb broth is best but you can also use chicken stock or 1 qt. chicken and 1 qt. beef stock)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Preheat the oven to 300º F.
- Place a large casserole or Dutch oven on high heat, melt the butter, and add the lamb. Season with salt and pepper and lower the heat to medium high and brown the pieces. Work in two batches if your pan isn't large enough to cook all the lamb at once because over-crowding will cause the meat to steam. Transfer the browned lamb to a plate.
- Keeping the heat at medium high, add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the slices are softened and becoming brown, about 8 minutes. Push to one side of the pan and add the carrots. Continue to cook both vegetables until the onions are browned and the carrots start getting color. Transfer to a bowl.
- Add the potatoes to the pan and repeat the process, removing them to their own bowl when they have browned a bit.
- Return the lamb, onions and carrots to the pan, add the barley and stir a bit to combine all the ingredients. Add the potatoes on top in a layer and sprinkle the thyme leaves on top of them.
- Pour the stock -- all 2 quarts even if it seems like too much -- to the pan.
- Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Cover the pan. Place in the oven and cook for 1 1/2 hours.
- A few minutes before the stew is finished cooking make a roux: melt the butter in a small saucepan and sprinkle in the flour. Stir to combine until it forms a paste and cook for another 30 or so seconds just to cook the flour and not to add any color. Turn off the heat until the stew is finished cooking.
- Once done, remove the stew from the oven and ladle about a cup of the hot cooking liquid into the roux, keeping the saucepan over a low heat and stir to combine, adding more liquid if necessary to loosen the paste. Cook, stirring, until it thickens into a smooth gravy; this only takes about half a minute.
- Add the gravy back into the stew and stir to combine.
- Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.
You can serve the stew immediately or let it cool and then refrigerate. Like most stews, it reheats beautifully and usually tastes even better the next day, when it will be thicker due to the barley and potatoes absorbing much of the broth.
Tip: Resist using leg of lamb for this stew because it can become tough when you braise it. Instead buy a boneless shoulder and trim and cut it yourself (or ask your butcher to do this) into 2-inch pieces, being sure to cut off all the fat so that your stew doesn't become greasy. A 3-pound boneless shoulder will produce about 2-pounds of stew meat.
Tip: Don't cut the lamb into pieces that are too small because they shrink as they cook. Aim at 2-inches, if that seems too big when the meat is raw.
I use red skinned potatoes, often called red bliss, because they are more waxy than Yukon gold ones and thus stay firm even when fully cooked.