SIMPLE PERFECTION Irish lamb stew is easy to make and delicious to eat.
I’m quite – actually very – partial to a bit of local lamb/mutton. I love a good roasted leg or shoulder, which appears occasionally at big occasions. Mayo lamb/mutton is outstanding: Wild, natural, nutritious.
I LOVE a shoulder or gigot chop cooked under the medium-heat grill on tin foil. I like it seasoned with salt and cooked on one side until the spitting and roasting fat crispens up brown, then cooked other side in half the time of first side. I then let it rest under the turned-off grill for four or five minutes for the juices to run. Serve that to me with newly boiled small spuds or a classic baked spud, some butter, and I’m all yours!
In the last article I reiterated the maxim of my mother’s generation: Eat anything and everything in moderation. A massive societal change is happening with regarding to meat and vegetable consumption. In fact, in the last four months or so, attitudes seem to have changed at a massive rate.
A balanced diet is of importance to us individually and collectively. To my mum’s maxim I add my own bottom line: When it comes to consuming and appreciating meat, enjoy it in moderation, provided you know where it comes from, and you know that in both life and death the animal was treated fairly and respected.
To brown or not to brown
My God, I could write a book on this issue! All the post-1990 recipes that I have looked at for lamb stew mention ‘browning’ or ‘braising’ the lamb before assembling the stew. I’m going out on a limb here. Irish stew is actually all about just throwing it into the pot and letting the flavours intermingle.
Historically, for the poorer classes (most everyone in those days), lamb stew meant using a small amount of meat and letting it cook slowly out and tenderise, spreading the flavour among all the cheaper vegetables and grains, simple as. It’s a formula that’s worked for a long time. Don’t change a winning team, I say.
When it comes to cooking the stew, I don’t do bacon, I don’t do wine, I don’t do rendering cut-off fat and then frying veg in it. I don’t even do stock. I don’t even add a roux to thicken it. What I do do is follow what my instinct tells me and how I think my Granny Gibbon used to cook it. It was also confirmed to me recently that another granny, Granny Wendy, used the ‘throw it all in and cook’ criteria. I also remember my mum chatting about how the point of a lamb stew is that it the flavour is allowed to cook out from the meat – that means not browning it first to seal the flavour in!
The lamb spreads its flavour throughout the big stew pot, the delicious whole-food barley adds texture and the large pieces of carrot add colour, taste and heartiness. As with most Irish cooking, the onions, spuds and seasoning are essential. To do something different I have tried adding some nettles, they add a dark, mineral, metallic effect to the stew; weird but not unlikable.
A long book could be written about lamb stew variations, and indeed about how the evolution of this national dish reflects how we have changed in our own living styles.
Simple lamb stew
What you need
- 1½ handfuls of lamb shoulder, cut in chunks
- 1½ cups of pearl barley
- 4 good spuds, halved
- 4 carrots halved
- 4 medium onions (or six smaller ones)
- 2 knobs of butter, rolled in flour
What you do
Make sure your spuds and carrots are well washed; no need to peel then. Chop in half or in big chunks. Peel the onions and quarter then if their a medium size or leave whole if they’re small.
Place the spuds, carrots, barley, lamb and floury butter in a heavy-bottomed pot with a pint of water. Place on a medium heat, bring to the boil, place lid on the pot and simmer nicely for two hours, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on the heat and take care not to allow the ingredients burn at the bottom of the pot. I only add the seasoning in last quarter of cooking, as I don’t like putting the salt in too early.
That’s my version, and I’m sticking to it!
Red Cabot is interested in food, nature and small things. He sells his food at Westport Country Markets in St Anne’s Boxing Club, James’s Street car park, Westport, every Thursday, from 8am to 1pm.