Okay, maybe for whatever reason you don’t have a hankering for corned beef and cabbage. Maybe you don’t like the smell of it or it somehow disagrees with your digestive system. For those of you who feel that way, fear not, for on this, Saint Patrick’s Day, there’s another little bit of Irish cuisine that might tickle your fancy. That is of course as long as you’re not a vegetarian and have no problem with a good old fashioned hearty stew.
Back in the days of old on the Emerald Island, farming and working the land were the norm rather than the exception. With that in mind, raising and herding sheep were one of the mainstays of the Irish lifestyle. After all, sheep were a ready source of wool to make clothes and blankets to get you through the chill of the Irish winter. They also provided milk for the family that could also be turned to cheese should you have a taste and the time for it. When all was said and done, the noble sheep could also be turned into quite a tasty meal.
”Ballymaloe” as it’s known in Gaelic is what we once knew as the traditional Irish stew. Usually made from mutton, hardly a piece of the slaughtered animal went to waste. Less meaty portions such as neck bones and shanks were boiled down with other vegetables native to the country to make stock and then meat itself was cut into bite-sized chunks and combined with potatoes, parsnips and carrots to make a thick stew to feed the masses. Since many of the Irish held to the strict interpretation of the Catholic Church when it came to matters of contraception, families tended to be large and the stew was a cheap economic alternative to feed the many mouths gathered around the dinner table.
When the Irish Potato Famine struck, many families were forced to leave their beloved homeland and head for the shores of America. As the years went by their traditional Irish stew evolved to include the new food staples of their adopted homeland. Since sheep was not as plentiful here in the States, beef became the main substitute. As the years went by more and more variations of this traditional favorite began gracing the dinner tables all across America.
Since I’m not that much of a fan of lamb and don’t know anywhere where I can score some mutton, here’s a little dish that I’ve made on a number of occasions over the years with pretty good results. Once again, Irish cooking being what it is, the list of ingredients is pretty basic but maybe that’s what makes it so special.
Here’s what you need
A couple of pounds beef stew meat
to brown said beef stew meat.
to dredge said beef stew meat
A couple of three or so coarsely chopped onion
Two or three crushed cloves of garlic
A small can or two of tomato paste
either diced or cut into chunks
If you want, a potato or two cut into cubes wouldn’t hurt.
A wee dram of cayenne pepper
Maybe a sprig or two of fresh thyme
A six pack or two of Guinness
– one or two to cook the stew in, the rest for you to enjoy.
Here’s what you do.
Now, some people will tell you to trim the meat of any fat. Maybe I’m lazy but I don’t consider it necessary unless it comes in an obscene amount. Even then, I like to leave a bit on as it usually cooks down and helps add a meatier flavor to the dish. Dredge the meat in the flour that you’ve already salted, peppered and added that dram of cayenne pepper to. Get it all nice and covered. Melt the butter in your favorite frying pan but don’t let it brown. Depending on the size of the pan, you might have to do this in stages brown the meat on all sides but don’t overcook it. When it’s about done, plop in the onions, potatoes, carrots, garlic and the tomato paste. Cover it up and let it simmer for about five minutes.
By now, the house should be smelling pretty good. Transfer all that stuff to a large casserole dish if you're going to do it in the oven or to a large pot if you're going to try the stovetop method. (I prefer stovetop.) and top it off with a bottle or two of Guinness. If you're going the oven route, do it for two or three hours at 300 degrees. If you're like me and like the stove method, bring it to a simmer and let it cook away.
Now that the hard part is over, crack one or those Guinness's for yourself and let time, fire and heat do the rest for the next couple of hours. Oh, you might have to get up and give it a stir every now and then but that’s a small price to pay for what you’re about to enjoy.
When it’s done, ladle it into a large bowl and break out a loaf of Irish Soda Bread. Pour yourself a glass of stout, offer up a blessing and toast your good fortune for having what you have.
After all, that’s what a true Irishman would do.
From my table to yours, Happy Saint Paddy’s Day!