Grandpa’s Irish stew
There are no rules with Irish stew. There are different versions. It is always based on a principle of what’s available. Historically, the one consistent element has been mutton.
This dish is a product of economics. It has grown out of circumstance. Turnips and barley are sometimes used. Sometimes not. Turnips give an earthy, vegetable quality. The barley adds texture and a slightly sweet, nutty flavour.
My grandfather used to make Irish stew and to this day when I smell it I am back there. It is a really strong and distinctive smell – this combination of three or four ingredients: the potatoes and mutton and onions and, sometimes, carrots. Nothing is seared – it’s a true one-pot dish – and that produces a very particular aroma that fills the house as it’s cooking.
Grandpa would never have used nettles. The only reason I’ve added them here is because I had some in the garden. Again, whatever is available. They add a rich flavour. Most weeds are edible and there’s a move in restaurants to use them more. The English and the Italians and the Greeks and the French have always foraged weeds. I’ve got purslane, dandelion, oxalis and chickweed in the garden and they thrive, not due to cultivation but neglect. I didn’t sow them, they just turned up.
Traditionally, this stew would be made with lamb forequarter chops or what I call the shoulder chop – like a lamb chop, but from the top end of the shoulder. If that is not available through your butcher, I have also used lamb neck, although this will make the stew more gelatinous. What’s important is having a little bit of bone and some intermuscular fat to add to the stew’s flavour.
Out of habit, you might want to sear the meat before stewing. But it is important not to. It changes the character of the stew, making it meaty and masking the flavour of the vegetables.
You see this technique in a lot of French and Italian stews, too, where everything is simmered more or less at once. I suspect it was about convenience – working on the land, little time or energy might have been reserved for subtle refinements. If I were to make one suggestion, however, it would be this: instead of using water, use half water and half chicken stock for a little more flavour.
An Irish friend once told me that just before serving the stew he would take out half the vegetables and purée them, before adding them back to the pot to thicken the dish and give it some body and a viscous texture.
I haven’t tried it. I’m a purist. For a dish like this, resistance is key. Its simplicity is what makes it. It’s about resourcefulness, rather than being tricky. It’s honest. Don’t try to overcomplicate things, even with
a bay leaf or a sprig of thyme. And absolutely no drizzle of olive oil.
Irish lamb stew
Nettles are not a traditional component, but they work well with the flavours of the lamb. If nettles are unavailable, replace them with black cabbage or silverbeet.
– 4 x 200g lamb forequarter chops
– 250g baby carrots, peeled
– 8 kipfler potatoes, peeled
– 300g cipollini onions, or small onions, peeled
– 500ml chicken stock
– 1 cup nettle leaves, washed and shredded
– zest of 1 lemon
– salt and freshly ground pepper
Place the lamb chops in a large heavy-bottomed pot and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a simmer, immediately remove the lamb and discard the water.
Now, place the lamb back in the pot along with the chicken stock and add water until the meat is covered.
Bring to the boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer and cook for an hour.
Add the potatoes to the pot, cover and cook for 15 minutes before adding the onions and carrots.
Continue to gently simmer until all the vegetables are tender, about 15 more minutes.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Before serving, stir through the shredded nettles and the lemon zest.
Luke Lambert Crudo Shiraz 2012, Yarra Valley ($24) – Mark Williamson, sommelier, Cumulus Inc
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "Grandpa stew". Subscribe here.