Celebrate St. Patrick's Day with a very Irish meal

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I have a long-standing connection to Ireland that dates to my family buying a farm in County Donegal in 1973. At age 22, I sold my motorcycle — my only possession of any real value — and flew to Ireland. I huddled in our Irish cottage for the months of November, December and January and read "The Lord of The Rings" in front of warm turf fires during those cold, wet and windy months.

Ireland was a very different place then than it is now. Very few of my neighbors in that remote glen in Donegal had refrigerators or central heat. Almost no one had a telephone and quite a few didn't have cars. You'd see more tractors than cars parked in front of the local pub. It wasn't unusual for our closest neighbor to walk the 10-kilometer round trip for groceries to supplement the potatoes, carrots, cabbage and turnip her husband had grown the previous season for her family of nine. When I went to the wee markets in our area, the only fresh vegetables offered were the same as our neighbors had grown. There was a plentiful amount of good Irish mutton, though. All of which is a very roundabout (and Irish) way of saying that was when I first started making Irish stew during that very Irish winter of 1973-74.

I first had Irish stew in the pub of McFadden's Hotel, located in the closest village. I had met some people that were about my age, of which there were very few at that time, as there was so little work. Beyond having Irish stew for the first time that evening, I learned two Irish lessons. The first lesson is the custom of rounds. For the uninitiated, rounds is when everyone takes turns buying drinks for the table. Everyone is obligated to participate in each round, which leads to the next lesson, called the craic. The craic is everything that contributes to a good time, but absolutely must include good conversation. Needless to say, the best craic is quite often the result of rounds in a pub! I must admit, in my younger days there were nights I held on for dear life, and anything else I could grab on to, to steady myself on the way out of a pub while observing the local custom with the fervor of a convert.

I wasn't in Ireland for St. Patrick's Day in 1974, but in conversation on the subject with my neighbors I learned that most of them had never heard of corned beef, much less eaten it. The primary meats that my neighbors cooked, when they either could afford it or they'd raised it, were pork, chicken and mutton, perhaps a bit of lamb in the spring. Beef was still quite dear. At one time in Ireland, mostly in the south, a great deal of corned beef was produced, but that was mostly in the days of landlords and tenants. The tenants couldn't afford beef, which was for the landlords to do with as they wished. To this day, corned beef is virtually nonexistent in Donegal. As a matter of interest, corned beef refers to the large grains or "corns" of rock salt used in the curing process of the beef. As I said before, Ireland has become a very different place. Now when I go to the same wee markets I used to frequent during that winter, there's a very good selection of fresh vegetables and meats, including good Irish lamb. I almost always make a pot of Irish stew whenever I'm there, using lamb instead of mutton. It's what I often make for St. Patrick's Day, served with wheaten bread from a recipe I developed several years ago.

Have a go at the recipes and mess with them as you see fit, but it's best to invite good friends over for the best craic!

IRISH LAMB STEW

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 2 hours

6 to 8 portions

INGREDIENTS:

4 slices thick-cut bacon (called streaky bacon in Ireland), cut into small dice

Additional of your favorite cooking oil as necessary

3 pounds trimmed, boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

1 teaspoon more or less of salt, adjusted at the end to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons white flour

2 medium onions, roughly diced

4 cloves garlic, sliced

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

1/4 cup tomato paste

4 sprigs fresh rosemary, tied with cotton twine in a bundle

2 bay leaves

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

3 celery stalks, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 pounds size "C" new potatoes, unpeeled and cut in half

2 1/2 cups chicken stock, or as needed

Additional rosemary sprigs for garnish

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cook, while stirring, the bacon over medium heat in a Dutch oven or heavy oven-safe stew pot until bacon is crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn off heat and transfer bacon to a plate.

Turn the heat to medium high and working in batches sear the lamb cubes in the bacon fat until nicely browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add additional oil, if needed.

Turn the heat down to medium and add flour, stir until seared lamb is coated, about 30 seconds.

Add wine, tomato paste, salt, reserved bacon, sliced garlic, rosemary and bay leaves and enough chicken stock to generously cover and bring to a simmer, place the cover on the stew pot and place in the oven for 1/2 hour.

Remove the pot from the oven, remove rosemary sprigs and bay leaves, add vegetables and enough stock so that liquid is not quite covering the stew, as the vegetables will be giving off liquid as they cook. Bring stew back to a simmer on the stove. Place the pot covered back in the oven for 45 minutes.

Add more stock if necessary, adjust seasoning and serve in shallow bowls, garnished with rosemary sprigs.

IRISH WHEATEN BREAD

Prep: 30 minutes

Bake: 45 minutes

Serves: 6 to 8

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup white flour (and more for sprinkling on top)

2 cups whole wheat flour

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 teaspoon salt

1 heaping teaspoon baking soda

4 tablespoons cold salted butter

2 1/2 cups buttermilk

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 425 F.

Blend the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.

Cut the butter into small pieces and work it into the dry mix until the butter appears to be mostly worked in.

Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in 2 cups buttermilk.

Blend in buttermilk with a rubber bowl scraper until the mixture is fully blended, blend in additional buttermilk until the dough is sticky and still coming off the sides of the bowl. Don't over blend.

Divide the bread dough between two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans that have been sprayed with oil.

Smooth the tops of the dough so that the dough is slightly higher along the sides of the pan. With a paring knife, create a generous slit the length of the dough and sprinkle it with flour.

Place pans on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 45 minutes.

Remove pans from the oven and place on cooling racks for at least 15 minutes before removing bread. Allow the bread to cool for at least 45 minutes before slicing.

Note: The brand of whole wheat flour makes a difference. I've used Hodgson Mill's Whole Wheat Graham Flour and King Arthur's Whole Wheat Flour. The Hodgson Mill flour makes a bread with a coarser crumb and is more rustic, while the King Arthur flour makes a moister bread with a finer crumb. I tend to use slightly less buttermilk when using King Arthur flour. Whichever you use, Irish butter is all but essential for the recipe and generously lashing on the slices.

Bob Luhmann has lived and worked in the Berkshires for over 30 years. He was the chef de cuisine at The Captain Linnell House, his family's critically acclaimed restaurant in Orleans on Cape Cod for 10 years, mostly in the 1980s. He opened and directed the food service at Kimball Farms Lifecare Community for 11 years. He also has given talks at the cheese counters at Nejaime's Wine and Cheese in Stockbridge and at Guido's Fresh Marketplace in Pittsfield.


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