ALMOST-IRISH STEW for the Slow-Cooker, with SHAMROCK IRISH SODA BREAD

This year’s St. Patrick’s Day dawned sunny and warm. We’ve been breaking records this March with temperatures reaching into the high 60s and low 70s. That continuing trend, into yesterday, made for a huge turnout for Albany’s annual St. Pat’s Day parade – an event which we missed but were well-informed about by my Aunt Pat later in the day (the crowd, we were advised, was 8-to-10-deep along the parade route).

After my spending a good deal of the day writing for and posting to KitchenCauldron (the latter with some difficulty – for some reason, WordPress wasn’t taking some pictures), and Bill’s working on staining some furniture to go with the new hardwood floor he installed in Adrian’s room, the hubby popped his head into my office and asked, “Were you going to get outside today, go anywhere?”

“You suggesting something?” I asked.

“Well, I passed Kurver’s yesterday and it looked like it’s open.” Kurver’s Kreme happens to be my favorite spot for soft ice cream. Especially when it’s vanilla twisted with some sort of sherbert that I love (orange, watermelon, raspberry…). Besides, I consider the re-opening of Kurver’s each spring to be the first sign of spring’s return!

My answer: “YES!”

I had lamb in the fridge that had been thawing for Irish Stew, which I planned to make on St. Patrick’s Day the “regular” way (sans slow-cooker). If we went out somewhere, it wasn’t likely I was going to start cooking upon returning home at, say, five or six o’clock with a target of eating dinner at around 9 p.m. (and dishes not done ’til close to midnight). Luckily, there was a solution to this quandary.

“How about we head over to the North Albany American Legion Post, where Aunt Pat told me she’d be going after riding in the parade? Open to the public – and corned beef and cabbage at a really reasonable price!” I knew my aunt would be thrilled to see us turn up, and she was. We also got to meet two of her nieces from her Irish clan, as well as a nephew and his wife.

The corned beef and cabbage dinner was superb. Meat done so well it was falling apart. Cabbage and potatoes perfectly tender, and delish when topped with butter and pepper. And then off to Kurver’s for dessert (we both went for the vanilla-pistachio twist on a cone).

Marilyn & Bill, 35th anniversary, reading "re-commitment vows" to each other.

Now I should mention that St. Patrick’s Day is a sort of anniversary for my husband and me. Or maybe I shouldn’t, but I am mentioning it anyway. Our 40th wedding anniversary is at the end of next month, but this one dates back a few years before we married. Not exactly a fairy tale though.

Once upon a time, in a city eked out by the Dutch but home to myriad immigrant groups in the years since colonial times, a young Irish-American man went out merry-making on St. Patrick’s Day. The green-eyed, curly-haired twenty-something visited several establishments at which the Wearing o’ the Green was being celebrated on that day (and into the night and wee hours of the morning), indulging perhaps in corned beef and cabbage and soda bread, and definitely in plenty of green beer. He himself proudly sported a lovely green-tinted carnation boutonniere – but anyone would’ve known he owned an Irish heritage without such a token sign of the Green Isle. You only had to glance at the pale skin, the freckles and that slightly pug nose. He might as well have had the map of Ireland tattooed on his forehead.

Not far from the young man’s St. Pat’s Day rovings, a young woman of his acquaintance had pretty much settled into a quiet evening in the apartment she shared with one other woman. She wasn’t Irish or Irish-American and, while she’d often celebrated the holiday over the years, she hadn’t “done the bars” for this year’s big day. Instead, she found herself reading a good book and retiring to bed reasonably early (considering that it was a very good book and she could hardly put it down).

The young not-Irish woman awoke an hour or two later, to the ringing of the doorbell. Now we’re talking the late ’60s, so most of us weren’t scared-out-of-our-wits to open the door without looking out a peephole or shouting down from a window to determine who dared show up at such an ungodly hour. This is what she did, just went downstairs to answer the ring. And found the green-eyed, green-boutonniered guy at her doorstep.

It happened that this young lady, of mixed immigrant stock (some of the Dutch; a little German and Russian; and more recently on the paternal side, Polish), already had a wicked crush on the inebriated Irish-American who had just appeared at her apartment. She welcomed him into her place. They talked for a while. He left the next morning, most likely hung over, leaving the green carnation with the sleepy-eyed girl.

The gods of their childhood religion did not send lightning bolts down upon the young man, nor on the young woman either. Neither of them believed they were doomed to an inferno. It was, after all, the ’60s. They were not hippies but they still listened to the voices of their generation. OK, no lightning bolts, but one of The Gods of Albany’s Streets had managed to leave a parking ticket on the poor guy’s car before he stumbled out into the sunlight on the day after St. Paddy’s Day.

And they didn’t live happily ever after either. It was touch and go for a few years. Three, if you must know. After which they made a pretty nice life together, having two anniversaries to celebrate each year.

+++++

What can follow such a tale? I guess it just has to be about the recipes – so here are a few notes about the two recipe in this post (a double-header, if you’re into baseball terminology!). And then will come the how-to if you’re interested in trying them yourself.

My Irish Stew originated out of an old cookbook that I still hold onto because it’s been good to me. It’s called The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors: Recipes you should have gotten from your grandmother, by Jeff Smith (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990). I also have two other cookbooks by Smith – his original one and a book on Italian cooking. From just The Irish Immigrants chapter of Our Immigrant Ancestors alone, I’ve made the Lamb Stew (the original source for this recipe) plus Colcannon and Dublin Coddle. (Unfortunately, I can’t ever pick up one of his books without recalling the big scandal that befell him later in his career, with charges that he was a pedophile. But that’s nothing to do with the fact that he was a food genius.) I changed my basic stovetop recipe slightly from the Frugal Gourmet’s, but this slowcooker version is considerably different. Here’s how:

  • First off, I used less lamb. Also, as it turned out this (first) time around with the slowcooker recipe, the lamb I had defrosted for the stew was not the already-cut-for-stew version. Two of the three packages were chops, with bones, so I found myself taking time to cut the meat away. (Not to waste those good bones, I put them in a sauce pan with some onion, carrot, garlic and water and boiled them down to make some lamb stock.)
  • Next change: the Gourmet’s recipe calls for “thickly sliced bacon.” I went for Canadian style bacon instead this time, cutting the fat a bit. (Great decision, it turns out – tasted much the same, which is to say, “Great!” If you decide you’d like to opt for the “regular” bacon, then you’d be better off frying the bacon first and then browning the lamb in bacon fat – in which case, you probably won’t need the oil and butter).
  • Jeff Smith deglazed his frying pan with ½ cup water. I used some of the beef stock, while the Canadian bacon and garlic were still in the pan.
  • I also used less beef stock overall, since moisture in a slowcooker is completely retained. I didn’t want to waterlog the whole stew, so to speak.
  • I cut the sugar in half.
  • I added a twig of dried rosemary (figuring it would go well not only with lamb, but also with thyme).
  • I never cook with wine or alcohol of any kind, and the Frugal Gourmet did not offer another option (and didn’t say the wine was optional either). I substituted with extra beef stock – ½ cup.
  • Incidentally, the cookbook calls it Lamb Stew. I used to call it Irish Stew, but the Irish Stew we once ingested that was cooked by an honest-to-god Irishman (our landlord over three decades ago) was quite bland, as I think the authentic stuff tends to be. So I’ve renamed it Almost-Irish Stew. With bacon in it, along with a couple spices no poverty-stricken Irishman “back in the day” would’ve been able to afford (and might not have even heard of), it’s more like a concoction contrived after that poor Irishman had discovered the leprechaun and his pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow!

As for the Soda Bread, that recipe came from a woman I worked with during the six looonnng years I spent as a Sr. Personnel Administrator with the New York State Department of Social Services. I wasn’t crazy about the work atmosphere, but I did meet some good people and I do have to say I organized some great holiday bring-a-dish lunchtime parties. I think a St. Patrick’s Day one was the first of them. Many a good recipe came home with me from those events. I have no idea where the “Shamrock” portion of the Soda Bread’s title came from, but it sounds festive. Only three changes to that original recipe:

  • I didn’t use only raisins for the fruit. Cut-up dried apricots, I decided, would add color and a little bit of sweetness to the bread.
  • I soaked the fruit before adding it to the mixture – not just in water. A bit of apple cider sounded good to me!
  • The recipe below simply gives “buttermilk” as an ingredient. I didn’t have fresh buttermilk in the refrigerator. The last “leftover” buttermilk had been tossed out a few days before, about 2 weeks past its supposed expiration date. I do keep what’s called “cultured buttermilk blend” by SACO in our fridge. SACO’s instructions say to mix their powder with the dry ingredients and then add their directed amount of water (according to how much buttermilk is required for the recipe) with the liquid ingredients. I figured it would be even richer if I used milk instead of water. In fact, we stock only 1% or 2% milk, so I included a little bit of light cream in part of the liquid.

And now on to the recipes for tonight’s dinner. No green carnations adorned the table (although Bill did look for some at the market earlier in the day). Just a couple plastic shamrocks. But the meal was oh-so-good!

ALMOST-IRISH STEW, converted to slow-cooker status
Yields enough stew to serve at least 6 to 8,
perhaps with leftovers (which taste even better than Day 1!)

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 lbs. boneless lamb (possibly lamb shoulder), cut into ½ to 2 inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon of fresh ground pepper (or to taste)
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil (possibly more, as needed)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (ditto to above, maybe more)
  • 4 to 5 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 to 1½” pieces
  • 2 large onions, peeled & quartered, somewhat pulled apart by layers
  • 6 or 7 potatoes, peeled & quartered (should be fairly uniform in size
  • 8 to 10 round slabs of Canadian Bacon (or use regular bacon, but see note above re changes I made to recipe) – cut into small pieces (or into strips, if you prefer)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled & finely chopped
  • 2 to 2½ cups Beef Stock
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a sprig of fresh or dried rosemary
  • ½ cup of dry white wine, or substitute additional beef stock
  • additional salt & pepper, to taste
  • Chopped parsley to garnish (optional)

Process

  1. Position your slow-cooker, or crockpot (or however you refer to it), on the counter or table near where you will be prepping your stew ingredients. Ideally, it’s also where you’ll be plugging it in to cook – but then one’s kitchen is not usually set up to accommodate every single adventure into cooking or baking! Take the cover off and set aside, so it’s ready to receive the ingredients as you prep them.
  2. Ensure your cut-up lamb is of uniform size so that they will cook evenly.
  3. In a large zip-lock plastic bag (or in a large mixing bowl), place the flour, salt and pepper. Shake it to blend.
  4. Add lamb chunks to bag, zip it up, and shake until they are coated with flour mixture.
  5. In a large frying pan (12”, if you have one), melt the butter in the oil over medium heat. Then add the flour-coated lamb to the pan, hopefully in one layer. Brown lamb over medium-to-medium-high heat until it’s got a little color (slow-cookers don’t brown meat). Do not cook all the way through. Do not put that pan into the dishpan after it’s browned enough, and do not toss out any drippings that might be left!
  6. While the lamb is browning, place carrots and potatoes in the bottom of the slow-cooker. Top with most of the onion (save a little to go atop the lamb, which will be the last layer).
  7. Scoop the lamb into the slow-cooker, distributing it evenly atop the vegetables. Sprinkle remaining onion atop.
  8. If needed, add a little more oil and/or butter to the frying pan. Then add the Canadian bacon, just leaving it to sauté for about a minute, so it can soak up more flavor. Add the garlic, stir and sauté for an additional minute.
  9. Add a little of the beef stock to the pan and stir, deglazing while bacon and garlic remain in pan.
  10. Distribute contents of the pan (bacon, garlic and stock) over the lamb.
  11. Sprinkle the sugar and thyme over top of the slow-cooker ingredients.
  12. Pour the remaining beef stock over everything.
  13. Tuck the bay leaf into the middle of the lamb mixture, pushed down a bit into the rest of the mixture.
  14. Place the rosemary sprig on top.
  15. Pour the wine, if using, or the extra beef stock over the mixture.
  16. Secure slow-cooker cover in place, set it for LOW cooking and expect it will take 7 to 8 HOURS at that temp. Make sure it’s plugged in too (yet another kitchen faux pas in Marilyn’s past!) You might check it at 7 or 7½ hours but be aware that, once you take the cover off a slow-cooker it means you’ll have to add 20 minutes to the remaining anticipated cooktime.
  17. When the stew is done to perfection, remove the bay leaf and the rosemary twig (if some of the leaves remain in the stew, it’s all to the good).
  18. Stir the mixture to re-distribute ingredients, then adjust seasoning if necessary (salt/pepper).
  19. Sprinkle with parsley (optional).
  20. Accompany with Irish Soda Bread, just for authenticity! OK, for deliciousness too. And, of course, I happen to have the best recipe ever for Soda Bread too…

SHAMROCK IRISH SODA BREAD
Yields one (1) “loaf” (baked in a 9” round cake pan)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dark seedless raisins
  • ½ cup chopped dried apricots (optional; if not using, you might add a little extra raisins, if you like)
  • ½ cup apple cider (optional)
  • water, to cover raisins & apricots
  • 4 cups unbleached, unsifted all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespooons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon table salt or fine sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups buttermilk (see note in narrative above for my substitution)
  • butter, melted (for drizzling top after baking – about 2 tablespoons)
  • sugar, for sprinkling top

Process

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place raisins and apricots in a small, microwave-proof glass or ceramic bowl. Pour apple cider over the fruit. Add water enough to cover all the fruit. Microwave for about 1 ½ to 2 minutes, to heat the water to warm. Set aside to allow raisins and apricots to soak for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, caraway seeds, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
  4. Drain the raisins and apricots.
  5. Stir the fruit into the flour mix, ensuring it distributes well.
  6. Pour the buttermilk into the mixture and mix with a fork until the dough is formed, with no bits of dusty flour hiding beneath the dough.
  7. Bake in either a 9” x 9” square pan or a 9” round cake pan for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester or knife slipped into its center comes out clean.
  8. Drizzle melted butter over the entire bread.
  9. Sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar (or raw sugar, if you choose).
  10. Cool for about 15 minutes before removing from pan to serving platter.
  11. Serve warm or save for later!

 

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