Beef Stew and Irish Soda Bread!

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, and last week I went searching through my city’s public library catalogue of Irish cookbooks in order to find something special to cook as celebration of the day. I had to plan ahead in order to put together an Irish-inspired supper since Tuesdays are extremely busy for me in terms of scheduled classes and homework workloads. I figured I wouldn’t really have the time on Tuesday evening to put together a special supper, so I had better make my attempt at making a St. Patrick’s Day meal on the weekend rather than on the day itself.

I was actually fairly surprised by the sheer number of Ireland-related cookbooks that are available through the public library. For some reason I’ve never really thought of the public library as a resource for cookbooks—although now that I stop to think about it, I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be. I spent a good couple of hours searching through the online lists and catalogue of books about Irish cuisine and cookery before settling on requesting a copy of Cathal Armstrong’s 2014 book, My Irish Table. And it’s probably a good thing that I went hunting for such a comprehensive and contemporary Irish cookbook a few days in advance of March 17, because as of this blog post going live, all seven copies of this particular cookbook have been checked out from the library’s catalogue.

In My Irish Table, author and four-star chef Cathal Armstrong records his culinary path from Dublin, Ireland to the United States, where he currently owns and operates seven well-respected restaurants. It’s clear in Armstrong’s writing that this book is all about his love of his homeland and Irish food. Originally I was going to try to produce Armstrong’s recipe for Irish stew, but my parents vetoed the idea on account of their distaste for lamb. That’s a shame, because according to Armstrong, “Real Irish stew is not made with beef. At all. Traditionally it is made with lamb neck or shinbones (known as gigot)” (60). Although it’s worthy to add that Armstrong continues by adding that he usually makes this stew using lamb shoulder chops instead of neck or gigot as they “are meatier and you can get a good sear on them, which adds flavour” (60). And that’s a helpful addition of detail, because as much as I would have liked to cook with lamb in pursuit of authenticity, I’m not sure I’m on board with the idea of cooking lamb neck just yet.

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If you don’t plan on quartering small potatoes for your stew, why not serve it over a fluffy mound of mashed potatoes? From what I’ve been able to learn from online food writing sources, this is another traditional way of serving beef stew, and the creaminess of the mashed potatoes really has a delicious effect on a bowl of hot stew.

Instead, I settled for Armstrong’s recipe for beef stew as found on page 72 of the book. Back on page 60 in his explanation of what constitutes a real Irish stew, Armstrong suggests that carrots shouldn’t really be added to an Irish stew, but that he likes incorporating them due to their sweetness. Perhaps as a result of this carrots are plentiful in Armstrong’s recipe for beef stew, as are eight cloves of garlic, and an entire serrano chili—something that I wouldn’t have ordinarily associated with a typical Irish-based beef stew. (Although on further consideration, why shouldn’t it be added? Chilies and spicy peppers always seem to work well with beef, almost regardless of culinary context.)

Armstrong explains what is actually happening in the pot during the stewing process by telling readers that “when you apply heat to food, you’re actually applying pressure” (73). He further delves into culinary science by explaining that stewing meat is forced to contract due to the application of heat (and its pressure), and that this forces the flavourful liquids from the meat, into the surrounding mire-poix of the stew’s vegetable and aromatic components: the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and fresh rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf (73). Armstrong says that the reason that a stew’s flavour intensifies over the days following the day the stew was originally made is because as the stew cools and the meat cools, it begins to relax and (re)absorb the surrounding liquid—liquid that was created by the meat and the vegetables cooking in the first place (73).

While Armstrong recommends that beef stew be served over mashed potatoes, I thought I would make a couple loaves of Irish soda bread to help sop up the stew’s resulting gravy-like liquid. Armstrong helpfully includes a recipe for Irish soda bread on page 191. The popularity of soda bread (and of a lot of other unleavened breads) is due to the yeast’s historic costliness. Armstrong says that baking soda was introduced in Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century (191) and this coincides with a historic record of the country’s economic climate which would indicate why this bread became as popular and prevalent through Ireland at this time.

Soda bread is not difficult to make. Consisting of mainly four ingredients (flour, baking soda, butter, and milk—oh, and let’s say salt too for seasoning), it’s a quick bread that requires little working and kneading of the dough, and no time required for resting the dough (since there’s no yeast in it). However I’ve had mixed results when making soda bread in the past. It was a bit of a surprise then that Armstrong’s recipe for the stuff worked out beautifully. (Honestly, my bread baking efforts have a 50-50 chance of success or failure.) As it was, the bread looked and smelled lovely when I removed it from the oven, and it tasted wonderful with the beef stew.

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Sure stews are even better the day after making them, but I think this was a pretty successful “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” St. Patrick’s Day supper!

I’d like to include the recipes for beef stew and Irish soda bread from Armstrong’s book to this blog post, but due to copyright issues, I will instead direct you to check out your local booksellers to find a copy. In lieu of making a purchase, I’d encourage you to browse your public library’s catalogue in search of it. Who knows, your public library might have seven copies of it—although I wouldn’t bet on being able to find a single copy available the day before St. Patrick’s Day!

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