Monday, November 10, 2014

Comfort Food: Irish Stew with Dumplings

Stew is one of those classic "peasant" foods that make me feel like I'm sitting in front of a crackling fire with a wool shawl wrapped around me and a mug full of wine. Ideally, there would be a baby asleep on my lap, and a dog snoring lightly at my feet.

Ah, sigh.

On the day I saw my first fluffily floating flakes of snow in Ottawa this year, I pulled out my biggest pot and started an Irish stew simmering in the kitchen. Then I added dollops of dumplings, and we all sat down to a hearty meal.

Since you couldn't be there with us, I decided to share the recipe here. I've learned a lot of lessons about stew -- all the hard way. I hope this post will save you some scorched pots and leathery meat.

(P.S. As I'm working to finish my cookbook by the end of this month, you may see a surplus of food-related posts in the next few weeks.)

The thing about peasant foods, like stew or borscht or minestrone soup, is that they really don't have strict recipes or even lists of ingredients. They are made up of whatever is readily available and in proportions that please the cook. Usually, there are one or two signature ingredients; in the case of stew, those are meat and root vegetables.

These comfort foods generally do best when kept over the hob for hours, not minutes, so think of them for weekends. Also: they make fantastic leftovers!


Just before I turned down the temperature.
(The recipes for the stew and the dumplings are integrated here, so you'll have a good work process in the kitchen.)

In your largest stock pot, over fairly high heat (a drop of water should sizzle in the oil) saute until the meat is browned. You'll need to stay close so things don't burn and stick to the bottom.
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 to 2 pounds of meat cut into 1-inch cubes (This can be a cheap cut as it will stew its way to tenderness. We usually buy a couple of cheap steaks rather than stewing beef, as it is often less expensive. Go figure.)
Add the following and reduce the heat. Cook until the vegetables are softened. (I sometimes add the carrots at this point as well.)
1 onion coarsely chopped
1 cup mushrooms cut in quarters (optional)
2 stalks celery, sliced (optional)
Now, here's the first "lessons learned the hard way" comes in. I remember the first time I tried to make stew -- it was disappointing -- the meat was so tough, even though I'd boiled the bejeesus out of it! I swore Stephen had bought a tough cut of meat (his Scottish heritage always has an eye out to the penny saved), but then I'd always heard that stew was a great way to cook tough meat. I boiled it longer, but it was still bad, possibly even worse, so what was I doing wrong?

This video shows the difference between a "full boil" and a simmer.

Here's what I learned on one of the food sites I frequent: if you cook meat over too high a boil, the muscle fibres actually shorten, making the meat tough. A slow simmer, on the other hand, does just the opposite. That's how you end up with those chunks of lamb or beef that just fall to threads.

(It just occurred to me that this may be why people love their crock pots; they are designed to keep to a low simmer, with better results.)

With that knowledge, you may now add the following to the pot and cook over a very slow boil for 40 minutes (or longer). Come back and stir the pot occasionally (I set the timer for 10 minutes intervals), and make sure it isn't boiling too hard, and that the potatoes are all under water.
3 cups of broth (beef or vegetable)
1/2 teaspoon thyme (you can add other herbs to your taste, but remember: this is a simple dish)
1 bay leaf
6 large potatoes cut into large chunks
3 carrots cut into large chunks (optional)
1 cup dark beer (like Guinness) -- this is optional, and gives just a hint of bitterness to the gravy
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
Enough water or broth to cover the potatoes
Before you leave the kitchen, prepare the ingredients for the dumplings. 

If you sit down before doing this, let's be honest, you'll probably want to just skip the dumplings, but they really turn a basic stew into a special dinner. (I do love them!)

And here's the lesson I learned the hard way about dumplings (and other pastries): you really need to spend a lot of time and effort working the fat into the flour. Like, seriously, at least two minutes, which feels like forever when you're doing it by hand. I'm pretty sure it's why all my pastries used to turn out like mud -- and then cardboard. 

It's hard to show how small the fat-flour specks are. The larger "lumps" you see in this picture are actually
clusters of the fat-flour. If you press them, they disintegrate into powder. If they were not ready for the liquid,
they would just be blobs of fat coated in flour, which is not what you want. 

This is BEFORE adding the milk.
Not sure if this helps, but you can see that the fat and flour are so fully integrated that they form a
homogeneous mass when pressed. (The mass crumbles quite readily, however.)
Once you add the liquid, it'll be too late to integrate the fat and flour more minutely, so spend that time up front. 

With that knowledge, in a bowl, combine the following, using a pastry blender (or two knives).
3 Tbsp shortening
1 and 1/2 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
Measure - and SET ASIDE - 3/4 cup milk. (If you add the milk too soon, it will activate the baking powder and the batter will be dead before it reaches the pot.)

This is a good time to feed the baby, read a book, or write a blog post, while the house fills with the aroma of mouth-watering food. 

Back to the stew.

Twenty minutes before you want to eat, you can thicken the broth, prior to adding the dumplings. In a shaker (like the kind you use for making salad dressing or a protein shake), combine:
3 Tbsp corn starch
1 cup cold water
Pour into the stew pot and stir for 2 minutes. This will not form a thick gravy, but a smooth sauce.

Back to the dumplings.

Make a hollow (well) in the middle of the flour mixture, and pour the milk into it. 

Stir until evenly moistened.

Plop by spoonfuls across the top of the stew -- dropping each "plop" onto a vegetable. (You may need to ladle off some of the gravy so the dumplings don't sink.)

Cook uncovered for 10 minutes, for lightness. Cover and cook another 10 minutes to cook through.

When you uncover the pot, you will be greeted by this beautiful sight:

This is a big batch, so, even with four adults, there was enough left over for some lunches the next day.

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