Which is more Irish? Lamb shows up often, but there are plenty of beef versions to be found. But why choose? We give you a version of each.
A tale of two stews: At its most basic, an Irish stew slow-cooks together meat, potatoes, onions and water. We offer Brazen Head beef and Guinness stew, pictured left, and Irish stew, right. And, yes, there are vegetarian versions. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
At its most basic, an Irish stew slow-cooks together meat, potatoes, onions and water. Dig into a stack of Irish cookbooks and you'll find "authentic" and "traditional" and "classic" Irish stews that use mutton or lamb. Others call for beef. Some food historians believe the earliest Irish stews used goat. And, yes, there are vegetarian versions.
Now if your cousin from Cork uses carrots, terrific. And your great-granny from Kilkenny used barley, so be it. As for the Guinness flavoring the stews at thousands of Irish pubs beyond Tralee — go for it.
Confused? We were just a wee bit, knowing how folks like to tweak recipes. So we called a Dublin pub and the Guinness headquarters.
The Brazen Head, Ireland's oldest pub (est. 1198), offers a traditional Irish stew and a beef and Guinness stew. Both are, well, Irish and popular, says manager Podge Byrnes, but the creamy character of the beef's gravy beats the clear broth of the traditional "by a nose."
Over at the Guinness Storehouse, executive chef Justin O'Connor puts a beef and Guinness stew on the menu daily. For St. Patrick's Day, he'll add an Irish lamb stew to the lineup, a hearty mix of potato, onion, carrot, celery, turnip, leeks, barley and herbs, with Guinness stout giving it a smoky flavor.
Two totally different stews? Both Irish? No problem. Colman Andrews, who ate dozens of Irish stews all over Ireland in preparation for his much-lauded cookbook, "The Country Cooking of Ireland" (Chronicle, $50), found no two were alike. "I've seen versions that call for beef stock, Guinness stout, Worcestershire sauce, turnips, pumpkin, leeks, barley, thyme and rosemary," he writes.
"The way people made Irish stew originally is with the one thing they had, potatoes. And if they were lucky enough to have a little meat, they would make it go as far as they could," he told us during a phone chat. "It was lamb because (while) cattle have always been very important in Ireland, an individual farmer was more likely to have a few lambs and a dairy cow that was more useful alive than dead.
"As far as I can tell, most of the 'authentic versions' have been really not much more than lamb or mutton and potatoes."
Guinness stout pairs most often with beef or mutton, playing best with their stronger flavors. Adding a beer such as Guinness to a stew is not unlike adding wine, with an important caveat.
With most beers "you're taking a relatively bitter liquid and concentrating it," says Garrett Oliver, editor of "The Oxford Companion to Beer" (Oxford University Press, $65) and brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery. "Recipes for Guinness stew are going to have, say, a cup and a half of Guinness in a larger volume of liquid, and that's enough to add some really nice flavor, most of it roasted flavor without overwhelming the dish. By the time you're done cooking the stew down, the bitterness is largely gone and you're just left with nice flavors of caramel, a little bit of caramel chocolatey with a roast to it."
So hold off on the arguing. Pick beef or lamb, Guinness — or not — and get on with your St. Patrick's Day celebration.
Brazen Head beef and Guinness stew
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Note: Adapted from a recipe served at Ireland's oldest pub.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds lean stewing beef, cubed
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
1 large clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons each: tomato paste, beef bouillon
2 cups carrots, cut in chunks
1 cup celery, cut in chunks
1/2 pound button mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1 sprig thyme
1 1/4 cups Guinness stout, about 1 bottle
1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a heavy pot; season meat with the salt and pepper to taste. Brown meat, in batches, on all sides; return all the meat to the pot. Add water to just cover meat; cover pot. Simmer until meat is tender, 1-2 hours; do not boil. Skim off any foam.
2. Add onions, garlic, tomato paste and beef bouillon; heat to a boil. Add carrots, celery, mushrooms, thyme and Guinness; simmer 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (The stew may be thickened with a flour-oil roux if desired.)
Per serving: 386 calories, 24 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 93 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 31 g protein, 538 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Adapted from Colman Andrews' "The Country Cooking of Ireland." "You want it fairly thick," he says. "Some people say you should be able to stand a spoon up in it." And: "Keep it simple. Improvisation is fine, and the world won't end if you add carrots or fresh thyme or whatever. But don't throw too many different things into the pot."
Trim and cube 3 pounds mutton or lamb, from the neck or shoulder. Layer into a heavy casserole with 2 pounds russet potatoes, thickly sliced, 1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped, and 1 pound onions, thinly sliced. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add 2 cups water. Heat to a simmer over low heat (do not boil). Cover; put in a 250-degree oven, 2 1/2-3 hours. Add water if needed. Makes: 6 servings