Ninth in an occasional series Make no mistake: Irish stew is not meant to be ordered as an appetizer, like its lighter soup cousins. It's a hearty meal that has sustained the Irish for centuries.
"There's even a song from the 1800s about it," said Sidney Mintz, research professor at the Johns Hopkins University, who studies the history of food. "It goes, `Hurrah for Irish stew / It sticks to your belly like glue.' There was recognition that it was filling."
Irish stew, or stobhach Gaelach as it is known in Gaelic, traditionally is made with lamb, potatoes, carrots, onions, herbs and seasonings. But as the Irish immigrated to the United States, the recipe was adapted for American tastes. Often, it is made with beef instead of lamb and simmered in Guinness stout.
Lamb stew was historically popular throughout Europe, Mintz said, because people were poor and there was very little meat available, except for lamb. Many families had sheep, from which they would get their wool and dairy products, he said. Once the sheep were past a certain age, their meat - considered mutton after age 2 - would be cooked for long periods of time in a stew until tender. Typically, Europeans would use the neck bone or neck flanks, he said.
Today, better cuts of lamb are used, as are different vegetables and seasonings. Because it is cooked slowly for several hours and the ingredients can be inventive, the stew is featured in gourmet cookbooks.
At the James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant in Harbor East, head chef Pedro Flores arrives each morning before 8 and immediately starts working on the lamb stew, so it will be ready for the lunchtime crowd. Flores has won several citywide awards for his Irish stew, which will be served at the Irish Festival in Baltimore City this weekend at Canton Waterfront Park.
While it will be much smaller than the annual Irish festival sponsored by area Irish charities at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium in November, the city festival will feature food and drink from area bars and restaurants.
Some fare will be traditional, said organizer Linda Collins, such as the lamb stew from James Joyce, while others will be in the spirit of the day, such as Irish margaritas from Mama's on the Half Shell.
Other dishes hark back to pubs in England and Ireland, such as Fish n' Chips in a Bag from Ryan's Daughter in Belvedere Square and Bangers n' Mash from Tir Na Nog at the Inner Harbor. Canton's Dockside will serve Irish salmon or lamb over Caesar salad.
Flores is not a native of the Emerald Isle but said he has developed an appreciation for Irish stew's heartiness and the patience it requires.
In a large pan on a gas stove, Flores sautes the cuts of meat with onion and garlic until they're all a golden brown. Then he adds two gallons of water for the stock and stirs in carrots, potatoes, rosemary, oregano, fresh thyme, salt and pepper. He lets it simmer for up to three hours, until the potatoes get starchy and the meat is tender. "Lamb stew is supposed to melt in your mouth," Flores said.
James Joyce general manager Donal French, who attended culinary school in Galway, said Flores' stew reminds him of the one his mother used to make about once a week while he was growing up in County Wexford, Ireland.
"Everyone's mother makes it at home," French said. "She usually gets her recipe from her mother."
What sets each stew apart, French said, is not the ingredients so much as the time and labor involved in the preparation. The longer it simmers, the better, he said.
At James Joyce, the stew is served in a large white bowl with herbs sprinkled around the rim and is accompanied by traditional Irish brown bread for dipping in the thick stock.
The restaurant also serves a beef stew made with Guinness. French said the two dishes are equally popular and are different in terms of taste: He thinks the lamb stew is more flavorful, while the beef and Guinness stew is darker and richer.
But of course, some customers are attracted to the beef stew because there's Guinness in it.
"Definitely, that can make the difference, all right," he said.
If you go ...
The Irish Festival in Baltimore City will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and noon to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Canton Waterfront Park, 3001 Boston St. Free. Live entertainment featuring Irish bands, with traditional music and dancing on second stage. For information: baltimoreirishfest.com.
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 yellow onions, sliced
1 teaspoon garlic
5 pounds lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 large carrots, diced
10 peeled potatoes, diced
1 small green cabbage
1/2 cup of mixed fresh herbs
salt and pepper
Put oil in pot. Add onions and garlic; cook until caramelized. Add lamb and cook for a half-hour, stirring so all sides of lamb are cooked. Add a gallon of water and bring to a boil. Add the vegetables and herbs. Cook until meat and vegetables are fork-tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Courtesy of James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant
Per serving: 611 calories, 46 grams protein, 26 grams fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 48 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fiber, 133 milligrams cholesterol, 170 milligrams sodium