Traditional Irish Stew and Irish Soda Bread Inspired by 'That Old Country Music'

Traditional Irish Stew and Irish Soda Bread Inspired by 'That Old Country Music'

Wednesday, 10 February, 2021

Food and drinks are some of the easiest ways — and the most fun— to vicariously experience another culture. When you add a great book to the mix, you've got the makings of a perfect evening. In Food+Fiction, we recommend a delicious read and a related recipe so you can try the taste of different destinations in your own kitchen.

This post is part of our Food+Fiction series.

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The stories on Kevin Barry’s collection That Old Country Music will make you feel as if you’ve been transported to the pub in an Irish village. A master of scene-setting, Barry arranges just the right words in just the right way, so you’ll feel the breeze roll off the hills, smell the salt in the air, and connect with the old Irish soil under the characters’ feet.

The people who populate his pages are outcasts, oddballs, and loners — mostly likable, always sympathetic, and fascinating in their very humanness. You might not always agree with the choices they make. Still, you’ll be glad to get to know them and, perhaps, break bread together while the fiddle plays, and the old-timer in the corner spins a yarn from memory.

If food were magically going to appear in this scene, it would have to be the most traditional, the heartiest, the most unassuming but essential recipes of all. Nothing else fits the bill like traditional Irish stew and soda bread. Both are made from minimal ingredients and excel not in spite of, but because of, their simplicity. Good ingredients and lots of love will take you far in the kitchen.

Irish stew has been considered the Emerald Isle’s national dish since about the 18th century. You didn’t have to be wealthy to set a hearty table: even the toughest mutton can be made to yield to the onslaught of a slow simmer. The other ingredients — onions and potatoes — were (and are) staples in every pantry. More modern cooks, especially in the south, added carrots. Our recipe includes them, but if you’re feeling like a purist, by all means, leave them out. (The Guardian goes deep into the history of every ingredient if you’re hungry for more detail.)

To sop up every drop of the luscious stew gravy, why not bake a simple loaf of Irish soda bread? It’s made with just four ingredients, and the technique couldn’t be simpler. Although in the United States, it’s usually made primarily to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in March — and is fancied up with currants or caraway seeds — plain soda bread is a daily staple in Ireland. It tastes best just-from-the-oven, so plan to bake it while your stew simmers, bringing them both to the table steaming. Bonus points if you slather your bread with salted Irish butter.

bowl of irish stew on a wooden table
Photo courtesy of Slawomir Fajer/Shutterstock.

Traditional Irish Stew

Serves 8-12. Total time 2 1/2 hours.

Ingredients:

  • 3 pounds lamb shoulder cut in 2-inch chunks (or use thick shoulder chops)
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 pounds onions, peeled and cut into eighths (wedges)
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 4 cups chicken or beef broth (or water)
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch thick slices
  • a few fresh chives, minced
  • a handful fresh parsley, minced
  • butter or ghee, optional

Directions:

Brown the lamb. Pat the lamb with paper towels, then season with salt and pepper. Heat the cooking fat in a large soup pot over medium-high heat, 3 minutes. Brown the lamb on all sides, working in batches, removing the chunks to a bowl when browned. Don’t crowd the pan!

Cook the veggies. Add the onions and carrots to the pot and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, about 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Return the meat to the pot, and add the broth. Simmer 1 hour.

Add the potatoes. Place the thyme in the pot and add the potatoes. Simmer 1 hour longer, until meat is fall-apart tender.

Big finish. Remove a few potatoes from the pot, place in a bowl, and mash with a fork. Return the crushed potato to the pot and simmer 10 minutes. Taste the broth and add salt and pepper, if necessary. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle each with fresh herbs; add a little dab of butter if you’re feeling indulgent.

 
loaf of irish soda bread wrapped in a dish towel
Photo courtesy of Laura Adamache/Shutterstock.

Irish Soda Bread

Makes 1 loaf. Total time 1 hour.

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/2 (450g) cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon (3g) fine sea salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon (4g) baking soda
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, plus more as needed

NOTE: To make it gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with 3 cups (375g) gluten-free flour blend; increased baking soda to 1 teaspoon; add 1 teaspoon xanthan gum (or 1 1/2 teaspoons potato starch/arrowroot powder) and 2 teaspoons baking powder.

Directions:

Prep. Heat oven to 450F/230C. Butter a baking sheet and set it aside.

Make the dough. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda; if making gluten-free, add the other dry ingredients. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk. Using your hands, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be soft but not wet and sticky. Wash and dry your hands.

Shape the dough. Flour a work surface and remove the dough from the bowl. Knead the dough lightly for a few seconds, then pat the dough into a round about 1 1/2 inches thick. Don’t overwork the dough! Transfer it onto the buttered baking sheet, then use a sharp knife to cut a deep cross in the center of the dough, reaching all the way out to the sides. (This is what makes the lovely cracks on the top.)

Bake the bread. Place baking sheet in the oven and bake the bread for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 400F/205C, and continue to bake until the top is golden brown, about 30 minutes more. To check for doneness, tap the bottom of the bread. If it sounds hollow, it’s good to go. Serve warm with lots o’ butter.

His cottage looked across a bog to the Bluestack Mountains; the ocean was nearby, unseen but palpable. There were huge granite boulders around the fields, as if giants had been tossing them about for sport. The ocean hissed at the edges of the scene like a busy gossip. There was salt on the air and the local cars wore coats of rust. I felt somehow a little hardier and tougher in myself as I looked out from the doorway of the place. — Kevin Barry

That Old Country Music

by Kevin Barry

The stories in this collection tell tales of longing and home and the complicated simplicity of country life. Mostly set in western Ireland, they’re like prose poetry, photographs crafted with precise words rather than light and pixels. These stories explore the breadth of emotion on the intimate scale of day-to-day life. Some are uncomfortable, some are sweet. They all feel true, inviting you to read them again and again. {more}

This atmostpheric short story collection (208 pages) was published in January of 2021 by Doubleday. The book takes you to contemporary Ireland. Melissa read That Old Country Music and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.

That Old Country Music: Stories

 

Top image courtesy of Megan Johnston/Unsplash.

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