my irish table

I've never been a significant fan of stews. This, I realized last night, is because they're often rather bland. They frequently lack significant seasoning, or all the strong flavours just somehow manage to blend together in a nondescript broth. Last night, though, I discovered my first recipe that will definitely be on the shortlist of go-to hearty and richly flavourful cozy stews.

my irish table

Ten Speed Press gave me the opportunity to check out the new cookbook by Cathal Armstrong, My Irish Table. Here's the thing about Ten Speed Press: they're actually a publisher I seek out on bookstore shelves. While scanning the titles, if I see the Ten Speed Press logo on the spine of the book, I'll pull it out to check it, even if I might not have noticed it otherwise.

Despite snow here in the valley yesterday, we are slowly but surely moving into spring warmth, so I thought I'd usher winter out with Armstrong's Beef Stew. The only adaptation I made to the dish was to substitute the beef broth with chicken broth. We had beef broth in a soup last week and found it far too rich, overwhelming the other flavours in the soup. This stew would surely be even richer than it is if you stick with the beef broth. I also used dried bay leaves.

Cathal Armstrong's Beef Stew from My Irish Table

serves 6

1 1/2 pounds stew beef, such as shoulder or chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 yellow onion, diced

4 carrots, peeled and diced

4 celery stalks, diced

8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 cups veal demi-glace (recipe provided in the book) or store-bought beef broth

1 serrano chili, coarsely chopped, with seeds

3 large fresh bay leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Brown the beef: Pat the beef cubes dry on all sides with paper towels and season well with salt and pepper. In a large slope-sided saute pan over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Distribute the beef evenly in the bottom of the pan without crowding it and don't disturb it for several minutes. If you stir the pieces too soon, they will release water and the meat will boil instead of browning. After 3 or 4 minutes, turn the cubes over and brown them on the other side for another 3 or 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a flameproof casserole and return the pan to the heat.

Sweat the vegetables: Add the onion, carrots, and celery, stirring them with a flat-edged wooden spatula. As the vegetables cook, water will release and deglaze the pan. Use the spatula to scrape up brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Sweat the vegetables for 4 to 5 minutes, until translucent but still a bit firm. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minutes.

Cook the stew: Stir in the flour and allow it to brown lightly for about 2 minutes. Add the demiglace, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Stir in the serrano chile, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary. Transfer the vegetables to the casserole and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to medium, cover the pot, and braise the meat slowly for 2 hours, until it is very tender. Adjust the salt and pepper seasoning to taste. Serve hot. The stew can be made 2 days ahead and reheated gently on the stove or in the oven at 300 degree F for 30 to 40 minutes.

My notes on the recipe: I may have added a bit more than the recommended amount of thyme and rosemary - my fresh herbs smelled incredible and I just grabbed big handfuls and finely chopped them before throwing them in. I'm often nervous about chiles but still went with the recipe and added a whole serrano in, seeds and all. If you're like me and tend to skim recipes before committing to them and then don't discover until you're in the middle of it that it requires an unexpected technique or time commitment, note that once this all comes together, it needs an additional 2 hours to braise. Make sure to check on it every twenty minutes or so to make sure the liquid isn't sticking, and I found that on my stovetop, a low heat was better than a medium. I served this over jasmine rice because that's what I had on hand but think it could be wonderful over Israeli couscous.

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My stew beef was kind (antibiotic free cows with a humane life), and my carrots were these gorgeous slender carrots from Coke Farm (they of the legendary spring strawberries), via my Liberty Heights Fresh SFF share.

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Throughout the (almost) two hours of braising, there was lots of wandering through the kitchen and exclamations about how incredible it smelled. Let me tell you, this is NOT a bland stew. The herbs and the serrano just fawned all over that meat, dropping compliments that would make Donald Trump blush.

Next time (and there will be a next time), I'll add more carrots, hopefully some of those purple and/or white ones. I think another veggie would also help balance out this meat heavy stew; perhaps a red skinned potato. I would actually not recommend adding more herbs, if you're tempted because it's spring and they're popping up everywhere, simply because much of the strength of this stew is being able to appreciate those two herbs. More, I think, would veer it towards that indefinable-ness. There is some spiciness here but not too much for this spice-weakling, though of course it probably depends on the serrano.

As to the book in general:

As you may have noticed in this recipe, Armstrong advises that you brown the meat on one size without moving it around because, "If you stir the pieces too soon, they will release water and the meat will boil instead of browning." I'm not sure that I ever consciously realized this; if asked I would've said you keep them in place in order to be sure they're browned properly before moving them. I also learned this cooking science from the addendum to this recipe:

"In general, when you apply heat to food, you're actually applying pressure. In stew making, that pressure makes the meat contract, forcing its flavor into its surrounding liquid. As the meat cools, it relaxes and absorbs that flavor from the surrounding liquid. So you actually achieve an optimal result by preparing stew a day ahead, cooling it completely in its liquid, and gently reheating it the next day..."

The book is stock full of tips and advice like this. Hagedorn's photographs (of both the food and Irish scenes) are gorgeous, and compliment Armstrong's intimate and warm narrative. He has a story about each recipe. The recipes are almost completely Irish but also have British, American, and African influences.

These are authentic recipes without shortcuts, which is lovely but which also often means long and involved commitments (and usually multiple steps) to the preparations of the dishes. The corned beef takes 17 days to make. The book is very heavily seafood oriented (which, of course, makes sense, but is a bit of a drawback for me until I move to a coastal area somewhere).

Up next: Bakewell Tart (I've always wanted to make this but never have), the Pullman Loaf, and in the summer, hopefully some Horseradish Cream from the horseradish plant I'm putting in the ground this weekend!