Like many traditional dishes of the British Isles, my first taste of Irish stew was in the dining hall of my college at Oxford. And it wasn’t a particularly good experience. Tough meat, watery broth, soggy vegetables. But I never gave up on the notion; I just think I liked this dish in theory more than in concept. But a warming, hearty lamb and vegetable stew is just a plain good idea, so I stuck with it.
I have read many Irish stew recipes over the years and they are all pretty simple and plain, which I think is a hallmark of Irish cuisine. And I’ve made many versions, too, but I always felt they needed a little oomph. So I’ve added some bacon for smoky saltiness and browned the meat for extra richness. Some of the impetus for sticking to the dish is that I now find beautiful pasture-raised, local lamb, and good meat makes all the difference. I love the contrast of peppery parsnips, and sweet carrots, and of course, no Irish Stew would be complete without potatoes.
If you don’t find ready-to-use stew meat, ask the butcher counter to cube lamb shoulder or leg for you.
3 pounds lamb stew meat, in 2-inch cubes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 pound bacon
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 cups beef broth
3 bay leaves
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 yellow potatoes
chopped fresh parsley to garnish
Pat the lamb cubes dry with paper towels. Mix the flour, salt and pepper together in a large zip-top bag, then drop in the lamb and shake it around to coat each cube with flour.
Cut the bacon into small pieces and place in a large (5-quart) Dutch oven. Cook over medium high heat until the bacon is crispy. Remove the bacon to paper towels to drain using a slotted spoon. Let the bacon grease cool a bit, then very carefully pour it into a glass measuring jug. Carefully wipe out the pot, cleaning out any burned bits.
Return the pot to the stove and heat 1/4 cup of the bacon grease. Remove the lamb cubes from the bag, shaking off any excess flour and cook them in the bacon grease until browned on all sides. You will need to do this in batches, removing the browned pieces to a plate. If needed, add a little more bacon grease to the pot and heat it up between batches.
When all the lamb is browned and removed from the pot, add 2 more tablespoons of bacon grease and the chopped onions and cook over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent. When the onions are soft, add 1/4 cup of water and scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Cover and cook until the onions are soft and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes. Return the lamb and about 3/4 of the cooked bacon to pot. Pour in the beef broth, add the bay leaves and thyme and bring to a boil. Stir the stew well, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook for 1-1/2 hours.
Peel the parsnips and carrots and cut into bite-sized chunks. Add to the simmering stew. Scrub the potatoes, but do not peel, and cut into nice chunks. Add these to the stew as well, give it all a good stir, cover the pot and cook for a further 30-40 minutes or until the potatoes, carrots and parsnips are tender.
At this point, the stew can be made up to a day ahead, cooled, covered and refrigerated. Reheat over medium just until warmed through. Fish out the bay leaves and thyme stems before serving.
Serve in big bowls, topped with the remaining bacon pieces and a sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley.