Here in America, corned beef and cabbage are so commonly eaten on St. Patrick’s Day that we assume it’s a traditional Irish meal. In fact, the dish originated on our side of the pond just after the Great Famine devastated the Emerald Isle.
Thousands of Irish citizens poured into New York in the mid-19th century, settling in communities near Jewish immigrants. Ireland’s familiar pork and mutton were too pricey for the refugees, but beef brisket was cheap and available in neighborhood kosher butcher shops.
Irish cooks preserved the brisket with an ancient technique called corning, the term for soaking meat in water mixed with large pellets of salt, or “corns.” Irish landowners had been exporting corned beef to the New World since the end of the 18th century, but the average tenant farmer had never tasted it.
Beef appealed to the immigrants so much that they used it in their traditional stew, adding cabbage, the most plentiful and least expensive vegetable available.
Over in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with the more traditional lamb or pork stew. Honoring the priest who converted the Irish to Christianity, the Catholic Church officially lifts Lent restrictions every March 17. Not only can the faithful eat red meat, they can wash it down with plenty of Guinness – which they would never, ever, corrupt with green food coloring.
This simple recipe for Irish stew is an adaptation of one from Noel Cullen, the author of Elegant Irish Cooking. You can make it using the more European technique of browning the meat, but this is how most Irish home cooks do it.
Traditional Irish Lamb Stew
3 lbs. deboned lamb shoulder, cut into two-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups sliced onions
1 cup sliced leeks
1 cup sliced celery
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
2 tsp. dried thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 1/2 qts. chicken stock
2 cups peeled carrots, cut into two-inch pieces
16 small red potatoes, peeled
Place the lamb pieces in a Dutch oven and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and drain. Cool by running the meat under cold water.
In the same Dutch oven, layer the meat, onions, leeks, celery, herbs, and salt and pepper. Cover with chicken stock. Simmer for 1 hour.
Add carrots and potatoes. Simmer the stew another 30 minutes, or until vegetables are soft. Correct seasonings with salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle with more chopped parsley. Serves 8.