How To Make The Ultimate Irish Stew

Russell Norman on the feel-good dish perfect for winter

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God, I hate winter. Every year, when the sun sets on 21 June, I fall into a pit of despond, knowing from that point onwards the days are getting shorter and so begins the inexorable decline towards the darkness. I will usually attempt a quip, something like "the nights are drawing in". No one laughs. When people tell me to "cheer up" and "look on the bright side," or "the summer is still ahead of us," I just can't see it. I'm preoccupied with gloom.

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I have a similar problem with half-empty glasses. They are never half-full, I'm afraid. I don't care how happy you are or how positive you feel, their defining quality is emptiness, not fullness. Colleagues, friends and family will persist in trying to convince me otherwise but a half-empty glass is, and always will be, half-empty.

Things don't get any better on 21 December, either. The winter solstice arrives with a little festive cheer, granted, but mostly with portent and the promise of another two months of cold, misery and darkness. It is enough to get you speed-dialling the Samaritans. Winter sucks.

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Things start to look up a little in March, but it is such an odd month and it regularly confuses me. I've frozen my tits off in icy winds and three feet of snow, but I have also walked around Soho in a T-shirt and nursed a sunburnt nose. Psychologically, however, it is the first time in the year when there really does seem to be a sense that salvation is close. Those hearty roasts, slow- braised meats and casseroles that warm the bones and soothe the soul have seen you through the winter wilderness.

Now, there's a date in the middle of the month that gives you occasion for a last hurrah. St Patrick's Day (on 17 March), is perfect for indulging in a pint of Guinness, some rock oysters and a bowl of that peasant masterpiece, Irish stew. Like all good soups, it requires modest preparation and once it's on the stovetop you only need keep half an eye on it.

But despite what many think, Irish stew is not really about the lamb, it's about the spuds. It is, in fact, a tale of two tatties. To make a good Irish stew you must use two contrasting types of potato: one floury, the other waxy. The reason for this is that the floury spuds start to disintegrate and add silkiness to the broth while the waxy ones retain their shape to contribute texture and bite. You will need to prepare the stock a day in advance but if you really can't face the bones and the effort, I suppose you could use lamb stock cubes instead (Marco Pierre White tells me they are all the rage). Just dissolve them into 1.5 litres of boiling water.

Finally, you need an appropriate beverage. Call me eccentric, but I like a mug of strong tea with my stew. If you're going the full Irish, though, it has to be a flagon of Guinness.

But for feck's sake, make sure it's not half-empty.

***

Serves 4–63. Heat the butter in a very large saucepan and brown the lamb neck. Place the carrots, onions and floury potatoes into the pan, stir a few times and add two or three generous pinches of flaky salt. Add the stock and bring to a steady boil for 10mins, skimming the scum from the surface.
For the stock (make the day before)
• 1kg lamb bones, cut
• 1 large onion, halved
• 1 large carrot, quartered
• 1 stick celery, quartered
• 6 black peppercorns
• Small handful flat parsley, chopped

For the stew
• 1kg lamb neck, cut into chunks
• 500g white floury potatoes
(eg, Maris Piper)
• 500g yellow waxy potatoes
(eg, Desiree or Charlotte)
• 1kg carrots
• 4 medium onions
• Large knob of butter
• Small handful picked thyme leaves
• Handful chopped fresh chives
• Flaky sea salt

Method
1. For the stock, take a very large saucepan and submerge all the stock ingredients in 3 litres of cold water. Add a very generous pinch of salt, bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer, with lid off, for 2hrs. Strain the stock through a sieve, discard the solids and return the liquid to the pan. Bring to a vigorous simmer until the stock has reduced to 1.5 litres. Allow to cool, cover, and store in the fridge.

2. Next day, peel the potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces but keep the two types separate, covered with clean cold water to stop them browning. Peel and cut the carrots into small bites; peel and slice the onions into rings.

3. Heat the butter in a very large saucepan and brown the lamb neck. Place the carrots, onions and floury potatoes into the pan, stir a few times and add two or three generous pinches of flaky salt. Add the stock and bring to a steady boil for 10mins, skimming the scum from the surface.

4. Reduce the heat to a hearty simmer and continue to stir occasionally for a further 15mins. Now add the waxy potatoes and simmer for 20mins. Add the thyme, stir, cover firmly and take off the heat. Wait 20mins before you remove the lid, stir again, serve and scatter over the chopped chives.

Instagram: @Russell NormanRussell's new book Spuntino: Comfort Food (New York Style) is out now, published by Bloomsbury

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