It’s the Queen’s Birthday public holiday and it has rained solidly from the moment I got up at 7am until now (which is 4pm) and it’s showing no signs of stopping. I am sitting at my computer, huddled around a heater along with racks of laundry slowly drying on a rotisserie basis. “A great day for cooking an Irish stew!”, I declared this morning, and braved the wet (eventually) in wellies and mac to buy ingredients up the road in Marrickville, officially the best suburb in Sydney.
I am using a recipe, rather appropriately, by Irish cooking queen Rachel Allen so it ought to be good – although it’d be difficult to go far wrong with such a simple stew. I brown 1.5kg of lamb neck, which I asked the butcher to cut into thick slices (four per neck) until they’re beautifully caramelised. (It’s funny how ever since Masterchef came on the scene cooking is ALL about caramelisation!) I put them in the bottom of the slow cooker. Into the still-hot olive oil go four carrots and two onions cut into chunks, plus eight cloves of garlic, peeled but not chopped. (The recipe calls for 12 baby onions, which would have been lovely and sweet, but they only came in huge bags at the local supermarket.) I sauté those for a few minutes, seasoning well, then add them to the slow cooker. On top of the meat and veg I add a few sprigs of thyme, more salt and pepper, 500ml of chicken stock and 100ml of water, plus 10 potatoes cut in half. It’s been cooking for an hour and a half so far and I intend to leave it for another three hours at least. Plenty of time for yet another pot of tea and a yoga class to restore some life to my cold, damp bones… Except that as it turns out there’s no yoga because it’s a public holiday, so instead I drink wine and paint my toes in preparation for my upcoming holiday!
I take the lid off for the final hour since slow cooking retains a lot of moisture. If I was doing a proper job I’d finish by pouring off the liquid, chilling it with ice cubes or in the fridge, and scooping off the fat before returning it to the stew. But that’s way too much of a faff, and besides, we’re ready to eat. The overriding flavour of this stew is sweetness – the meat falling off its spiky bones, the gelatinous marrow in the centre, the soft cylinders of carrot, the layers of onion. The fattiness gives it a richness, coating the mouth and no doubt sticking the ribs together! Desiree potatoes are the perfect variety for this stew – wonderfully waxy, almost fudgy – and mashed with a fork they provide the perfect blotting paper for all the lovely juices. I’m rather sorry I won’t be here to enjoy the leftovers which are now in the freezer, but hopefully going to Blighty in Summer I’ll be able to escape this incessant rain. Now that’s ironic!