Irish stew seems surface simple. Meat, potatoes, maybe some carrots, some kind of Guinness-based gravy to pull it all together.
That’s Irish stew.
Not so fast.
“It’s always the simple things that are the hardest,” said Ted Furst, a consulting chef who developed the recipe for Irish stew at Paddy Coyne’s Irish pub in Tacoma, one of a handful of local restaurants that serve Irish food in a pub atmosphere.
There are as many ways to make Irish stew as there are to make home-cooked favorites such as chicken and dumplings or pot roast. Some say Irish stew should start with browned beef, while traditionalists might insist it be lamb or that it should be boiled in the style of a white stew. It’s a hodgepodge recipe that has been twisted, bent and refined to fit so many palates, who’s to know what’s authentic anymore.
I like Furst’s standards: thick, rich, brown, with identifiable chunks of meat and vegetables; and Guinness stout beer fueling the gravy that holds the stew together. When I think Irish stew, I want just enough broth to give service to soda bread on the side.
As Furst puts it, “What’s gratifying about stews is you use your hands as well as the utensils to properly eat them – bread in one hand, and spoon in the other. You get to eat with your hands … and everyone loves to do that.”
Because St. Patrick’s Day is next week, here are three places to spoon into a bowl of stew, and celebrate with music and food:
Where: 815 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Information: 253-272-6963; http://paddycoynes.net
The recipe: A Guinness-braised Irish stew ($13.95) with chunks of beef simmered with potatoes, carrots and root vegetables. For Furst, the essential components of Irish stew are “beef, onions, carrots and you have to have a little bit of parsnips and potatoes. It adds a little sweetness. If you’re going to use Guinness with the bitter edge, you have to have some sweetness to help carry that.”
Furst employs the French approach of browning the beef and building a roux from the flour-coated meat, but he read in an Irish cookbook another technique. “You put the chunks of stew meat in a bowl and use salt and pepper and the next step (usually) would be flour. This cookbook suggested tossing it in oil, then flour. You get more flour clinging to the meat, which gives you more roux, which creates a thicker sauce. There’s nothing worse than a half-dry stew. It needs to be swimming in some sauce. You can’t add liquid if you don’t start with enough flour; otherwise it just gets thin.”
The verdict: Of the Irish stews sampled, Paddy Coyne’s nailed the ratio of ingredients to sauce. It also had a deep, beefy flavor and a dark brown gravy that defines Irish stew for my palate. The big bowl cradled enough Guinness-based broth to saturate several pieces of dense Irish bread. The stew also was the meatiest with more chunks of beef than any other sampled for this report. The vegetables – carrots, potatoes and parsnips – were cut bigger – in one-inch and larger pieces, which I found appealing. Identifiable veggies beat mushy any day. The stew at Paddy Coyne’s also was heavily scented with bay leaves. I know this because I bit into one.
Other Irish on the menu: Bangers and mash, Fisherman’s pie, shepherd’s pie, Dublin coddle, corned beef and cabbage, fish and chips.
About the restaurant: Paddy Coyne’s opened in Tacoma in 2007 (with outposts in Seattle and Bellevue). The menu is a mixture of Irish and British favorites, along with plenty of American pub offerings.
On St. Patrick’s Day: Live music, dancers and traditional Irish food on the menu.
Where: 1595 Wilmington Drive, DuPont
Information: 253-964-9200; http://mcnamaraspubandgrill.com
The recipe: Steak and Guinness stew ($11.99) made with choice beef, onions and topped with roasted carrots, parsnips and a plop of colcannon. “Our recipe is based on the original steak & Guinness stew served at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, Ireland, brought to us by a dear, old Irish friend, Chef Trevis Gleason of Seattle,” said Lizz Farrell Lewis, who owns McNamara’s with parents and siblings.
“McNamara’s steak and Guinness stew is slow braised in our ovens overnight. Large chunks of Northwest beef are browned with onions, and then the pans are deglazed with our secret Guinness gravy before they are set to braise,” described Farrell Lewis.
The verdict: McNamara’s holds a special place in my Irish stew loving heart. McNamara’s roasts the parsnips and carrots separately and then serves the vegetables atop the steak stew along with colcannon (mashed potatoes threaded with kale). The chunky, identifiable, hearty vegetables get caramelized sweetness from the roasting, which tempers the bitter Guinness stout-powered gravy. “We think it allows for the best of each ingredients to shine through. That’s how they serve it at the Guinness Brewery,” said Farell Lewis of the roasted veggies. The colcannon potatoes add more creaminess.
Other Irish on the menu: Corned beef and cabbage, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie. Impressive selection of Irish whiskeys.
About the restaurant: The restaurant opened in July 2009. It’s an Irish pub concept, but the restaurant also features American pub food on the menu.
On St. Patrick’s Day: Live music, a beer garden and drink discounts all day.
Doyle’s Public House
Where: 208 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma
Information: 253-272-7468; http://doylespublichouse.com
The recipe: Chunks of beef, potatoes, carrots, pearl onions, garlic in a Guinness broth ($7.50). “The biggest secret to Guinness stew is patience. You can’t cook it too fast, you can’t cook it too long,” said Steve Peoples, general manager of Doyle’s. “There’s not too much to it other than the Guinness and the flour that we roll the meat through and braise it off,” said Peoples. Tomato paste is the ingredient that pulls together the flavor, Peoples said. “Just for color, and for the flavor. I think it gives it richness.”
The verdict: The driest of all the stews sampled for this report, Doyle’s also had the most tomato paste, lending a pronounced orange hue. The tomato imparted a sweet taste, a richness to the stew. I just wanted more Guinness flavor, and more gravy. Of all the places I dined, Doyle’s hands down had the most dunk-worthy Irish soda bread – a currant and caraway spiked bread made by Corina’s Bakery in Tacoma. While the stew was just a bit too dry for my palate, I did appreciate the beefy chunks of meat and how the bitterness of the Guinness stout played against the sweetness of the toothsome pearl onions. Those are tricky little things to put in a stew – a fair share of people hate pearl onions because of the texture. But they worked for me.
Other Irish on the menu: Bangers and mash and shepherd’s pie.
About the restaurant: Doyle’s opened in 2006 and is an Irish pub with more American menu items than Irish.
On St. Patrick’s Day: Live music most of the day, and a beer garden. Drink and food specials.