An Irish stew without potatoes might sound like a contradiction, but this lamb-neck and pearl-barley recipe gives the classic winter dish a rich twist.
I have a feeling that an Irish cook, when making an Irish stew, would never countenance the inclusion of pearl barley. Starch will always come courtesy of potatoes in that green and pleasant land so famous for them, particularly when turned into two of the most delicious potato dishes ever created: colcannon and champ.
Respectively, these are mashed potatoes mixed with pale-green cabbage, chopped and cooked, or mashed potatoes with sliced spring onions stirred in at the very last minute. Turned out into a warmed dish and with a deep dip pressed into the glorious mound with the back of a great big spoon, a large serving of these will never be complete without a wedge of soft and golden Irish butter the size of a potato itself.
For me, they also require a generous and fine grinding of white peppercorns over each for a warm sprinkle of spice. Perhaps another time, then, for these two titan recipes of the potato repertoire.
That’s the Irish spuds out of the way, for now. My mother – here she is again, I’m afraid, almost as matron at my shoulder – would make a stew of lamb neck so many times during the cold, Lancashire winter months that it simply became known as ‘stew’. I mean, was there any other?
It was delicious. You knew it was well on its way simply by the smell of it wafting out of the kitchen – and often up to the bedrooms, too: ‘Bruce [my father], I told you to shut the kitchen door before you went upstairs!’
However, for a shivering schoolboy arriving home to that smell, it was as familiar as the welcome hug that would accompany the hum of it from the bottom oven of the Aga. Once homework had been completed, that simmering stew was all I could think of.
It was a simple assembly: carrots, onions, lamb neck, pearl barley, bay leaf, salt, much white pepper and water. I think there may have been a modicum of flour introduced along the way, to barely thicken the sloppy juices, but that was about it.
As far as potatoes were concerned, these were ‘creamed’: an affectation occasionally put upon mashed potatoes by Mother, quite simply because she would always order these from a hotel dining-room menu as they sounded quite posh. You never see such a description now, but I remain delighted by the almost quaint upgrade. ‘And some potatoes, Modom?’ the waiter would ask. ‘Oh, yes, creamed, please,’ my mother would reply with an air of authority as she closed the menu tight shut.
With our stew at home, these would always be served separately, in the same pale-green dish.
Neck of lamb, stewed, possesses an almost equivalent texture to that of the other end of another beast: the slowly braised tail of an ox. It is that close attachment of flesh and fat to a regular movement of bone structure that offers up such succulence. Then again, when one considers a ruminant beast’s daily trudge, it is the sinuous bend of neck and swish of tail that are the least still.
Braised neck of lamb with pearl barley and creamed onions
- 4 thick slices lamb neck
- 2 roughly chopped carrots
- 1 roughly chopped onion
- 2 sticks roughly chopped celery
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 cloves
- 1tspn peppercorns (white, preferably)
- 2tspn salt
- 4 medium carrots, peeled and halved lengthways
- 3 medium leeks, trimmed of excess green parts and cut into 6cm–7cm lengths
- 2tbspn pearl barley
- A thick slice of butter
- 2 large onions, peeled and roughly chopped
- Salt and plenty of white pepper (I always use ready ground, here)
- 2tbspn double cream
- 2tbspn finely chopped parsley
Stage 1: Put the lamb into a large pot and just cover with cold water. Slowly bring up to a simmer. Once a layer of scum settles on the surface and you can see evidence of the occasional benign simmer from beneath, only then begin to despume using a ladle.
Now, introduce the vegetables, bay, spice and seasoning. Simmer ever so quietly for about 45 minutes, continuingto skim whenever necessary. Suspend a colander over a pot in the sink, tip the entire pot of lamb and vegetables into it and leave to drain and cool for a few minutes. Lift out the pieces of meat with your hands, flicking off any adhering scraps of vegetable matter and discarding them.
Stage 2: Put the meat into a clean pan and tuck in the leeks and carrots around it. Using several sheets of kitchen paper, lift off any surface fat that will now have settled upon the surface of the pan of the initial cooking broth.
Strain enough of it through a fine sieve over the meat, leeks and carrots to just cover, then return them to the stove to gently reheat. Add the pearl barley and quietly simmer for a further 30 minutes or so, until all components are tender and the broth has reduced somewhat, intensifying its flavour.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small pan and add the onions, salt and white pepper. Allow to stew gently – and without colouring at all – until very soft. Add a spoonful or two of any remaining lamb broth, allow to bubble down a touch and then stir in the cream. Purée in a food processer until silky smooth and keep hot.
Finally, arrange the meat, leeks and carrots together on a well-heated serving dish. Give the pearl barley left in the pot a quick stir over a high heat (pulses always cool down quickly, once served) and stir in the chopped parsley. Add this to the dish along with the onion purée and serve forthwith—on hot plates, please.
It astonishes me to say the following with a deliciously complete stew such as this one, but, just this once, do not serve with ‘some nicely buttered boiled potatoes’!
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