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Potatoes both big and small play lead role in Irish stew


AS YOU MIGHT expect, potatoes are key ingredients in Maria Bellchamber's Irish stew.

Bellchambers, a native of Ireland, has been making the stew for 22 of her 36 years. Her mother, Bernadette, taught her how to make the dish, which is white, not brown, when the family lived in Londonderry. In the late 1980s, when the clan came over the ocean to the United States, the recipe came with it.

"There must be two sizes of potatoes in the stew, big and small," said Bellchambers. "The men," she said, "go for the big potatoes, the women like the small."

Now settled in Howard County where she is a nurse in the intensive-care unit of Howard County General Hospital, Bellchambers serves the stew at family gatherings and on special occasions such as a recent showing of stews at McFadden's restaurant in downtown Baltimore.

First dubbed a contest, the gathering evolved into a demonstration of the different styles of stew, and a warm-up for the Irish Festival this weekend at the Fifth Regiment Armory at Howard and Preston streets. Chris Ellis, chef at Au Poitin Still, an Irish restaurant across from the fairgrounds on York Road in Timonium, made his stew using tender cuts of lamb swimming in a dark sauce that was fortified with a shot of Guinness stout.

Dwayne "Poppy" Leighton, chef at McFadden's, an Irish pub on Market Place near Port Discovery in downtown Baltimore, served a delightful dish that was half mashed potatoes, half dark lamb stew. It encourages what most mothers always discourage, namely, mixing the meat and the potatoes in a glorious messy union. It also had a shot of Irish whiskey in it.

While there was meat in Bellchambers' white stew, potatoes played the lead role. They were plentiful - five pounds for a dish that fed four - and cooked to perfection - tender, but not mealy.

Bellchambers, a striking woman with dark hair, green eyes and a bit of the brogue, told me that she cooked the potatoes, along with carrots and turnips and onions, in the bottom of a Dutch oven. The meat - chunks of lamb, and meatballs made of sausage - were then placed atop the vegetables and the whole dish cooked for half an hour.

"This stew started as a dish Irish women would carry out in a pail to the men laboring in the fields," Bellchambers said.

Ireland is now a country where there are as many computer programmers in offices as there are farmers tilling fields, she said. Yet the stew is still served as common fare in pubs or a weeknight meal at home. Any leftover potatoes are tossed in a skillet, cooked in little bacon fat and served the next day as lunch.

Her recipe has been in her family for generations, she said, adding that when she came to the Baltimore area, she had to change one ingredient, the meat used to make meatballs. "In the Derry where I come from, you use a special mincemeat to make the meatballs," she said. "You can't get that here, so I use the Tennessee Pride sausage instead. We tried all the brands of sausages and that was the one that came closest to the mince."

The tradition of frying the leftovers, as well as the gender-preferences on potatoes, is the same on both sides of the Atlantic, she said.

When her family gathers for meals in Columbia, she said, "My dad and brother go straight for the big potatoes." Meanwhile, she, her mother and her sister spear the "petite" potatoes.

Sometimes, Bellchambers said, just to be mischievous, she will snare a large meatball, one that her brother, Steve, has his eye on.

"I learned long ago," she said, "that the way to deal with brothers is to strike fast, then run."

Bellchamber's Derry Stew

Serves 4 to 6

5 pounds white potatoes, peeled, some cut in half, some cut into 1/4 -inch chunks

2 carrots, washed, scraped, chopped

1 1/2 large white onions, chopped

2 small turnips, peeled, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

2 sprigs fresh thyme

l pound Tennessee Pride mild sausage

2 pounds thin lamp chops, trimmed of fat, cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Place the potatoes, carrots, onions and turnips in a large Dutch oven, or similar large, lidded pot. Add cold water until pot is half full. (For a drier stew use less water.) Season with salt and pepper. Add thyme. Put pot under high heat and bring it to a boil.

Meanwhile roll sausage into meatballs, and then cook them in microwave for 2 to 3 minutes to extract the fat. Put the meatballs and lamb pieces in the pot, on top of the vegetables.

Once the contents have reached a full boil, reduce heat to medium, cover with lid, and cook until a fork slides gently through the potatoes, about 30 minutes.

Stir and serve with chopped parsley.

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