books, britain, dining at downton, edwardians, honesty, mrs beeton's book of household management, potatoes, stew, television

Dining at Downton: Irish stew

I am known to get emotionally involved with fictional characters. When they fall in love, I swoon around the house. When they suffer heartbreak, I moan along with them. When they struggle to figure out what they really think about an important issue, my mind gets muddled and filled with conflicted emotions. When they die, I am crushed.
Yes, I am talking about Downton Abbey. No major spoilers here, but after episode 4, I lay on the couch for about half an hour babbling about how my heart had been ripped out and stomped on. How unfair this latest twist was! How could the writers take away one of my favorite characters! Death in the WWI trenches, I could understand. The Spanish flu, I could see coming. But this? My friends, it’s been over two weeks and I’m still recovering.
As viewers, we’re entitled to some serious comfort food to help us deal with this latest tragedy. And it’s also time to give Branson his due.
Branson–or “Tom,” as the more enlightened family members have to remind others to call him–burst into Downton as the revolutionary Irish chauffeur. Now that he’s married Lady Sybil with the dubious blessing of Lord Grantham, he’s slowly becoming a full-fledged member of the Crawley family. And this most recent twist of fate has him growing up fast. He’s finding the right time to be a rebel and the right time to smooth things over with the family, and it’s hugely gratifying. As one of my colleagues said, when hinting at things to come in Downton Abbey, Branson really stands up in this season. In just a few episodes, he’s become one of my favorite characters.
So, in honor of Branson, and to soothe our aching hearts, I’ve put together a comforting Irish stew that our former chauffeur would be glad to find at the dinner table. It’s an incredibly simple, easy recipe, one that calls for a few hours of simmering on the stove. With just six ingredients, I wasn’t expecting much, but the slow cooking lets all the flavors melt together. The result is a tender, rich lamb stew that falls apart at the touch of a spoon.
Also, in case you’re like me and need newspaper articles to remind you that none of this is, in fact, real, here’s a fun interview with the actress who plays Mrs. Patmore. She talks about who actually does the cooking on set, and how much of the kitchen is functional, and who corrects the kitchen hierarchy when it goes awry. Who knew Mrs. Patmore was the Gordon Ramsey of her day?
Irish Stew
(adapted from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management)
1 1/2 lbs lamb shoulder on the bone (the original calls for mutton, but lamb will do just fine)
3 cups water, with more at the ready
2  lbs russet potatoes, peeled
2 yellow onions
salt and pepper to taste
Place the lamb shoulder in a medium Dutch oven, sprinkle with salt, and pour in the water. If needed, add more water to just cover the lamb. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to low heat, and let simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, slice the potatoes and onions thinly.
Remove the lamb from the Dutch oven and cut the meat off the bone into small, 1-inch chunks. Skim the fat off the broth in the pot. Place a layer of potatoes in the bottom of the pan, and cover with a layer of onions. Scatter the meat on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover with another layer of potatoes and onions and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring the stew to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to low heat, cover, and let simmer for 1 hour. Stir occasionally to prevent bottom layer from burning.
Serve with fresh bread and cheese, plus plenty of beer to soothe your aching heart.

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