That song is perhaps the cheesiest reminder that today is St. Patrick’s Day. Flogging Molly or the Pogues are more my style, as my Pandora station might reveal. But according to my red hair, freckles, and relatively large percentage of Irish blood, I suppose I should be in a celebratory mood, with the requisite tolerance for funny old songs and fake Irish brogues. With enough Guinness, anything’s possible, right?
Except it’s a Monday, I really don’t own any green clothing that I can recall, and James doesn’t drink beer. Besides, I was kind of in the mood for a relaxing evening at home, with a bit of work and some new cookbooks to peruse. So I did what I always do in those situations: I threw this and that in a pot, brought it to a simmer, and let the delicious smells waft throughout the house.
This meal ended up having an Australian twist, in the end. See, Irish, British, and Australian pub food is really not so different (as you might imagine). You throw some tough meat, beer, a few basic vegetables, some homemade stock in a pot. Add a little Vegemite, disappear to the corner pub for an hour or two, and voila — you have your Australian equivalent of Irish Guinness stew. You make a basic, scone-like quick bread of flour, baking powder, water, milk, butter, and salt, and you have damper, which is serious bush tucker, designed to be made with basic essentials and thrust into an open fire beneath the startling expanse of the Milky Way.
It’s all comfort food, really. Yes, you can turn it into something gorgeous and inviting; the smell alone will draw guests to your door in two seconds flat. But it’s basic, and somehow, a part of both of our collective memories, as different as they are. Simmering stew and fresh baked bread, with only slight variations here or there. It’s the kind of meal that makes us quiet, in mutual approval, and brings us both a little sense of home.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, from the lab leprechaun!
Nut brown ale stew and damper
Serves 4-6, depending on hunger level and stewing time.
The stew recipe is inexact at best. But if you can conjure up a memory of your favorite Guinness stew, I think you’ll be able to find your own way through the rough proportions I’ve given here. The damper is based on the recipe in Cooking: a commonsense guide. My version uses buttermilk in place of milk and fresh rosemary in place of some of the salt.
- 2 T. olive oil.
- 12 oz. stewing beef, cut against the grain, in 3/4″ strips. You can choose a cheap cut here, and upgrade to the organic, sustainably-raised meat.
- 2 russet potatoes, cut into 1″ cubes.
- 2 carrots, sliced into thick circles.
- 4 stalks celery, sliced into 1/2″ half moons.
- 1 medium onion, cut into strips.
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced.
- 4 cups stock (chicken, vegetable, or beef will do, but it’s best if it’s homemade). I used chicken stock, because I had some in the freezer.
- 1 12-oz. bottle of beer. I used Peak Organic‘s nutty brown ale, which was quite good. Guinness would definitely work here, but I hate buying it in bottles. It just seems wrong somehow.
- Leaves from 2-3 stalks fresh rosemary.
- 1 T. Vegemite. If you must, Marmite will do, or even a bit of extra salt. But the flavor won’t be quite the same, and the color will be slightly off.
- 1 bay leaf.
- Pepper and salt, to taste.
In a heavy, lidded stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onions, and sauté until translucent. Add garlic, and cook for a minute more. Add the meat, cook until slightly browned, and then throw in the remaining ingredients (I told you this isn’t fussy food). Stir for half a minute or so, turn the heat down until the stew stays at a low simmer, and cover so that the pot lid is slightly ajar. Let stew for an hour and a half, while you go do more important things (all the while, enjoying the bloody amazing smell taking over your house). You may need to add a bit more liquid (beer, water, or stock) as it cooks down. About 35 minutes before you’re ready to eat, start the damper.
- 3 c. (12 oz.) all purpose flour. Don’t use whole wheat flour here. I really don’t think it’ll work.
- 1-1/2 T. baking powder. It’s a lot, I know. I want to try the single acting baking powder recipe from Gourmet, because I think this is one of those cases where the flavor difference would be noticeable. Next time, maybe…
- 1-1/2 t. sea salt.
- 1/2 c. buttermilk.
- 1/2 c. water.
- 3 oz. (3/4 stick) butter, melted.
- leaves from 2 sprigs fresh rosemary.
- ~1 T. milk.
Preheat oven to 415°F. Sift dry ingredients together into a large bowl (if your sea salt is coarse, add it after you sift the flour and baking powder). Add the rosemary, and mix into the dry ingredients, gently. Make a well in the ingredients, and pour in the remaining ingredients. Mix gently, until the dough comes together into a sticky dough. Sprinkle with some flour, and knead in the bowl for 30 seconds or so. You don’t want to handle this dough too much, or the consistency won’t be soft and flaky. Form into a ball, and place on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet. Flatten the ball a bit, and then use the tip of a wet knife to score 8 segments into the damper (as pictured above). Brush with milk, dust with a bit of flour, and place in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, reduce temperature to 350°F, and bake for ~20 minutes more, until the bottom sounds hollow. If you can’t actually pick it up without fear of it falling apart, let it bake for a few minutes more and try again.
Enjoy both the stew and the damper together immediately. The stew may be better the next day, but damper is really meant to be eaten the day of. Invite friends over!