Things are winding down with end of year festivities and lighter topics seem appropriate.  So, by popular demand, I’m updating and refining my traditional Celtic beef stew recipe.  

This particular recipe was handed down through generations within my mom’s ancestral family.  There are fiercely conflicting versions as to its exact origin within the family although it is widely accepted that early monastic saints and scholars from the Celtic world perfected this mix to offset the brutally cold and damp winters in the North Atlantic.  

The Scottish side of my mom’s family traces it to Saint Columba who built a flourishing religious community on the island of Iona in the Western Hebrides during the 6th Century.   The Irish side has argued, just as passionately, that the recipe originated with Saint Brendan and his happy band of mariners on the fog bound western reaches of the Emerald Island.

After expanding research on my own family, I’ve finally concluded that the recipe, in all likelihood, did originate with Saint Brendan.   Brendan was a gifted and courageous leader who was the first European to set foot in North America when he and four crew members sailed a leather bound “Currach” boat to Newfoundland during the late 6th Century. 

The voyage was more than possible because an almost exact replica of the Currach that Brendan sailed in (“Brendan 2” in the photo above) made the same cross Atlantic journey in 1975. Even though many still believe that the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach our continent, it’s quite apparent to me that we Irish were the first to cross that mark. 

There is now an annual regatta of Currach boats that begins near Achill Head on Clew Bay in County Mayo where the Irish side of my mother’s family came from.  It’s thought that Brendan touched here before he sailed to Newfoundland.  There’s no more beautiful or haunting place in all of Ireland, and it’s entirely fitting that this humble stew should have originated there.  Here’s the recipe.  

I use a giant crock pot and cook it on high rather than low heat. I find that prolonged low heat tends to dry the beef out.   I try to purchase all vegetables the day I use them. Here are the ingredients from bottom of the pot up.

  • Start with 8 carrots chopped into one inch pieces. 
  • Add six medium to large sized red potatoes each cut into eight or so cuts. Why red potatoes? They are flavorful and they don’t become mushy.
  • Add 5 pounds (or a little more) of stew beef. Costco sells 5 pound packages at a reasonable price with just the right amount of fat on it. Look for sales anywhere else. Chuck beef is also fine. 
  • I then put the beef in sink, and use my hands to mix it with Kitchen Bouquet gravy mix and flour before placing in pot. Never use Gravy Master. It has an artificial taste.
  • Always add beef stock and not broth.   Add one 32 ounce container of “More than Gourmet Beef Culinary Stock”. It’s low fat, low cal and gluten and lactose free.
  • Add two tablespoons of “Better than Beef Bullion” to the liquid.
  • Add one large clove of garlic and five medium sized onions in quarters or eighths. 
  • Place 3 stalks of celery including leaves on top of everything.   
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Other Tips.

1. I stir and mix all the ingredients together when it’s about half way through the cooking cycle. I don’t mix things up before that because I want the drippings from the beef to mix in and flavor the carrots and potatoes. That’s why I put the beef in third.

2. The beauty of combining fresh beef, “More than Gourmet: Beef Stock, Kitchen Bouquet and “Better than Bullion” is that they serve collectively  to produce a stew where the flavor of beef predominates, but doesn’t totally subjugate the other ingredients. These are all low fat and low cal products. I generally find I don’t have to separate the solids from the liquids to eliminate excess fat; but others may still want to. If so, just separate the two, put them in the refrigerator overnight, skim of the fat and recombine them. Add more flour to thicken the liquid if you so desire. 

3. If possible, let the stew chill in the refrigerator a full day before serving. Stew really does taste better the second day.  I put the leftovers in quart plastic containers and place them in the freezer.

4.  The doubters are going to chortle that potatoes, carrots and celery weren’t available in the British Isles until centuries after Brendan’s time.  That’s obviously true, but Brendan’s goal was to make  a rich beef flavor the center piece of his stew.  The specific vegetables were important, but incidental to this main point.  That’s my thinking, too. 

I  think my ancestors on both the Scottish and Irish side would have given a thumbs up for this modern version of their ancient recipe.  I also hope that Saint Brendan would have given it his blessing, as well.

A final note:  The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland was so certain that Brendan hit the new world first that they commissioned and performed a symphonic work to that effect titled “The Brendan Voyage.  Below I’ve included the powerful and sweeping  finale titled “Newfoundland” where Brendan and his crew first site the New World.   The Brendan Voyage was composed by Shaun Davey, one of Europe’s foremost classical composers, and features one of Ireland’s very best pipers Liam O’Flynn on the Uilleann Pipes.    You can’t listen to this and still harbor any doubt that the Irish got to North America first.