James Whelan Butchers: Skirt and Kidney Chow

If there are positives to be taken from the current financial climate then for butchers it has to be the renewed interest in the cheaper and less regarded cuts of meat. I’m quite thrilled by this because in our more affluent years we gradually lost out on so much when it came to taste and flavour as we turned our noses up at some of the cheaper cuts of meat. I am also conscious of the environmental impact we made when we disregarded so much of an animal that was perfectly good for human consumption, purely on the basis of our arrogance and perceived sophistication which really boiled down to nothing less than ignorance.

While many of us may not want to be reminded of it, our heritage was built on eating an animal nose to tail and acknowledging and fully embracing its ultimate sacrifice so that we could be nourished and made strong. It would also have to be recognised that when it came to offal and the tougher cuts of meat, these were often the only things left behind for the ordinary Irish once the rest of the meat had been shipped off. This was particularly the case when we were under British rule. The best meat was often butchered here and sent to Britain making the eating of offal and off cuts very popular in port towns and cities. Here in the south, Cork and Waterford have long traditions of this as it was through these ports that many animals and meat passed through. The elderly of these cities will be very familiar with dishes such as crubeens (pigs’ trotters), tripe, drisheen, liver and skirt and kidney stew.

So what are skirt and kidney? While it definitely sounds like it could be a show that my children might watch on The Cartoon Network, they are part of the pig. Skirts are thin strips of meat found on the inside of the ribs and backbone. Skirts are very tender because they are found near the pig’s diaphragm and this is a muscle the pig tends not to use too much. Kidneys, as the name suggest, are just that. When skirt and kidney are stewed gently together the result is delicious and oozing with flavour. There are many traditional recipes from the very simple that use just pepper, water and potatoes to the more elaborate that include an abundance of herbs, soup mix and vegetables and finally thickened with a little corn flour. 

Recently I happened to catch an episode of Saturday Kitchen on BBC. Saturday mornings are usually not a good time for watching TV in my house but on this rare occasion I happened across a marvellous recipe by Atul Kochhar who was a guest on the show. He introduced a wonderful traditional spicy lamb stew from South Africa. The interesting part of this recipe is that it was originally created as food for the field workers. Because of this it was served (literally) in bread dishes. Loafs of bread were cut in half, the soft white part largely removed and the empty loaf shell was then filled with the lamb stew for the worker to take back to the field. As he ate the stew he would tear off part of the ‘dish’ and eat it at the same time. How very inventive; no washing up and no worrying about what to do with the plates when lunch was over. The recipe was called Bunny Chow. I made it as suggested with the lamb along with a few necessary tweaks and it was great, but I didn’t bother with the bread bowl and just served it with rice. However it did occur to me that this would be a great way to serve a Skirt and Kidney Stew. Traditionally it was a dish that was served with bread anyway, so this was just a new twist on the old; and so my new dish was born; Skirt and Kidney Chow. What is really lovely about serving it this way is that by the time you get to the end the loaf has soaked up all the lovely juices and so the dish is tasty and warming to the last bite. (Of course when I served the stew in the hollowed out loaf I did put the loaf dish on an actual plate as it made more sense. We are, after all, in Clonmel and not on the African plains!) I suppose the even better news for everyone is that Skirt and Kidney stew is probably one of the most economical dishes you can make. Indeed it was featured on an episode of the RTE radio series, The Frugal Household – need I say anymore.

Depending on where you buy your skirts and kidneys you may need to do a little trimming. Make sure all the membrane is removed and all the ‘plumbing’ is removed from the kidneys. Any good butcher should be able to do this for you. Everything should be cut to about 1” pieces. There are many varying recipes available but personally I recommend that once on the heat this should be simmered gently for 1 to 1½ hours to bring out the full flavour.

Once the skirt and kidney stew is cooked it really is up to you how to serve it. The hollowed out bread is a novelty, but not a necessity. If you haven’t used potatoes in the actual stew itself then you could serve it with creamy mash or just slices of fresh buttered bread, either of which would work really well. Below is the recipe I used but as you will see it is one that can be played around with very easily. I’m on a mission to at least get people to try these old fashioned cuts. I love them for the flavour but if the driving factor for you is value then it’s a double win.

This post was written by me, Pat Whelan, owner of James Whelan Butchers and a passionate advocate of local artisan food. My family have been producing quality Irish Angus beef for generations using a traditional dry aging process. This tradition is one that I continue to practice at our abattoir on our family farm in Garrentemple, Clonmel. These posts aim to impart some of the wisdom to readers and help them get the best out of the meat they eat! Our meat is available online here! I welcome your feedback to Pat@jwb.ie

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

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