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Well this was a first for me. I’ve never cooked corned beef – in fact I don’t think I’ve even purchased the already cooked version in the deli. But I didn’t shy away from corned beef, and in fact, made it two ways! It’s all in the name of science!
So lets start at the beginning- as I’m sure you noticed by the gaudy green-on-green bejewelled sweater that someone was wearing on the bus, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. And for reasons lost in the mists of time, or at least in the mass exodus of irishmen from potato blight, economic hardship and political upheaval, corned beef boiled with root vegetables has become *the* dish that irish americans make to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. All sources seem to say that this is not a popular dish in Ireland. One commentator suggests that corned beef and cabbage became the designated dish of St. Patrick’s Day because “any idiot can make it when their deep in their cups”… which seemed like good logic to me.
Corned beef and cabbage is a very simple dish. A brisket cut of beef is salt and spice cured (i.e. the “corns” are the grains of salt) and then slow simmered with cabbage, onions, carrots and sometime potatoes in a big pot. Chuck in all the ingredients, cook for 3+ hours. It’s a classic winter-root vegetable-no fresh meat kind of meal.
I decided from the beginning of this project to go for authenticity–which in this case meant restraining myself from trying to “improve” the recipe with whatever techniques or ingredients I thought would bring out the *yum* in the food. Thus I did not add garlic or other seasonings to the meat. I didn’t rub the meat in 5 secret spices, I didn’t slip a bayleaf into the pot. This was very very hard for me. As I have said before, I don’t follow directions well!
As my guide to the authentic irish corned beef and cabbage, I selected this menu from Epicurious – and I made the whole thing, just as described: Corned beef and cabbage, more sautéed buttered cabbage, Champ (i.e milky mashed potatoes with scallions), and a lovely rhubarb bread pudding for desert. If the irish chef said this was the way it should be, that’s how it was going down in my kitchen tonight.
There was a bump in the road to authenticity however! The only raw corned beef I could find in Victoria on short notice was sold in plastic bags, about 1kg to the bag (I had originally intended to by one 2kg brisket). When I got the bags home, I read the fine print and it said “For best results, cook *in* the bag”. Erm… cook, food, in plastic? This whole idea didn’t seem right to me. How was the meat supposed to absorb the taste of the veggies? Isn’t it bad to eat out of hot plastic? In the end, I decided to indulge my inner scientist an conduct and experiment –cook one brisket in the plastic bag, and cook the other the old fashioned way. Both were put in my two biggest pots, covered with cold water, and slow cooked for 3 hours.
… and the winner is?
Well, it depends on how you like your corned beef. Both were good, in fact yummy, but not quite excellent. The bagged beef was more tender – in fact almost spongy in texture. I wouldn’t be surprised if I could have shredded it with a fork. The free-range brisket had picked up more flavours, swimming around in the pot with the (now very very cooked!) root veggies, bouquet garnie, and hot mustard. It was noticeably smaller and the beef fibres were tighter, leading to a less tender result – though by no means was it tough. The root veg were also surprisingly delicious – the cabbage was soft but not mushy, huge chunks of carrots were flavourful, and most surprising to me the whole onions had become very sweet.
I’m happy to report that the rest of the irish feast also was delicious. I found an organic savoy cabbage [the size of my head(!!)] and sautéed it in a little butter, salt and pepper to rave reviews. I didn’t have any shallots, but infused the milk for the champ with chives straight from my garden. Both dishes could likely be accurately reviewed with two words: “mmmmm… butter”.
We drank some Guinness (of course!), told a few tall tales, and listened to Great Big Sea and Spirit of the West to make the evening a complete celtic celebration. Sláinte!