I’m not Irish but St. Patrick’s Day gives me an unnecessary excuse to wear green and to eat corned beef. I decided to try “corning” my own beef this year and in the process learned that I have more of a connection to this dish than I realized. As it turns out, corned beef didn’t originate in Ireland after all. The story goes that on the lower east side of NYC in the late 1800’s, Irish immigrants learned to make corned beef from their Jewish neighbors as a less expensive version of their beloved Irish bacon. My Jewish ancestors may not have been those sharing their recipes, but I had plenty of corned beef growing up, mostly from the only Jewish deli my father could find in Charlotte, NC. It was at Leo’s Delicatessen that I learned to love the food of his childhood, as out of place in the South as it seemed at the time.
“Corn” refers to kernel-sized salt, originally used in the process of dry-curing the meat we know as corned beef. Somewhere along the way, the dry-cure became a wet brine using salt & spices prepared to flavor beef brisket. Pre-brined corned beef is readily available this time of year in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, but here’s the thing. Most, if not all of the pre-processed corned beef contains potassium nitrate or saltpeter. This chemical is a preservative but it’s main function is to keep the color of the meat pink. Trust me, it’s not something you want to have lurking around in your cupboard. In addition to being a known carcinogen, if you were to mistake it for salt and eat too much of it, you may not live to regret it. I think I’d rather make my own corned beef and forgo the chemical taste and unnatural pink color.
The process of making your own corned beef isn’t difficult but takes a little thinking ahead since the meat sits in a brine for several days. I’ve read everything from 4 days to 3 weeks brining time and decided a week or so was as long as I was willing to give up the space in my fridge. Once the brining is complete, the meat is removed, rinsed and then gently simmered in water with more spices for a couple of hours. Vegetables — cabbage, potatoes, onions, turnips, carrots and whatever else you can find at the farmers market — are cooked in the same liquid for 25 minutes or until they’re tender.
Homemade Corned Beef
2-3 lb. beef brisket ( I bought this size from Skagit River Ranch but most recipes call for 4-6 lbs)
For the brine:
1 bottle beer (optional, although there are plenty of local brands that work well. Choose something with some heft rather than a pale ale. If you don’t use beer, substitute with water).
2 cups water
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 T cracked black peppercorns
2 bay leaves, crumbled
3/4 T whole allspice, cracked
3 sprigs thyme
1 t paprika
Stir the beer, water and salt together until the salt dissolves. Mix in spices. Trim some, but not all, of the excess fat from the brisket. Prick on each side with a fork about 30 times. Submerge meat in brine, weight it down to keep it under the liquid, if needed. Cover and refrigerate for a week. You can also place the meat and brine in a ziplock bag, close, remove as much air as possible and refrigerate. Turn the meat over every day or two. After a week, give or take a few days, drain and discard the brine, rinse the meat with water to remove excess salt.
For Corned Beef & Vegetables:
1 cabbage, core removed and quartered
Several carrots, peeled and cut in half
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
3 rutabaga, peeled and cut into quarters
1 bunch of small turnips, stems removed
Brussels sprouts, stems and outer leaves trimmed
2 bay leaves
Place rinsed, brined brisket in a large pot. Cover with cold water and add bay leaves & peppercorns.
Bring to a boil, skim off foam. Lower heat to a slow simmer, partially cover pot (leave the lid cracked open so some of the steam escapes). Let the meat simmer for around 3 hours, adding more water if needed. It will become very tender when done so take a bite or two if you’re not sure.
Remove meat from the pot when it’s tender. Set aside on a platter, cover with foil.
Cook vegetables in the broth adding more water, if needed. I started the potatoes, rutabagas, carrots & turnips first. After about 15-20 minutes, I added the cabbage & brussels sprouts and cooked just a couple of minutes more. (The list above is what I found at the farmers market last weekend. Any combination is fine although potatoes & cabbage are traditional).
Return the meat to the broth and vegetables if you’re not ready to eat. If you are, cut slices, add vegetables to your plate, spoon on some of the luscious broth, serve horseradish on the side and pour yourself a big glass of stout.
These rustic flavors remind us of our heritage — Jewish or Irish or both. Earned me the name of Poppy O’ Barach — by certain joking family members — thankfully just for the day. Corned beef hash made with the leftovers coming soon….
Check out Sally’s take on corned beef from last St. Patty’s Day.