The Best Corned Beef

corned beef and cabbage

In Ireland, they do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with corned beef and cabbage, but rather lamb or bacon, on what has long been a religious holiday there. Why therefore does the rest of the world, in particular the U.S., count this dish synonymous with this day that has become so filled with frolic?  It was through numerous developments that the Irish immigrants in America adopted this tradition, with its actual Gaelic roots.

These immigrants first arrived here when fleeing the Great Famine, which was brought about by the European potato blight that desperately hit their homeland, starting in 1845.  They disembarked knowing only “about” the corn beef of their forefathers, and that differing greatly from what they began to eat in the U.S.

This dish has a complicated history.  Beef was originally not regarded as an option in the old country, but rather pork and bacon provided the rare meat at a meal (pig is still their favored animal bred only for food).  From ancient times on, the common Irishman regarded the cow as a work animal, consuming only its milk products, not its flesh; this latter was primarily reserved only for the wealthy few, and even for them, merely on celebrations and festivals.  Salting was their typical means of preserving this meat.

When the English conquered this country in the 16th century, the cow turned into a food commodity.  Since the time of Roman invasion, the English have had a voracious appetite for beef, hence their need to outsource for this.  After their conquest of the Gaelic land, tens of thousands of live cattle were exported yearly across the Irish Sea, until the mid-17th century, when a series of Cattle Acts enacted by the English Parliament put a stop to this export; thus, providing the fuel that ignited the Irish corned beef industry.  These Cattle Acts left Ireland with an inundation of cows, bringing meat prices down, and making it affordable and abundant for their salted beef production, their means of preservation; thus, now even the peasant could consume this food.

It was around this time that the term corned beef became popular, because of the large size of the salt crystals used to cure it, as they looked like a kernel of corn.  The word kernel is derived from the Old English crynel, meaning seed or kernel, a diminutive of corn.

Subsequently Ireland became known for its abundant, high quality salted beef, now called corned beef, which tasted more like salt than beef.  In addition to the overflow of cows due to the Cattle Acts, they also had access to the highest quality of imported salt, as their salt tax was one tenth that of England.  (In good corned beef, the quality of salt is almost as important as the cut of beef.)  The demand for this best-on-the-market Irish corned beef soared in Europe and the Americas, spiking the price so high that the common Irishman could no longer afford to eat it; thus, the potato, which the English had introduced in the 1580’s, became their major food source.

This high demand for Irish salted beef continued until the end of the 18th century, when the North American colonies began producing their own; the glory days of Irish corned beef came to a close over the next 50 years; hence, the economy in Ireland was affected greatly.  This coupled with the Great Famine-brought by the European potato blight starting in 1845-resulted in great destruction in this land, as this latter completely destroyed the Irish food source.  As a result, about a million people sought refuge in America; being the land of plenty, they could now afford meat, a first in their lifetimes.  That which they chose happened to be the affordable corn beef.  Here, however, it greatly differed from that of the corned or salted beef of their ancestors 200 years prior.

These immigrants settled in the urban centers of New York and Philadelphia, next to their Jewish neighbors, who had kosher butcher shops, where the Irish bought this product.  The Jewish butchers used brisket, a kosher cut of beef, for this.  Being a tougher cut, it called for the salting and cooking processes that rendered the extremely tender corn beef, with its exceptional flavors, such as we know today.  The Irish paired this with their beloved potato and the inexpensive vegetable cabbage.  This “Jewish” corned beef then became the celebratory meal for the American Irish on their religious holiday St. Patrick’s Day.  Time transformed this hallowed feast day into its present, grand celebration of Irish heritage.

Today this beef brisket cut is generally cured or pickled by injecting seasoned brine (this brisket cut comes from the area just above the front legs; it rests on top of the shank cut, which is immediately above these legs in the forefront).  Hence today most of our savory corned briskets never actually touch any salt grains, the size of corn kernels or otherwise, like that of the famous salted beef of old.

Laura Kumin in The Hamilton Cookbook, 2017, cites Richard Briggs’ 1792 recipe “To Stew a Brisket of Beef”, from The English Art of Cookery: “a pint of red wine, or strong beer, a half of pound of butter, a bunch of sweet herbs, three or four shallots, some pepper and half a nutmeg grated.”  At the end, browned, boiled turnips were added to the thickened “liquor”, or gravy.

The following is my sister’s modern recipe, which calls for braising, resulting in super tender morsels of meat.  Enjoy this effortless receipt, while wearing-the-green this year.

References:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/is-corned-beef-really-irish-2839144/

http://www.foodandwine.com/fwx/food/complicated-irish-history-corned-beef

http://www.kitchenproject.com/history/CornedBeef.htm

Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1988, 1973), pp. 289-291.

Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 2004, 1984), p. 175.

Laura Kumin, The Hamilton Cookbook (New York, Nashville: Post Hill Press, 2017), p. 81.

glazed meat

Corned Beef Brisket  Yields: 6-8 servings.  Total prep time: 7 1/4 hr for 3 1/2-lb brisket/  active prep time: 30 min/  cooking time: 7 hr (or 2 hr for each lb of meat).

3 1/2 lb corned beef brisket

1 lg yellow onion  (Organic vegetables are best.)

8 extra lg cloves garlic, or the equivalent

6-8 red or Yukon gold potatoes, cut in halves

1 1/2 lb green cabbage, cut in sixths or eighths, leaving root on

1-1 1/4 lb carrots, cut in large pieces

2 tsp salt  (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is important for optimum health; an inexpensive Himalayan salt is available in bulk at our local Winco.)

Yellow mustard

Brown sugar  (Organic is best; available at Trader Joe’s or Costco.)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees; take veggies out of refrigerator to warm.
  2. preparation for initial braising

    Rub spice packet on brisket.  Place in oven-proof stock pot with onions and garlic.  Barely submerge in water (see photo), cover with lid, and braise for 1 hour in oven at 375 degrees.  Then lower temperature to 325 degrees if normal size (3 1/2 to 4 lbs); if brisket is larger, only lower heat to 350.  Cook meat for 6 hours for 3 1/2 lbs-the TOTAL cooking time should be determined by figuring 2 hrs per lb (which includes the replacement of vegetables for the meat for the last hour of cooking).

  3. 1 1/3 hour before serving, spray vegetables with an inexpensive, safe, effective vegetable spray (a mixture of 97% distilled white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide); let sit 3 minutes; rinse really well.  Scrape carrots with a sharp knife (this preserves vitamins, as opposed to peeling); cut in halves or large pieces; peel the potatoes; cut in halves, if large.  Cut cabbage in sixths or eighths, leaving the root on, and set this aside separately.
  4. 1 hour before serving, remove brisket from braising water, place in a baking dish, covered with tin foil, and set aside.  This should be extremely tender; if not, put a little liquid in bottom of dish, cover well with foil, and place back in oven while veggies are cooking (see photo below).
  5. preparing brisket for further cooking if needed

    Turn the heat up to 375 degrees.  Add potatoes, carrots, and salt to hot broth, cover with additional water, and return to oven to cook until tender, checking periodically.  As vegetables are done, remove to a baking dish, with small amount of broth in bottom, cover with foil, and place in oven to keep warm.

  6. Add cabbage to pot 30 minutes before serving if you like it soft; for a crisper version, add 20 minutes before dinner.  (Be sure to check vegetables to see if cooked, remove to baking dish as needed, and return to oven to keep hot.)
  7. About 30 minutes before serving, prep the glaze, by generously spreading yellow mustard over brisket, sprinkle with brown sugar, and place in oven at 375 degrees.  Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until it bubbles and glaze is formed (see photo at top of recipe).
  8. Cut meat, cover with foil, and place back in oven, if not ready to serve yet.  When all cooking is done, turn oven down to 200 degrees for keeping meal hot.
  9. To serve, place on platter or plates and surround with vegetables (see top photo).  This dish is best accompanied with Irish Soda Bread, last week’s post.

Irish Soda Bread

Irish soda bread

It is an understatement to say that my mother Pat, who now resides in heaven, loved her Irish heritage while sojourning on earth: I grew up, during every March, with a month’s worth of corned beef and cabbage; on St. Patrick’s Day itself, sometimes there were scrambled eggs colored with green food dye, or toilet bowl water tinted likewise, and always a mandatory wearing-of-the-green.  (She would have to dash in the bathroom to revive the toilet water following each use.)  Mom will always be remembered by all, for her passion for green; year-round she favored this color in her clothing, home decorations, and above all God’s splendid paintings in nature.

I am honoring her during her month, by sharing our family’s recipes for Irish Soda Bread and of course, corn beef and cabbage, which will be next week’s entry.  Irish soda bread is a quick bread, traditionally made without fat; it calls for soft flour-made from soft winter wheat berries-which is marketed as whole wheat pastry flour.

There are two varieties of wheat flour: soft and hard.  This recipe uses the soft whole wheat pastry flour, with low-gluten content; cake flour, which is the other soft flour, is even lower in this mixture of plant proteins.  Hard, all-purpose, or bread flour is the other variety, which is high in gluten.

All wheat flour contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, which combined form the gluten.  When dough is initially mixed, these proteins are mangled and knotted together in a relatively unorderly fashion.  Kneading lines these up; bonds are developed between neighbors; thus, gluten chains form, creating the surrounding substance within which the dough can develop.  In this way strength and structure are established, which trap gases and allow the dough to rise; this process is critical in producing a good loaf of yeast bread.

Unlike yeast bread, such manipulative action is minimal in its soda counterpart, providing for little  gluten development; its soft flour, being comparatively low in these proteins, produces a quick bread with its own appeal, which is a fine, tender crumb.  Being fast to prepare, it must be eaten with haste as well, as it becomes stale swiftly.

Irish soda bread has simplicity and a basic composition; it is leavened with the rapid-acting chemical baking soda, and as it has been said, brief mixing minimizes its gluten development.  This luscious loaf may be enhanced by adding either raisins or currants (see Mor Monsen’s Kaker, 2017/11/27, for the history of currants).

References:

Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), pp. 521-523, 537-538, 549-550.

https://www.thespruce.com/the-science-of-kneading-dough-1328690

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_flour

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kneading

http://www.sodabread.info/history/

bread with Kerrygold butter from Ireland

Irish Soda Bread  Yields: 6 servings.  Total prep time: 45 min/  active prep time: 20 min/  baking time: 20-30 min.

3/4 cup milk  (Alternative milks will do, or may purchase buttermilk.)

4 squirts from plastic lemon ball, for souring milk

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour  (Bob’s Red Mill flour is ideal; may grind 1 1/3 cup organic soft winter wheat berries, to make 2 cups fresh flour.)

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

3 tbsp sugar  (Organic is best; available at Trader Joe’s, or more inexpensively, in a 10-lb package at Costco.)

4 tbsp butter, softened

1/2 cup raisins or currants  (Currants available in bulk at upscale grocers, such as the national chain New Season’s.)

Spray oil  (Pam coconut spray oil is ideal; our local Winco brand, however, is far cheaper.)

  1. cutting butter into flour until mealy

    Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

  2. If grinding fresh flour, begin to do so now with 1 1/3 c soft winter white wheat berries; wait to preheat oven with this option.
  3. Sour milk by placing it in a medium bowl, squeezing about 4 squirts from lemon ball over surface; set aside.
  4. In a large bowl blend flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar, with a fork.
  5. Cut 3 tbsp softened butter into flour mixture, until mixture is mealy and butter is well incorporated (see above photo).
  6. dough after kneading for 1 minute

    Stir in soured milk and raisins or currants.  Knead dough gently for 1 minute; if necessary flour counter and hands to keep dough from sticking.  (Note: if grinding flour fresh, be sure to let dough sit in bowl, covered, for 45 minutes before kneading, to absorb excess moisture present in the coarser fresh-grind.)  See photo.

  7. Form into a round loaf and place on a cookie sheet sprayed with oil.  With a sharp knife, cut an X on top of loaf about 1/2-inch deep.  Dot with softened butter (see photo below).
  8. Bake for 20-25 minutes (a fresh-ground loaf takes about 30 minutes to bake), or until golden brown and there is a hollow sound when tapped on bottom; see top photo.  Cool on rack.
  9. loaf ready to be baked

    This is best served with imported Irish Kerrygold butter-this treat is available many places, but the best buy is at Costco, when in stock.

Quick and Delicious Leek Soup

bowl of leek soup

The history of leeks is colorful. They have been cultivated both in Europe and Central Asia for thousands of years; they are considered to be native to the latter and the Mediterranean, though historical texts from other areas mention them as well. There are Biblical accounts of their presence in Egypt, in northeastern Africa, during early world history: when times got tough in the wilderness, the children of Israel longed for this delicacy, to the point that they were willing to return to their captivity under Pharaoh; archaeological digs support the presence of leeks in the Egyptian diet for the past 4 millennia.

Shortly after Christ’s presence on earth, during the first century A.D., the Roman Emperor Nero consumed them daily, for he adhered to their healing power in strengthening one’s singing voice.  Greek philosopher Aristotle concurred with this commonly accepted belief in ancient times, for he attributed the clear voice of the partridge to its diet consisting of this vegetable.

As the Roman Empire spread, its soldiers allegedly brought this choice food to the tables of the United Kingdom, where its popularity grew greatly.  As far back as the 6th century A.D., according to legend, Welsh soldiers were wearing a leek in their helmets for identification purposes, a tradition that was carried on in subsequent centuries.  Shakespeare, whom I studied in London in 1974, refers to this Welsh passion in Henry V.  Such enthusiasm continues in Wales in present times, for this member of the onion family is now its national emblem, along with the daffodil.

My first encounter with this Allium occurred in the 1980’s in Billings, Montana, when an Irish friend taught me how to make leek soup, as part of a complete Irish meal.  I had need to know how to cook this national cuisine authentically, for I had contributed a catered St. Patrick’s Day dinner to a fundraiser’s auction, which the local radio station had promoted well; thus, I had ten eager winners expecting the best.  My friend, whose roots were in Ireland, put his heart into equipping me for this fun event; he even made a huge Irish flag, which I still possess.

Leek soup is prevalent in many different nationalities; I serve a Potage Bonne Femme, a potato and leek soup, in a 19th century French banquet from my repertoire.  My present version, however, is superior.  For more recipes and information on leeks go to  Zucchini Chicken with Leeks and Shallots (2017/08/28) and Kale, Leeks, and Chicken (2017/09/04).

Enjoy this fast soup recipe both now and for years to come; it is that good.

References:

https://draxe.com/leeks/

http://foodfacts.mercola.com/leeks.html

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/Historyof Wales/TheLeek-National-emblem-of-the-Welsh

www.wales-calling.com/culture/leeks-and-daffodil.htm

trimming leeks

Leek Soup  Yields: 2 quarts.  Total prep time: 1 hr.

3 leeks, white and light green part, 2/3 pound trimmed

1 medium/large yellow onion, chopped small

2 celery ribs, in small dice  (If desired, may omit the celery and double the potatoes, or vice versa double the celery, omitting the potatoes, to be diabetic friendly.)

7 tbsp butter, preferably unsalted  (If using only celery, 9 tbsp butter will be needed.)

2 small Yukon potatoes, 2/3 pound, peeled and chopped in 1/2 inch cubes

4 cups chicken broth  (Bone broth is best for food value; see Tortellini Soup, 2016/10/10.)

1/2 cup water

1 bay leaf

1 tsp salt, or to taste  (Real Salt is important for optimum health; available in nutrition center at local supermarket.)

1/2 tsp white pepper, or to taste

1/4 tsp nutmeg, or to taste  (Fresh ground is best.)

1/2 bunch-1/2 cup chopped-Italian flat parsley  (Organic is only slightly more expensive and much healthier.)

2 tbsp flour

1 cup whipping cream

1 tsp Better than Bouillon soup base, or to taste  (Chicken flavor is best, but vegetable flavor will also do.)

  1. Spray all vegetables, including parsley, with a vegetable spray (a mixture of 97% distilled white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide is effective and inexpensive); let sit for 3 minutes; rinse well.
  2. rinsing chopped leeks

    Remove dark green top off leeks, leaving the white and light green part.  With the root in tact, cut leek in half lengthwise (see above photo); fan out under running water to remove dirt.  Holding the two halves together, cut each leek in 1/4-inch-thick slices; place pieces in a large container; rinse well with water, stirring with hand (see photo); drain in a colander.

  3. Chop onion, set aside.
  4. Melt 1/4 cup butter in a large stock pot over medium heat; chop the celery in small 1/4 inch dice; watch butter so as not to burn.  (Use 6 tablespoons of butter, if doubling the celery, by omitting the potatoes.)
  5. Add leeks, onion, and celery to melted butter, distributing it well throughout vegetables; cook covered for about 12 minutes, stirring frequently, so they don’t brown (this will sweat the onions and leeks, or turn them translucent).
  6. Peel and cut potatoes in small 1/2 inch pieces, placing them in a bowl of water to keep them from turning color.
  7. When leeks and onions are translucent, add drained potatoes, broth, 1/2 cup water, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and nutmeg to pot.
  8. making roux

    Cover and bring to a boil over medium/high heat; lower heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 20 minutes, or until potatoes are soft; stir occasionally

  9. Wash parsley, remove stems, chop, and set aside
  10. Make a roux by melting 3 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium heat; blend in 2 tablespoon of flour with a wire whisk; cook until golden brown, mixing continuously (see photo).
  11. When potatoes are soft, whisk 1 cup of soup broth into pan of roux; add a second cup of broth, blending thoroughly; this mixture will be quite thick.
  12. Add parsley, cream, and roux to soup in stock pot.  Mix in a teaspoon of Better than Bouillon, to heighten taste; adjust seasonings; simmer for another 5 minutes (see photo of finished product).
  13. finished product

    Serve hot and enjoy!  (Flavors meld best after sitting for a day.)