March for me has meant many things. The hope of spring starting early, beginning to decide on what to plant in our garden, unwrapping the patio furniture and of course, St. Patrick’s Day. As a youth, the celebration in Cleveland, meant taking off of work to attend one of the largest parades in the Midwest. The city would put on its green and begin serving corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and Irish beer at daybreak. Although a real holiday with its roots tied the Roman Catholic Church, as a teen it just seemed to be about food and drink, the unfortunate demise of many a holiday. Today as a chef, I not only respect its origins but work to create dishes that truly reflect its humble beginnings. The use of corned beef dates back to Ireland as a diet staple and Irish Americans used it as a breakfast meat to replace Irish bacon as a much cheaper form of protein, still resembling their native product. My research revealed that corned beef was introduced by their Jewish neighbors on the lower east side of New York. Today along with cabbage and potatoes it makes for a hearty meal any time. So what makes good corned beef? First is the salt. The term “corned” refers to the “corna” or grains of coarse salt. Kosher salt is the primary ingredient in my brine, along with garlic, mustard and brown sugar. The secret to an authentic product is the slow brining process followed by curing time; brining being a wet saline preparation and curing being a dry rub without water. Getting right into it my recipe follows:
Corned Beef Brisket from Scratch
1 gallon water
8 ounce sea salt
4 ouncelight brown sugar
1 ounce pickling spice
6 pounds brisket
Cure Dry Rub:
3 each bay leaves
1 ½ ounce garlic, minced
1 ounce mustard seeds, crushed
2 ounce black pepper, cracked
2 ounce red pepper flakes
1/4 ounce coriander seeds, crushed
Combine the brine ingredients into stainless steel pot and bring to a boil, dissolve completely; cook for an additional 5 minutes; remove and cool completely; place the beef in the mixture and cover, ensuring meat is submerged; refrigerate, keeping the meat in the brine for 7-14 days. Turn the beef everyday to ensure even brining; ensure the meat is submerged each time; remove from wet brine and drain.
Combine dry ingredients and rub into all areas of the beef; place beef in sealed bag with air removed for 5 days in refrigerator. Remove beef from dry rub bag; place into a large pot; cover the meat with fresh cold water. Bring to simmer and cook for 2 1/2 – 4 hours until tender to the fork.
Slice and serve.
As the recipe states, this is a long and dedicated process with a minimum commitment of 12 days. The original beef was only dry cured with large grains of salt to preserve the meat since refrigeration had not yet been introduced. As techniques and cold storage became available the recipe morphed to include other methods of preparation while preserving the original flavors. In supermarkets today you can find small briskets or other tough cuts of beef sealed in a bag with pickling spices and other aromatics. The manufacturer has taken most of the work out of it since the meat has been curing for some time before the package was shipped. The downside to this is that you have no control over flavor since the meat has taken on the characteristics of the ingredients it has been sitting in. Whether it is mine or the manufacturerâ€™s recipe being used, keep in mind that we are dealing with a tough cut of beef. Specifically located below the chuck and just above the shank, this muscle meat needs to be tenderized before consuming. Salt not only preserves the meat but aides in breaking down the fibrous muscle. Salt water slowly opens the cell walls of the muscle allowing for the tenderizing to begin and while this process takes place, flavors slowly take hold. The process finalizes in cooking. A slow covered bath finishes the breakdown of muscles tissue and forces the aromatics into the meat. The resulting product is tender and juicy. Understanding the basics allows us to play with the ingredients. For instance, replacing some of the water with beer, cider or flavored stock is one option. Mixing up the traditional spices of mustard, coriander and garlic to include a curry or Middle Eastern spice or even espresso begins to create new exciting recipes. However, the basics are just that. Keeping it simple keeps it true to form and allows the sides to do their job. Most agree that cabbage and potatoes are a must. A simple head of cabbage and baby redishes or fingerling potatoes work well. As the brisket is finishing its last hour in the liquid, add your potatoes and cabbage cook for 30-40 minutes. Both vegetables will take on the characteristics of the meal while preserving their individuality. My Jewish traditions kick in at this point with a splattering of fresh horseradish overall. If that is not your thing than a good coarse mustard will suffice. For the finish I have to fast forward to a recipe we discovered this past year that is not authentically Irish but good nonetheless. A Guinness Float! In a tall glass put 3 scoops of your favorite vanilla ice cream and slowly add a bottle of Guinness. You can also make this into a milkshake or as I like it with the addition of a shot of espresso. So whatever your reason for celebrating March 17, remember to include good friends, good music and your own freshly made labor of love corned beef!