CORNED BEEF! I feel like that’s a good enough introduction to today’s topic. I’m going to let Claire jump right in here, because if I have to talk about corned beef any longer, I might skip out of work early to head to the deli. Take it away, Claire!
I’m not Irish – at least, not that I know of – but I am Jewish, which means that, while most Americans associate corned beef with traditional Irish fare, for me, it’s always been more closely tied with the Jewish American culinary tradition. I have a very distinct picture in my mind of my mother, closing her eyes and savoring the first bite of a piece of toasted rye bread piled high with corned beef and mustard. As a kid, I was pretty sure I didn’t care for corned beef. I assumed that corned beef was just like pastrami, and I hated getting pastrami in my lunch at school, with that peppery crust on the outside; all the other kids thought I was so weird with my weird meat sandwich. When my mom would take us to the Jewish deli after Sunday School, I would always skip right over the meats and go right for the blintzes. Kids are so dumb sometimes.
Now, of course, I know better. Not only have I changed my mind about pastrami, but I have also learned that, aside from the animal of origin, pastrami and corned beef have basically nothing in common. If someone promises me a Reuben sandwich and instead gives me a pastrami sandwich with Swiss cheese, Thousand Island, and sauerkraut on rye, I will calmly inform them that replacing the corned beef in a Reuben with some other kind of deli meat immediately and irreversibly nullifies the sandwich’s Reuben-ness, because nothing in the world compares with corned beef. It would be like replacing the jelly in a PB&J with Nutella. It might still be good, but it ain’t no PB&J. I mean, I’ll still eat the pastrami sandwich, but I’ll be thinking about corned beef the whole time.
Every time March rolls around, I think I should make my own corned beef from scratch.
I always look up recipes for brining my own brisket, and then I write a grocery list with things like saltpeter on it. And then I realize that I’m never going to actually brine my own brisket, and I’ll just scratch out the saltpeter because, seriously, who even has the time? I still want corned beef, though, and with St. Patty’s Day right around the corner, all the grocery stores have stocked up on corned beef, already brined, just waiting to be cooked. So this year I went to the store and bought two. Hey, if I have to celebrate a Catholic saint to get easy access to a corned beef, I am willing to put on a green dress and down a Guinness or two. I just really love corned beef.
When I got home with my two corned beef briskets, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to boil them the traditional way or slow roast them to change it up, so I did one of each, because I guess I also just really love doing dishes. We did a side-by-side taste test, and they were both equally good, so I don’t even have a clear recommendation. Corned beef, man. It’s the best.
For the roasted one, put the brisket fat-side up in a ceramic dish and preheat the oven to 325°. I used the spice packet that came with it, plus some more ground pepper and dry mustard to make a nice flavorful crust on top of the meat, but if there’s no spice packet, just pepper and dry mustard will work great. Cover the pan with foil and pop it in the oven. Slow and low is the theme here, so set the timer for two and a half hours. When the timer goes off, remove the foil and let it roast for another 45 minutes. Test the texture with a fork; it should slide right into the center of the brisket with no resistance. If it feels even a little bit firm, let it cook for another 15 minutes. Repeat fork testing and cooking until the fork goes in easily. When it’s tender, take it out of the oven and tent with the foil to rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
For the boiled one, just place the meat into a large pot. Cut a couple of onions and some carrots into chunks and throw those in the pot. Bundle some fresh herbs together – I used thyme and sage because that’s what was still fresh in my fridge – and throw those into the pot. Add the seasoning packet, ground pepper, and a tablespoon or so of dry mustard. Cover the meat by one inch with cold water. Gently bring the water to a boil and then drop it to a simmer. Cover the pot and let it simmer for 2 hours. Cut a head of cabbage into quarters and add it to the pot. Simmer another hour or two more, until the meat is fork tender.
For either cooking method, when the meat is ready, put it on your cutting board and identify the grain. For the most tender serving, you want to slice across the grain. I sliced the meat on the thicker side and served it with some of the cabbage and broth for dinner. Just for kicks, I also cut a second head of cabbage into eighths and pan cooked it in some extra virgin olive oil while the roast brisket was resting. It added a nice crunch to the meal and it would make a nice alternative if I didn’t feel like boiling anything. After dinner, I sliced the leftover meat very thin for sandwiches.
If you love corned beef like I do, I recommend making way more than you need and buying a loaf of rye bread ahead of time. That way, the leftovers will keep you in lunch heaven for the rest of the week. I’m telling you, a pre-corned brisket is so easy to cook, I think I’ll even do another one next week because we’re already running out, and I’m not ready for it to be gone yet.
Do you have a Saint Patrick’s Day tradition? Do you serve your corned beef with Irish soda bread? May I have some of your soda bread?