Wednesday, March 17, 2010

i'm the leprechaun

Corned beef for St Patricks Day

Some month when I'm not off meat, we'll talk about how to make corned beef -- and how "corned" comes from the "corns" (kernels, i.e. "small bits") of seasoning used in making it.  Maybe we'll even talk about the differences between Irish cuisine and Irish-American cuisine, I don't know.  Maybe next year I'll make colcannon or champ.

This isn't that month, so I took advantage of the sales and picked up a cheap pink corned beef for the day, and a not so cheap grey corned beef (made with regular salt, not curing salt) to put in the freezer -- this is the only time of year they sell the grey corned beef.  (Interestingly, I did not see corned ribs or roast this year, as I have in previous years -- just brisket.)

Corned beef hash

The big thing to do for St Patricks Day here -- hell, for any damn day -- is "New England boiled dinner": corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, and sometimes other root vegetables, all boiled together like cozido or pot au feu. I've never been a fan, and in fact, until after my teens, I thought I only liked corned beef in sandwiches and hash -- which wouldn't make any sense, of course, but I had never stopped to wonder about it.

So me, I generally roast my corned beef. It avoids that mushy laundry texture of boiled dinner. (How I cooked it this time, for a four-pound corned brisket: after soaking it for an hour to get some salt out, and rubbing it with mustard and hot sauce as I always do, I baked it uncovered at 275 for two hours, then covered for about 75 minutes, then uncovered and rubbed with more mustard for about 30 minutes at 425. The result is really tender but has a real density and pronounced crust.) And the main goal here, the main reason I ever cook corned beef, is to have leftovers with which to make hash. I can't remember the last time I had pancakes. Why? Because I live alone, an egg makes too many pancakes for one person, and any time I go out for breakfast, if corned beef hash is on the menu, I get corned beef hash (unless I'm in the South -- southern breakfasts are a whole nother deal, whether we're talking chicken-fried steak, grillades and grits, a smoked pork chop, or a chorizo and egg taco).

Every cook seems to discover at some point that there somehow aren't many good corned beef hash recipes out there. Instead there are things calling for fresh herbs or canned gravy, handfuls of chopped parsley, hard-boiled eggs, roasted garlic, things that sound nothing like the hash you know. I don't know why this is, unless it's that usual Signature Syndrome, the same one so many new managers suffer from -- people feel the need to add their "personal touch" to things, for no reason except to do so.

But you don't really need a recipe, is what it comes down to. You want corned beef, potatoes, and onions. Add beets if you're making red flannel hash, a New England specialty. You can add small amounts of carrot or turnip, but again, these make the hash as distinct a variant as red flannel hash is (I added a tiny amount of both in mine, for the record). In any case, all of the above ingredients should already be cooked: the corned beef, of course, is leftovers; the potatoes may be leftovers from your boiled dinner or may be cold baked potatoes, a very good choice; the onions should be sauteed or grilled.

Assemble the ingredients -- the meat coarsely chopped, everything else a bit smaller, roughly equal amounts of meat and potatoes and considerably less of anything else -- in a cast-iron pan with animal fat (bacon or salt pork is traditional, beef fat is terrific, butter works), press closely together, and cook on low to medium heat on both sides, until you have noticeable browning and crisping.

Thyme or rosemary actually don't make terrible choices here, judging from a couple of restaurant hashes I've had, especially if they are in a homemade beef gravy that you add in small amounts to help with the binding. A touch of fresh cream -- a couple spoonfuls per serving, little enough that the cream isn't visible when the dish is done -- can help a lot with binding and flavor. I rarely buy cream specifically for the sake of adding to hash -- except turkey hash with Thanksgiving leftovers -- but I'll always add it if I have it in the house already.

You may need to flip the hash more than once. Look, when I heat up canned hash -- one of the only two convenience foods I ever buy -- I take at least half an hour to cook it. Texture is a real big key here. Keep it crisping, don't add too much liquid at once if you add any, and be prepared to cook it a while in order to cook the moisture out of your leftovers. 

Not a Reuben

As for the sandwiches?  This isn't a Reuben, but it's terrific: corned beef on seeded rye, with pickled red cabbage, Irish cheddar (on sale for St Patrick's!), and comeback sauce (a mustardy sauce a little like remoulade).  I swear there must be some chemical explanation for the flavor magnificence that is toasted buttered rye bread.  It's probably in McGee.

I realize there's a tradition that says that Reubens -- and presumably any sandwich riffing on them like this one does -- must be stacked high with meat, but look, I like sandwiches a lot more than I like eating half a pound of cured meat in a sitting.  It doesn't need to be a mouthbuster every time.


  1. I have never liked corned beef in any of its permutations. However, you're right about toasted buttered rye bread. Try it with really good fresh Polish sausage sometime.

  2. Tell me about your pink beef and your gray beef -- where are they from and why is the one pricier and rarer? I've corned my own, both with and without the pinkening saltpeter, but haven't noticed a profound difference apart from the color.

  3. There are a few different brands and cuts of pink (some of them have been squared off, some are presliced in thick slices, etc). The grey, I forget the brand off the top of my head, but I think the main reason it's more expensive is because the pink is a loss leader.

    The interesting thing is that all the other corned things they have sold in the past -- corned ribs, corned roasts (chuck? I assume, but I haven't bought one before so I don't remember; I'm just assuming it's a braising cut) -- are grey, and from the same brand as the grey corned brisket.

    Anyway -- I'll do a side by side comparison in April. I remember thinking the grey was more noticeably salty, but that could have been my imagination.

  4. Thanks.

    Also, you are fully correct about rye toast. Even without butter it has an eerie potency. I infused some in cream once and did a bit of ice cream and cocktail experimentation with the delicious result.

  5. Ice cream! I'm going to try that. It's weird about rye toast, isn't it? It's a more pronounced improvement than with white/wheat/sourdough. A two-dollar loaf of supermarket bread can make amazing toast.