I don’t have a speck of Irish blood in me. However, I love St. Patrick’s Day. To me it is the unofficial first day of spring and I celebrate it with a semi-traditional Irish-American dinner of slow braised corned beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and turnips.
I have to admit to being somewhat of a snob when it comes to corned beef. It is the simplest thing to cook, but also the easiest thing to ruin. Beef brisket is a tough, chewy, crappy cut of meat and the way to make it meltingly tender is slow, long cooking. How do you ruin it? By cooking it too fast at too high a temperature. In my opinion most restaurants that serve corned beef ruin it and what they give you is a tough, fatty, and mostly inedible approximation of well prepared corned beef. I tend to judge harshly–any restaurant that can’t properly prepare this simplest of dishes probably fails at other preparations.
So what is ‘corned’ beef? It is a brisket of beef, coming from the lower breast area of a cow. Corning refers to the salt curing of the beef, using large grains of rock salt that were once called ‘corns.’ Salting and curing meats was a customary way of preserving them before the advent of refrigeration. So, ‘corned’ beef is simply salt-cured beef.
Most supermarkets will have corned beef on sale right before St. Patrick’s day, so it’s a good idea to buy it then. Even consider buying two of them and freezing one for later. Keep your eyes open when you select a corned beef–you’ll see two different cuts of beef; a ‘point cut’ and a ‘flat cut.’ These two cuts come from opposite ends of the brisket, and the flat cut is considerably leaner and easier to slice and enjoy. The point cut is mostly fat. I inadvertently bought a point cut a while back and found it to be virtually inedible because of the fat content. This is what you should be looking for, photo left.
When you’re ready to cook the brisket cut open the package and pull out the meat and the little cellophane-wrapped package of pickling spices. Put the meat in a large Dutch oven, cover it with cold water, and cut open the spice packet and sprinkle the spices over the meat. Turn the heat on medium-high and bring the pot to a boil. Then, turn the heat down about as low as it will go, cover, and simmer for about 3 hours. You’ll need to keep an eye on the liquid–don’t let it boil again, rather keep it at a very low simmer, just to the point where you can see the water moving.
After a couple of hours you should start testing the meat for doneness. What you want is meat falling apart, so if you stick a fork in the meat and there is some resistance you’ll need to cook it longer. Put it back into the barely simmering water for another half hour, set a timer, and then re-check for doneness again when your timer rings.
I can’t stress the slow cooking enough–high heat and fast cooking will toughen the fibers of the meat. You truly want to cook this for about 3 hours.
Meanwhile, cut your cabbage into quarters, keeping the core intact. Peel carrots, prep your potatoes and turnips. It’s easiest to just throw the veggies into the pot with the meat, carrots first, then potatoes, turnips, and cabbage last. However, I prefer to roast my root veggies so I’ll lay then out on a sheet pan, spray them with cooking spray, and roast them at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes.
Since the cabbage takes so little time to cook, and you don’t want to overcook it into a smelly gray mush, put it in the pot last. Take the cooked corned beef out of the water, place it on a platter, cover it with foil and place in a warm oven until time to serve. Bring the cooking liquid back up to a boil and submerge the cabbage quarters into the boiling liquid. Cook for about 10 minutes, no longer. You want fork tenderness, and a vibrant green color.
Take the roasted veggies out of the oven, season as desired with salt and pepper, butter, etc. Remove meat from the oven, place on a cutting board and slice against the grain into 1/2-inch slices. Arrange roasted carrots, potatoes, and turnips around the meat, and serve it up with some dijon mustard on the side if desired.