Just like drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, corned beef and cabbage is an American adaptation of an Irish tradition. Although I come from a predominantly Irish family, which, yes, is graced with a lot of freckled faces and alcoholism, but even more strength, humor, and love, I have personally never been a fan of the dish. I’m an Island girl at heart, who craves a light and savory piece of fish, a handful of fresh greens, or roasted veggies that are tender and crunchy all at the same time. There’s not much about boiling a piece of salty brined red meat marbled with fat and some soggy cabbage that sounds very appealing to me. I shared my stigmatizing mindset with my father, to which he responded, “Challenge accepted.” Luckily he’s not only filled with Irish blood, but also a lifetime of culinary experience. So this week, I decided to explore how to make a traditional dish into something you wouldn’t need a few glasses of Jameson in your system to fully enjoy.
A quintessential element to savoring what nourishes you with both your taste buds and your mind is understanding where it comes from. This feeds a deeper appreciation and understanding for every flavor that makes up the dish, and outlines potential for appropriate adaptation. Corned beef and cabbage has not much to do with the country of Ireland itself, or its holidays and customs. It has everything to do with the fact that it was cheap, and Irish immigrants were predominantly poor. Corned beef itself became a staple for Irish American immigrants, as it was a less expensive substitute for bacon, which was historically consumed in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Corn actually has no real role in the dish. It is just a proportional reference for the large chunks of salt used in the brining of the cheap cut of brisket. You may have already known that, but what you might not know is that corned beef does not actually have that red meaty color naturally. Nitrite is used in the curing process, otherwise the meat turns greyish, which is thought to be less appealing to modern consumers.
Cabbage, like the cut of meat brined to make corned beef, was simply less expensive produce available during the Irish immigration to America. However, cabbage has always been a staple of Irish cuisine, and it is one of the ingredients in the classic dish colcannon, which is composed of boiled potatoes mashed with cabbage or kale, and mixed with onions and butter.
As any solid night of cooking should begin, I set out to Reliable Market followed by Our Market. I arrived at my parents’ house the same way my ancestors arrived to this country; with an empty wallet, enough beer to share, and a hunger to work hard and learn a lot. My dad was in the backyard squirrel hunting, and as much as I’d like to credit that to something Irish-related, I think he is going a little stir-crazy on this Island, as we all do right around the month of March. It was time to crack open the Guinness and start cooking.
Corned Beef and Cabbage Two Ways
4 lb. corned beef (Why four whole pounds? Because that is what they had.)
enough Guinness to cook with and drink
enough Pabst Blue Ribbon to cook with and drink
black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. mustard seed
1 Tbsp. cloves
2 bay leaves
1 lb. carrots peeled and chopped
5 large white potatoes peeled and chopped
1 celery heart peeled and chopped
2 large Spanish onions peeled and chopped
1 large green cabbage peeled and chopped
Thoroughly wash and pat dry the corned beef. Place into the largest pot you have, and pour equal parts Guinness and PBR until the beef is almost completely covered. Add spices. Simmer on medium for about 2 to 3 hours, until the beef is beginning to fall apart. Add the vegetables and simmer on medium-low for about another hour. Drain the liquid, carve your beef, and serve. It is literally that easy. Because I am a strong believer in using the byproducts of everything you make, I couldn’t let my dad just throw away all of that rich and wonderful beer stock. I preserved some, and hoped I would find a way to put it to good use.
When I got home, I found myself hungry all over again, which is exactly what a few beers will do to you. I dumped my Tupperware container full of the corned beef and vegetables onto a sheet pan, and put it in the oven at 375°F. I looked over at the leftover cooking liquid, and if I were a cartoon character, just then a little light bulb would have appeared over my head. I was roasting my leftovers, which would crisp them up nicely, a consistency that lends itself beautifully to a creamy gravy or roux.
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
1 cup of leftover cooking liquid
1 cup of Guinness
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
black pepper to taste
garlic powder to taste
onion Powder to taste
Melt the butter over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Cook for about a minute, whisking constantly. Pour in remaining ingredients and stir. Bring to a boil, and cook for about 2 minutes, allowing gravy to thicken. Reduce heat to low and let simmer about 10 minutes. Pour over the roasted corned beef and cabbage (or over your bangers and mash sometime, or maybe on top of a juicy burger, or just straight into your mouth when no one is watching), and enjoy.