Day 228 – National Corned Beef and Cabbage Day

Well, this makes sense. Something about feasting on corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day that just seems right. Like drinking a Guinness or singing a rousing chorus of “The Unicorn Song”- it’s just a natural fit. It’s an odd tradition. I can’t think of any other day where we get excited to feast on boiled cabbage along with boiled meat. In fact, I don’t know of too many occasions where boiled meat is a good thing. But today, on St. Patrick’s day, it’s right as rain.

My days of really getting out there and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day are long gone. I can’t say I was ever a huge St. Paddy’s Day guy. Sure I’ve partaken, but it’s not really my thing. I was usually working for the majority of my adult St. Patrick’s Days, and that probably kept me out of trouble. I remember going to the NY City parade one year when I was in college, but that turned to be kind of a disappointment. It’s a memory of being surrounded by drunks, not being able to get a beer and getting in a fight with my roommate. I don’t know if the Clancy Brothers have any songs that capture that feeling. There was one time in college that we decided to host our own St. Patrick’s Day parade from the porch of our townhouse on campus. That basically involved me and my housemates (and whoever joined in) sitting around a keg and cheering every time a car drove by. You’d be surprised how that could keep you amused for a whole day. The scandalous part of the day was when the school’s shuttle bus driver, after hearing our cheers all day long, stopped the van and came in and had a shot of whisky with us, then went back to his route. I hope the statute of limitations has run out on that. In any case, that was a pretty fun one. But beyond that, my St. Paddy’s Day have been uneventful.

I think it started when I was working in a restaurant that served corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day. That’s when I really started to enjoy the taste of it, at least for that one day. I must have been serving it up all day long and finally said I have to have some of this stuff, and well, I was hooked. Sure the corned beef is good, but I was surprised at the cabbage being so tasty, soaking up all that corned beef flavor. It was just good. In the last few years, Lola and I would try to go to lunch together on this day (or maybe happy hour) and try to get in the spirit. That’s where I could get my once a year serving of corned beef and cabbage. As tasty as it is, that’s all I really ever need it – once a year – just to satisfy my urge. When we couldn’t go out, Lola made it for me one year. That year was one of my favorites.

Corned Beef and cabbage is not actually from Ireland. It’s kind of an American Irish thing. When the Irish immigrated to the U.S., they often faced discrimination and lived in slums alongside groups like the Jews and Italians. It was there that the Irish got their first taste of corned beef at the Jewish delis and lunch carts that had popped up throughout the neighborhoods. The Irish noticed a similarity between corned beef and Irish bacon (which was their favorite), but the cost of cooking beef in the US was cheaper than making pork, so they gave it a try. They also realized that they could cook cabbage alongside the corned beef which was also cheap and abundant. Corned beef and cabbage is actually just an affordable solution for our Irish descendants. What made the meal more popular was that it could be cooked in one pot which meant it was easy to make and also gave the cabbage all that great corned beef flavor. After it caught on throughout the Irish communities of New York, it started spreading throughout the country along with the Irish. That’s how it became a fixture for St. Patrick’s Day – a testament to the struggle of our early Irish immigrants.*

I started making mine on Sunday when I bought a brisket and brined it for the week. This was the recipe that Alton Brown suggests and I like following Alton’s suggestions when it comes to brining (we use his turkey brine recipe for Thanksgiving and it gets rave reviews.)   There’s no exactness to it, really. You take some sugar and salt and dissolve it in warm water along with some other spices. You cool it down with ice. Then you soak your meat in it for a few days. Essentially, our corned beef has been hanging out in our fridge for the last few days in a bucket of salty/sugary water and soaking in all kinds of flavor.

Today at about noon, I took it out of the brining liquid and I put it in a big soup pot along with some fresh water, some salt and pepper, some allspice and some bay leaves. I spilled some of the brining liquid all over the stove and on the floor which set me back a little as I had to clean it. Old beef juice is never fun to clean up, but I did. Eventually, the pot with the corned beef came to a boil, so I turned it down to a low simmer and let it sit there for a couple of hours.  At some point, it started smelling really, really good.  We were salivating at how good it smelled. Lola even asked if she could have a sandwich right then and there. It still needed another hour or so, but she was ready to feast.

When it had about 35 minutes left to cook, that’s when I added the carrots, cabbage and potatoes. That would give them enough time to soften and soak up all the corned beef flavor. When it was ready, it was still smelling great. I pulled out the corned beef first which was so tender and juicy, you could have cut it with your fork. I placed it on a platter, and then scooped out the veggies. They were actually perfectly done. All tender and full of flavor. It was a success.

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This was exactly what I was looking for. The beef was nice and tender and flavorful. It started to fall apart when I cut it, so perhaps it was overdone, but that’s the way I liked it. It was still nice and moist. The fat that was on the beef just melted into every bite and gave it more flavor. The veggies soaked up all that flavor too. The potatoes and carrots were super soft – cooked to perfection. You barely had to chew them. The cabbage is always a surprise to me because it’s tasty. Every leaf soaks up the flavor from what it was cooked in. I like to cut the cabbage into wedges so it stays in roughly that shape while it cooks. When it’s on your plate, it’s much more manageable and easy to cut down. On my plate, I tried hard to cut up everything so I could get a bite of each in every forkful, but the corned beef was too good, so I had some bites of just that alone. This was great dinner and will more than satisfy my yearly yearning.

Lola had been thinking about that sandwich so when it came time for her to eat, I obliged her by making her one. She actually was pretty specific with what she wanted – on grilled rye with cheese and spicy mustard. A pickle on the side and some potato chips too. That was easy enough to whip up and like the sandwich artist I am, I took the time to make sure it came out right.  It did, I’m proud to say.

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This passed Lola’s approval, although I knew it would. She’s always super appreciative of anything I make. Her wanting the sandwich made me realize we went the path of our ancestors today. I went the Irish corned beef and cabbage root while Lola went the Jewish corned beef sandwich way. I’m not sure if that meant anything, but just a realization of what was happening.  Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. Maybe Lola just didn’t want cooked cabbage.

After dinner, Lola put on her dance shoes and finished the night with her Riverdance routine – just our typical Friday night. Not really, but I would have enjoyed that. All in all it was another low key St. Patrick’s Day in our house and that’s ok by us. It’s kind of how we roll. But we did have a house that smelled of the delicious aroma of corned beef all day long, and we were rewarded with an equally delicious dinner. No green beer today, no songs in a pub and no jigs in the street. No today was just chilling at home. The pipes came calling for me long ago. These Irish eyes are full of smiles all on their own today. Well, maybe Lola has something to do with that.

Next Up: National Sloppy Joe Day 

*Info from Westchester Magazine

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