Monday, March 17, 2014

Monday Meal: Corned Beef & Cabbage, A Saga

Posted By on March 17, 2014, 1:30 PM

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Back when I lived in New York City, there was a string of taverns in Manhattan called the Blarney Stone. --- I believe they are still there. These were “Irish-theme-lite” bars. There was a definite Irish-American underpinning to them—you could always find Guinness on tap, Harp in bottles and Jameson whiskey flowing freely. But they weren’t over-the-top, Disney-esque Irish in the way that Houlihans, for instance, would come to be, before that franchise abandoned the Irish theme and began serving tropical drinks and vegetarian fare and offering gluten-free menus.

The Blarney Stone pubs were a throwback to pre-prohibition Bowery bars and an age when caviar was so inexpensive that bars served it for free as a ploy to get their salty-tongued patrons to buy more beer. I always suspected that the steam tables stocked with corned beef & cabbage in the rear of the Blarney Stones served the same purpose. The salty corned beef & cabbage whetted the appetite for more mugs of beer, while also serving to keep folks from leaving the premises in order to find dinner. Did I mention the corned beef & cabbage was free? Why go somewhere else and pay for dinner when the corned beef & cabbage was gratis and the beers were cheap?

I suspect such an arrangement in Utah—providing free grub to alcohol-buying patrons—would violate some DABC regulation or another. But, needless to say, I enjoyed many a free Blarney Stone meal, washed down with cheap suds during my less-than-luxurious graduate school days in NYC. Of course, on St. Patrick’s Day, those in the know avoided the Blarney Stone like the plague. We considered that holiday, along with New Year’s Eve, to be a day/night for amateurs. On that day, my friends and I—some of them of Irish descent—would congregate instead at Rolf’s German Restaurant & Bar, where the liverwurst & Emmentaler finger sandwiches were free during happy hour, even on St. Paddy’s Day.

But I digress. The topic here is corned beef & cabbage, in light of St. Patrick’s Day. I confess: I force my family to eat corned beef and cabbage every March 17. They aren’t fond of it; I love the stuff. But I do the cooking, so tough luck.

Although its exact origins are lost to the ages, there is much debate among food historians as to whether or not corned beef is actually Irish. Apparently, corned beef can be traced back to the 12th century in Ireland. The first time it’s mentioned in print is in a poem called “Vision of MacConglinne.” However, in the “Vision,” it is described as a king’s delicacy. For most of the Irish, cattle were kept for milk and not slaughtered for food.

Anyone who did eat beef back then in Ireland would have probably eaten it fresh because salt (a preservative) was prohibitively expensive. Many historians think that is wasn’t until the 18th-century wave of Irish immigration to the United States and Canada that most Irish people tasted corned beef. Both beef and salt were relatively cheap and readily available here, while they were luxury items in Ireland.

Regardless of the history of the dish, corned beef & cabbage will not be on most dinner plates on The Emerald Isle come St. Patrick’s Day. Most of it will be served to tourists. Although corned beef & cabbage does turn up on some Irish tables, it’s more likely to be served at Easter time. I’ve asked Irish friends about eating corned beef & cabbage on St. Paddy’s Day, and most can’t figure out why we do so. “It’s so plain,” said a friend.

Well, as I mentioned, I will be one of those eating corned beef & cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. And, I’m just fine with it being a North American tradition. If you’re looking to do the same, you could join the throngs and visit one of our fine Irish restaurant-pubs, such as MacCool’s, Piper Down, Flanagan’s, Molly Bloom’s, Murphy’s, Maggie McGee’s or The Republican. Most or all of these crowded spots will be dishing up corned beef & cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.

Or, you could cook your own and enjoy a quiet St. Paddy’s Day at home. Over the years, I’ve made complicated versions of corned beef & cabbage—even “corning” the beef from scratch. There are plenty of recipes out there, and to be honest, I haven’t found a great deal of difference in results between “gourmet” versions of the dish and simpler ones. So, now, I tend to take the lazy man’s way out and cook my corned beef & cabbage in a slow cooker. I can leave it cooking all day and just finish it up before dinnertime. Here’s how:

Place 3 carrots and 3 celery stalks, each cut into 2-inch pieces, into a slow cooker, along with 1 coarsely chopped yellow onion, 1/2 pound small red or white potatoes and a few sprigs of thyme. Then put a store-bought corned-beef brisket (about 3 pounds) on top of the potatoes and veggies, fat side up, and sprinkle with the spice packet that came with the corned beef. Add water to cover the meat, place the cover on the cooker, and cook until the beef is tender: about four to five hours on high heat, or eight to nine hours on low. About an hour before serving time, add 1/2 head of cabbage (preferably Savoy), cut into 1 1/2-inch wedges, and continue cooking until the cabbage is tender, 45 minutes to an hour, approximately. It’s almost impossible to overcook corned beef, so don’t fret about exact timing. Remove the beef, slice it thinly across the grain and serve with the cooked vegetables, potatoes, good-quality grain mustard and bathed in some of the cooking liquid.

Or, book a flight to New York City and park your butt on a Blarney Stone barstool. Erin go bragh!

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