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03.09.11

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Phaedra
Photograph by Ari LeVaux
BRINED AND BOILED: So it's not authentically Irish. As if that'll turn us away.

Make Mine Salted

Cabbage and corned beef, the 'Irish borscht'

By Ari LeVaux


A funny holiday is observed on March 17 in Suffolk County, Mass. Green ink was used to sign this holiday into law, and many Irish people and their friends celebrate it by drinking copious amounts of beer and whiskey.

I'm referring, of course, to Evacuation Day, the important historical holiday marking the day during the Revolutionary War when the British redcoats retreated from Boston. To some Irish, saying goodbye to a Brit is legitimate cause for celebration, but native Massholes like me have known since the second half of first grade that Evacuation Day is really just a clever ruse to give the day off to public workers who would otherwise have called in sick with a pre-hangover. That's because, not coincidentally, St. Patrick's Day, which was denied public holiday status, also falls on March 17.

You don't have to be Irish to enjoy the official food of my hometown's unofficial public holiday. In fact, back in Ireland, the dish is mainly prepared for export and tourists. But in the States, corned beef has become a genuine part of American culture, dating back, by many accounts, to the times when Irish and Jewish people shared the low-rent districts of certain East Coast cities.

Brining meat in salt water is an age-old preservation method. The word "corned" refers to the large grains, or "corns," of salt that were traditionally used. Corned beef and cabbage, which often contains potatoes, onions and carrots as well, was a dish you could make at the end of winter in the days before refrigeration. Today, it's a meal that makes sense for local hoarders trying to make the most of the dregs of last year's harvest.

Some recipes claim to produce corned beef and cabbage without the brining step. I tried one such—the highest recommended hit for "corn beef and cabbage" on AllRecipes.com. I was instructed to put everything in a slow cooker and wait. Such meals can often turn out fine, but cabbage and crock pot are a dangerous pair. Nine hours later, my kitchen smelled like it had been sprayed with mustard gas, and the cabbage-like mush was bitter and sulfurous, with no redeeming flavor or texture whatsoever.

To prepare a meal of corned meat and cabbage, bring a pot of water with a chunk of corned meat to a boil. Change the water, and boil again. Reduce heat and simmer until the meat is tender, which takes 3 to 5 hours for most cuts. Then, and only then, add carrots, potatoes and onions if you wish. Simmer for half an hour, and then add cabbage, sliced or cut into wedges. Half an hour later, it's ready.

It's a good idea to prepare more meat and potatoes than what you think you will eat for lunch and dinner on March 17, in order to leave leftover meat for breakfast hash the following morning. Cook leftover potatoes in the pan with safflower oil. Add corned beef and chopped onions. Toss leftover corned meat with fried potatoes, on low heat. Take your time, and let the corned beef develop a crisp. Meanwhile, make scrambled eggs in a separate pan, erring on the side of undercooked. Toss it all together, season it with salt and pepper, and serve with coffee. It will probably chase away your post-Evacuation Day blues.

Of course, you might still call in sick. And in Boston, rest assured they will.


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