10 March 2012

Corned Beef (hold the cabbage!)

Just thinking about a New York Jewish delicatessen makes me salivate. Corned beef. Nice and lean and piled high on rye with stone-ground mustard (don't even consider that abomination: yellow mustard).  Add a nice full sour pickle and some potato salad and I'm off to nirvana.

Of course this is a bit of a different attitude than I had when I was a child.  Back then, my mother would pickle and cook her own corned beef and I wouldn't have any part of it. For some reason I couldn't stand the odor of cooking corned beef.  I have memories of purposely leaving the house for the three  hours of cooking.

Lucky for me, I got over that and was able to enjoy what I think of as one of my mother's signature dishes.

Corned beef (a brisket cured in brine) is a staple of several cuisines.  And of course, as St. Patrick's Day draws near, many people are contemplating eating traditional (Irish American) corned beef and cabbage on March 17. Googling "corned beef history" returns numerous sometimes contradictory accounts of the relationship of the Irish to corned beef. Some say that corned beef was never a traditional dish in Ireland and only became an "St. Patrick's Day" tradition when Irish and Jewish immigrants lived in close quarters in U.S. cities. Others beg to differ. I don't have any idea whom to believe on this so I invite you to do your own research and draw your own conclusions.

Using my mother's recipe, I put some brisket to "pickle" last Tuesday. Planning ahead is critical since the process takes 10-14 days for pickling. Make sure you have a non-reactive pot. My mother had an enamel pot. I have one of stainless steel. You'll also need to clean out your refrigerator to make sure you have room for the pot for the duration its pickling.

Norma’s Corned Beef Brisket

3 lb. brisket – trimmed of fat
coarse (Kosher) salt
*saltpeter [optional – this is what makes corned beef red, I usually leave it out] –
1 teaspoon mixed with 1 cup water & 1 tablespoon sugar)
Pickling spices
Several cloves of fresh garlic peeled and split
3-4 whole cloves

  1. Coat the brisket with salt.
  2. Put brisket, a handful of pickling spices, garlic, (saltpeter mixture) & cloves into non-reactive pot (i.e., use stainless steel or enamel, don’t use aluminum or cast iron). Add water to cover.  Put a plate on top of brisket to keep it submerged. Cover and put in the refrigerator.
  3. After a day or two remove the plate, add more salt to the brine and turn the brisket over.  Repeat this operation every day or two.
  4. Brisket will be ready to cook in 10 to 14 days from start.

To cook:
  1. Remove about ½ the brine and replace with fresh water.
  2. Bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer for 3 hours.
When done (meat should pull apart when tested with a fork), rinse meat under cold running water to remove some of the salt.

*As noted above, I usually leave out the saltpeter (potassium nitrate).  The saltpeter is used to turn the corned beef that familiar red color.  If you leave it out the meat is gray but completely tasty (!). 

Bon appetit!

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