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Edible History: How to boil water (and a brisket, too)

Corned Beef prep in time for St. Paddy's Day


Noah carried the slabs of meat into the kitchen and cut it into small salting blocks, and Ma patted the coarse salt in, laid it piece by piece in the kegs, careful that no two pieces touched each other. She laid the slabs like bricks, and pounded salt in the spaces.
—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

In Jane Ziegelman’s excellent book 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, she describes how corned beef—or variations of it—was brought to this country, not just by the Irish but also by the Dutch and Germans. But it was the Irish immigrants, she says, who truly perfected this recipe and became most associated with it. She goes on to describe how some of the earlier Irish immigrants—especially wealthier ones—disowned this dish for a while, but second and third generations reclaimed it as a quintessential Irish food.


Corned beef is very simple to prepare, albeit a bit time consuming. It is also cost effective and it makes feeding a large crowd easy (which helps explain its early popularity). The most important component of the dish, of course, is the beef. Like many traditional foods that have been passed down over the generations, corned beef originated as a form of food preservation. To corn something originally meant to pack it in barrels with salt. Its etymology comes from the large grains of salt that were used, sometimes as large as kernels of corn. Salt draws excess blood and juice from the meat, which in turn preserves it; other spices were added for flavor. Another ingredient is potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, or in culinary terminology as curing salt or pink curing salt. This acts as a food preservative, among other things, and gives the beef its rosy pink hue.  


If you take a look at the family tree of this recipe, you’ll find that the dish has many foreign cousins. Boiling food is one of the most primitive and simplest ways to cook—in fact it is one of the oldest methods (trailing behind cooking over a live fire). With little effort, one can find variations of boiled dinners that span the globe.


New England-style corned beef and cabbage is one of the few boiled dinners that uses cured meat rather than fresh. There is also the French version, pot au feu, which translates to “pot on a fire.” The Spanish and Portuguese make a boiled dinner called cozido or cocito, which includes sausages and beans in addition to the traditional meat and vegetables. Some say that the delicately flavored pho of Vietnam, which falls halfway between a soup and a stew, gets its name from the French word feu (fire). The famous bouillabaisse of Marseille could fall into this category, as the name comes from the two words: bouille (boil) and abaisser (lower or slow down). Now let’s look at why these foods were and still are boiled.


Meat-based meals such as corned beef and cabbage or pot au feu most often use inexpensive cuts of meat for two reasons. The first of course is cost, but the second is less obvious; generally speaking, the tougher the cut of meat, the more flavor it has. This is another reason these recipes and their ensuing broths are so flavorful; the long slow simmer draws out their flavors. To cook these meats in most other manners would result in a product not unlike chewy leather. Roasting, grilling, or sautéing would not tenderize them, but the long slow simmering breaks down the tough and often hard-worked muscle from which these meats are derived. Vegetables are added later, and often in stages to keep them from disintegrating into the liquid.


Once the meat is tender and the vegetables are cooked, they are removed from the liquid for serving; the liquid itself—if it is not too salty—can be used as a base for a soup or sipped as is.


Boiled dinners are really easy to make and good tasting, and they can be highly nutritious, too. So the next time you’re wondering what to make for dinner, grab whatever you have in the fridge, put it in a pot, and boil it.    


Corned Beef

        1 gallon water
        2 cups kosher salt
        ½ cup sugar
        1 ounce pink curing salt
        4 cloves garlic, minced
        2 tablespoons pickling spice
        1 beef brisket, about 5 pounds

Make the brine by combining the water, kosher salt, sugar, pink curing salt, garlic, and pickling spice in a large pot. Bring briefly to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salts and sugar, then transfer to a clean pot or bowl and refrigerate until chilled. Place the brisket in the brine, weighting it down with a plate or two and making sure it is completely submerged. Refrigerate for five days. Remove brisket from the brine (discard the brine), and rinse it under cold water. The brisket is now ready to be cooked.


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