Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Irish girl's dream

If my hair doesn't give it away, nothing will: I'm a lot Irish. Well, at the very least, I know for sure that my maternal grandfather is Irish-American, which in this country means you're Irish. And I love celebrating that part of my heritage, just as much as I enjoy a good German stout, which, by the way, stems from that fact that German blood makes up the bulk the rest of my family tree.
Nothing, to me, says "Irish" more than corned beef. Sadly the poor meat has been mistreated in this country. Either it's the pinkish gruel that tastes good (especially when a big plate of grease is the only guarantee you'll get over that hangover) but looks a little too much like cat food, or its a thin slab of grayish meat that's more gooey fat than anything else.
Unless, that is, you have a grandmother who can make the best corned beef in the world. And I've aspired to make her corned beef ever since I struck out on my own. After another failed attempt last year, I finally decided that was it, I was GOING to make the PERFECT corned beef.
And I did. It's not the same as grandma's, but my tweaks make it my own and that's the beauty of food: Great dishes remind you of your childhood but are still your own.

Guinness Corned Beef and Cabbage
Recipe created from my grandmother's advice and my own instincts
1 Corned Beef Brisket (size doesn't matter, but make sure it's small enough to fit in your pot and comes with a packet of spices*)
3 cloves of garlic, smashed
1/2 tbsp brown sugar
1 can Guinness Draught (don't get the stout, since it turns everything bitter instead of delicious)
1 half a large green cabbage (or a whole small cabbage), quartered
6 medium carrots
5 medium Yukon gold potatoes
  1. Clean and pat your brisket dry. Trim any extra fat, but it's OK to leave a little bit.
  2. Place in the bottom of a stock pot, fat side up. Sprinkle the spice pack over top. Add the garlic and the brown sugar.
  3. Pour the can of Guinness over the meat. Add the water until the meat is covered by a half inch.
  4. Bring to a boil. Immediately turn the heat down to your lowest setting. Skim any foam that has been created off the top with a slotted spoon.
  5. Allow to simmer on low for 3 hours.
  6. Pull out the meat.
  7. Add the carrots, potatoes and stir. Press the cabbage cut side down, leaving most of the cabbage above the broth.
  8. Cover and bring to a boil. Cook the carrots and potatoes until al dente.
  9. Add the meat back in, but bring the cabbage back to the top of the pile and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until the everything is softened.
  10. IMPORTANT: Pull the meat out and let it rest at least five minutes. You will see little indentations in the meat running parallel with each other. This is the "grain" and you need to cut across the grain! If you don't heed this warning, you can resign yourselves to chewing on shoe leather for the meal. This goes for most cuts of "cheap" meat by the way, flank steak and all brisket included.
And now for the photos!

The secret to perfect corned beef is in the marbling. A bit of fat offers flavor and juiciness, but a inch-thick slab of fat is kind of disgusting to eat. Look for marbling and less fat, but don't worry if there's a bit. You can always trim it off.

The spice packet looks like this. It's mostly pickling spices (mustard seed, etc.) and cinnamon, sage, fennel and allspice. You can make it at home if you have a well stocked spice rack, but most corned beef briskets come with the packet.

When you add the Guinness you get this lovely head that the beer is so famous for. But you will end up skimming a bit of it off once it boils. Don't skip this step though, or your broth will be gross and your veggies will be just as disgusting.

Corned beef is best with large chunks of root vegetables. Try to keep them relatively the same size, but bigger is better.

I recommend Yukon Gold potatoes because they hold up well in boiling water, but they also have a buttery creaminess that is perfect with salty corned beef.

You'll see I left the "stem" of the cabbage on. This helps keep it together so it will soften but not disintegrate. It also makes a pretty platter if that's what floats your boat.

Once the root veggies are done, you put the meat back in to just warm it back up. The goal with all this take it out, put it back in nonsense is so you don't toughen the meat by boiling the broth a second time, which is pretty much the only way to get the carrots and potatoes tender. I also don't recommend putting the veggies in at the beginning because by the time the meat is cooked (minimum 3 hours total), all those pretty carrots and potatoes will have become mush.

See the little grooves running in the meat toward the top right corner of the photo? That is the grain. If we were cutting this meat within this photo, you'd put the tip of your knife in the top left corner of the photo and the handle in the bottom right, or "across the grain." Then cut the brisket into traditional, thin strips and you have tender, beautiful meat. Easy, right?

Top it all off with from-scratch cheddar biscuits and a tall glass of Guinness and you'll be thankful for the Irish.

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