After spending much of the weekend in Bowling Green with school friends, Hawkins returned to Cadiz Sunday night. I wanted to cook a nice dinner to celebrate the end of the strike and the return of my best friend. His father Randall, bless the man, drove from Madisonville to Cadiz while his son was away to drop off a new bulb for the projection TV. Sunday night saw the return of the 50-inch glory in the living room.
I’ve been meaning to cook corned beef and cabbage for some time, but the infrequency that corned beef brisket is offered on local meat racks made for a few disappointments in the past. After letting my fingers do the walking, I found the coveted meat at a local store and headed out Sunday afternoon to claim my prize and other ingredients for the feast.
Though popular on Irish-American tables on St. Patrick’s Day, research indicates that residents of the Emerald Isle consider corned beef to be a bit too common for the average feast. To me, it is akin to “Yankee Soul Food,” and the cool weather of late left me craving a bubbling pot of the delicacy.
I asked my friend Liz Dulude for tips, as an Irish-American from Massachusetts, but she said she never cared for corned beef. She gave me a few hints on the process of cooking the vegetables, and I took them to heart.
I started off by washing the brisket in cool water. Give it a rinse, rub it with table salt and rinse it again, to ensure a clean piece of meat. Heat the five-quart pot with a tablespoon of oil and brown the brisket on both sides. Once this is complete, take it out of the pot for the time being.
The next step is a common “Alan step,” in that we season the pot with a mirepoix. This time out, I diced one medium white onion, and added it to the fat in the pot with a peeled and sliced carrot and a sliced rib of celery. Mirepoix give a stew a savory taste, but I spiced it up with a bit of salt- take care not to over-salt because a corned beef is plenty briny to begin with- maybe just a quarter-teaspoon. Add a half-teaspoon of ground pepper, a quarter-teaspoon of celery seed and stir until the onions are tender. At that point, put the beef back into the pot.
Brisket, especially one brined like a corned beef can be tough, so I decided to braise the beef for about 20 minutes to tenderize it. Add a quarter-cup of malt vinegar to the pot, and about three or four ounces of beer. Now is the time to season everything. The corned beef I purchased contained a small packet of peppercorns and other seasonings. I added it straight to the pot, but decided we needed a little more to give everything a proper flavor. To quote that guy on TV, it needed “another notch.” Beef and mustard are two old friends, so I added a half-teaspoon of mustard seeds to the pot. That got it off to a good start. Beyond that, I added a quarter-teaspoon of cilantro, because a little goes a long way. A half-teaspoon of thyme gave the pot an herbal flavor, and finally, about an eighth-teaspoon of allspice made it exotic. Never content with “just a little pepper,” I ground about a teaspoon of pepper onto the meat. Yummy.
Cover the pot as the vinegar and beer begins to boil on medium heat. When the 20 minutes elapses, cover the beef completely with liquid by adding water. Again bring it to a vigorous boil and cover the beef to boil, turning occasionally for an hour and a half.
As the beef cooks, cut some more vegetables for the pot. Add an onion, sliced in thin rings after the time elapses. Truthfully, I can never get too many onions in a stew. When the onion goes in, the dish is about an hour from completion. Set a timer for it. After the onion went into the pot, I added two carrots, sliced thin. Twenty minutes later, I added some new potatoes, about a pound or two, with the skins removed in a ring around the middle. This lets the potatoes hold together, but melt around the sides to thicken the beefy-vegetable broth.
The final ingredient to corned beef and cabbage is of course, cabbage. I took a medium head of green cabbage and cut it into wedges, placing it on top of the beef and other vegetables with 20 minutes left on the timer. This allows the cabbage to steam and grow tender. At ten minutes, top the cabbage with just a bit of butter. Finally, at the five-minute mark, stir the cabbage into the broth. A little salt and pepper can be used, but the broth should be well spiced as is.
With the pot ready, I took it up to find a hearty and flavorful stew. Though it works well on its own, I served mine with the remainder of the potatoes in the bag I bought, mashed and mixed with butter and cheddar cheese. With a dollop of potatoes in the bottom of serving bowls, add a cut of beef, plenty of stewed vegetables and crunchy cabbage, and some of the savory broth.
Hawkins and I sat down to watch Real Time with Bill Maher that he recorded while away Friday night, and a new and highly intelligent show on HBO about a therapist and his patients called “In Treatment.” The program features a unique format of the therapist, named Paul, seeing a different patient, or his own analyst every weeknight. We have to wait until the next week to see how the treatment for each progresses. In a sense, it is a new show every night of the week. Hawkins said that is based on an Israeli program. Sadly my Hebrew is quite limited.
As we watched, Hawkins commented, “You’ve made similar dishes to this, but this has the most flavor. I love the moistness of the meat. You’ve outdone yourself.”
I had to take that as a pretty big compliment, because I’ve made plenty of stews and braises for this column. Try it yourself and let me know what you think of “Yankee Soul Food.” With the television back on its feet and showing some of the sharpest drama and news commentary around, and bowls of tasty corned beef and cabbage, a good time was had by all. Good eating.