Traditional fare for St. Patrick’s Day
There are people who would think it isn’t St. Patrick’s Day without corned beef and cabbage. However, this dish originated not in Ireland, but in New York.
Certainly, the Irish have celebrated Saint Patty’s Day for thousands of years – but in Ireland it’s a religious feast day, much like Easter or Christmas. March 17 commemorates the anniversary of Patrick’s death in the 5th century, after bringing the Gospel to Ireland. Irish families attend Mass in the morning then celebrate with dancing, drinking and feasting on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage – a simple dish with bacon, potatoes, and cabbage, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper — in the afternoon.
Although cabbage has long been common in Ireland, corned beef only began to be associated with the holiday about a century ago, when Irish immigrants living in New York City’s Lower East Side substituted corned beef because it was the cheapest meat available. This they learned from their Jewish neighbors on the Lower East Side, who didn’t eat bacon.
Corned beef has nothing to do with corn; it is beef that has been preserved with salt, in a brine solution. This was the way to preserve meat before the advent of refrigeration. “Corn” is an old English word that means a small kernel, such as a kernel of wheat or the salt kernels used to brine the meat. Spices are added for flavor. Sugar is stirred in to prevent the meat from hardening, and saltpeter helps preserve the red color. You buy it already “corned” as a whole corned beef brisket or as sliced deli meat. The corned beef brisket usually comes with a spice packet to add to the broth. Corned beef takes fairly long to cook — about an hour per pound. This makes it perfect for cooking in a crock pot, so you don’t have to watch and stir.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of being Irish. Thirty-four million Americans claim Irish ancestry — nine times the entire population of Ireland! Since immigration records began to be kept in 1820, almost 5 million Irish immigrants have come to the US; more than a million came to escape hunger during the Irish Potato famine in the mid nineteenth century. Since the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1762, annual parades have become a show of solidarity for Irish Americans. Today, New York City’s annual parade draws one million spectators each year.
4 to 5 pound corned beef brisket
Water to cover
Additional spices (Use any or all, depending on your taste and what you have available):
1 Tablespoon chopped minced garlic
2 to 3 bay leaves
Several grains allspice (1 – 2 teaspoons)
Several black peppercorns (1 -2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoons dill seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
2 teaspoons mustard seed
Several whole cloves
1 can of beer
1/2 cup vinegar
2 pounds (about 8) yellow onions, peeled
2 pounds (about 8 medium) carrots, scrubbed
4 turnips, scrubbed
2 pounds (8 medium) potatoes, peeled
1 medium head cabbage
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Place the meat in a large kettle. Add the spice packet that came with the meat and / or the optional spices; some like to add a can of beer or a little vinegar. The alcohol in the beer will cook away, leaving the flavor behind.
Slice one or two of the carrots, a turnip, and dice half the onions, and add to this. Add enough water to cover the corned beef; stir to combine. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, about three hours until a fork can pierce all the way through. (Corned beef needs to cook about one hour per pound).
While the meat is cooking, cut the remaining veggies – turnips, carrots, onions and potatoes into one-inch chunks. Core the cabbage, remove the tough outer leaves, and cut into wedges.
When the meat is done, add carrots, potatoes, turnips, onions and cabbage; cover, return to a boil, and cook until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.
To serve, slice the corned beef against the grain. Spoon some of the cooking liquid over it to keep it moist. Serve with the cooked vegetables. Mustard or horseradish sauce are good condiments, as they complement the corned beef.
To cook in a crock-pot:
Mix the water, vinegar and/or beer, spices and chopped onion in the bottom of a six-quart slow cooker. Add the meat, top with the turnips, carrots and potatoes. Add enough liquid to cover. Simmer on low all day, eight to 10 hours. Increase the heat to high, add coarsely chopped cabbage, cover, and cook for another thirty to forty minutes. The slow cooker is perfect for this traditional dish, which should bubble away untended for hours.
Leftovers? Use the broth left from cooking the beef in soup; the meat can be used in sandwiches.
Serve your corned beef with a side of Irish soda bread to soak up the liquid. Since yeast doesn’t make the soft wheat that grows in Ireland rise very well, when soda (sodium bicarbonate) was introduced as a leavening agent in the 1840s, it became popular. The basic soda bread is made with flour, baking soda, salt and soured milk or buttermilk. It’s pretty simple and easy to make. Serve it still warm, with “lashings of butter.” It is eaten with dinner as well as for breakfast.
Depending on the region in Ireland, the bread is either baked in the oven or cooked on a griddle over the stove.
Irish soda bread
2 cups flour (for white bread) OR
1 cup flour and 1 cup whole wheat flour (for wheat bread)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup buttermilk (approximate)
In a large bowl sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Gradually stir in the buttermilk a little at a time, using just enough to allow the dough to come together. Turn out onto lightly floured surface. Knead the dough for about 2 minutes. Once you’re done kneading, shape the bread. You can either bake it in the oven or on a griddle over the stove.
To bake in the oven, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease, then flour a baking sheet. Place dough on the baking sheet and shape into an 8 inch flattish round. Cut a one-inch deep X in the top, reaching almost to the edges. This helps the bread to stretch and expand as it rises in the oven. Bake until golden brown – this should take thirty to forty minutes. Test for doneness by tapping it; it’s done when it sounds hollow. Cool on wire rack.
To make farl, or stove-top bread, roll the dough into a circle and cut into four to six wedges (called “farls”) using a floured knife. Lightly flour a heavy frying pan or griddle and heat till hot. Lower the heat, and place the farls on the griddle, leaving enough room to allow them to expand. Cook about five or ten minutes, then flip to the other side with a spatula.
For dessert, serve Shamrock cookies. Use your favorite sugar cookie recipe; cut them into shamrocks with a shamrock cookie cutter. Add a little green food coloring to the dough, or sprinkle each cookie with green sugar crystals before baking.
Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com, on twitter at @yvonawrites and on facebook as Author Yvona Fast.