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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Feeding the Muse: Living Well on a Writer’s Budget

Recipe • Traditional Corned Beef and Cabbage • by Karen Bethke

Now is the time to buy corned beef. Just as the Monday after Easter is the best time to buy a ham, the Monday after Thanksgiving is the best time to buy a frozen turkey, and the Monday after Christmas is the best time to buy a beef roast or prime rib, all the grocery stores that stocked up for St. Patrick’s Day are now eager to move all their unsold corned beef brisket, so if you shop around you can find some great prices.

Corned beef briskets come in two basic styles: the flat cut, which is usually more expensive because it looks more attractive, and the tri-tip, which is exactly the same piece of meat but triangular in shape, because it’s the part of the bottom sirloin that’s trimmed off to make the flat cut look so nice and rectangular. Of the two, tri-tip is usually considerably cheaper, but the difference is entirely cosmetic. You can also sometimes find whole briskets, which are the flat cut and tri-tip still attached to each other, but that’s a huge hunk of meat, and in some markets you’ll find what’s called “New England” corned beef, which has a disturbing grayish color because it hasn’t had nitrates or nitrites added to the brine to keep it pink. In all cases, corned beef is just a big slab of cow that’s been packed in heavily salted brine for a good long time, to preserve it for long ocean voyages, and coincidentally to make it nice and tender. If you’ve ever run across the term “bully beef” in your reading, that’s corned beef.

For that matter, pastrami is basically just corned beef that’s been spiced and smoked. Every now and then Bruce gets a notion to try putting a brisket in the smoker to make his own pastrami, but so far hunger and impatience have always won out.

The great thing about buying corned beef right now is that it’s a.) really cheap, b.) freezes well, c.) can keep for a long time if properly refrigerated—remember, this stuff was made to stay edible while kept in barrels on long ocean voyages in the age of sailing ships, though I wouldn’t recommend doing that now— d.) tastes great if prepared right, and above all, e.) is one of the all-time great fix-and-forget meals for a working mom to prepare in a slow cooker.

So here’s how I prepare it.

  • one corned beef brisket, in the cryovac pouch
  • one head of cabbage
  • carrots and potatoes as required
  • juniper berries, garlic, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, and black cardomom pods to taste
  • condiments to taste
While corned beef can be done on the stove top, it’s best done in a slow cooker. If I’m going to be busy for the day I can start it in the morning, with the slow cooker on low, and have a great meal ready by dinner time. Otherwise, I usually start it between noon and 1pm, and with the slow cooker on high and it’s done to perfection by 6pm. The exact cooking time will vary depending on how many carrots and potatoes you add.

Getting Started
To begin, take the brisket in the cryovac bag over to a clean kitchen sink and cut the bag open. You want to do this over the sink because you don’t want the greasy brine spilling all over the place, and you want to be sure to do it over a clean sink because the brisket might slip out and try to escape.

Be sure to save the little packet of spices that’s usually in the bag. It won’t be enough, but it’s a start.

Next, rinse the brisket thoroughly under cold water. It’s been packed in brine for a while, so it’s usually pretty slimy and always very salty. You want to get the slime off and reduce the salt load. Some people like to trim the fat off at this time, but I don’t. There’s a lot of flavor in the fat, and you can always trim it off later, when you serve it.

Put the brisket in the slow cooker—fat side up or down, it doesn’t really matter—and cover it about two inches deep with cold water. I always use filtered water, but that’s just because we live in 3M’s groundwater contamination plume and can water and Scotchgard our lawn at the same time. If I’m starting it in the morning, I set the slow cooker to low, but if I’m starting it after noon, I set the slow cooker to high.

Next, I cut open and throw in the spice packet. To improve it, I add three crushed juniper berries—crush them on a cutting board with the flat of a knife—a black cardomom pod to give it a little bit of a smoky flavor, two or three bay leaves, some chopped garlic, and some red pepper flakes, to give it a little zing. Then I cover it, go off to do something else, and let the slow cooker do its job for the next four hours. Usually I set the alarm on my phone to remind me when four hours are up.

I never use the timer on the stove anymore. My phone is always with me, wherever I am in the house or yard, so it makes a much more useful kitchen timer.

Adding Veg
By the time the alarm goes off, I’ll probably have gotten around to peeling some carrots and cutting them into two- to three-inch lengths, peeling and quartering some potatoes, and rinsing and quartering the head of cabbage. If I’m on a tight schedule I’ll skip adding the potatoes and make mashed instead, but if I have the time I like to use Yukon Gold potatoes, because they hold up better. Russets will fall apart if you cook them for too long. Some people prefer small red potatoes, whole and unpeeled (but thoroughly scrubbed, of course).

Layer the vegetables in, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, in that order, and then close the lid and let it cook for another hour to hour and a half, depending on whether you’re cooking just carrots and cabbage or carrots, potatoes, and cabbage.

When the vegetables are cooked through, pull the brisket out of the slow cooker and put it on a platter. Then, using a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables and put them into a bowl or serving dish. Make sure you find the bay leaves and the cardomom pod! No one wants to bite into those. This is also a good time to shut off and then unplug the slow cooker, as it’s going to take a good long time for it to cool down to washable temperature.

Corned beef has a definite grain. It’s easiest to separate into portions if you cut with the grain, but kind of stringy that way, so most people like it better if you use a good sharp serrated knife to cut across the grain. Cut it into serving-size portions, and enjoy! Depending on your taste, you may prefer it with coarse-ground mustard, horseradish, or ketchup. Some people like a little butter on the veg.

The one thing no one ever asks for is more salt.

What to do with the leftovers
In our house “leftover corned beef” is a mythical thing, but I suppose it is possible. Next time, then, we’ll talk about the best thing in all the world to do with leftover corned beef, which is to make the perfect Reuben sandwich!

Until then, bon appetit!

Karen Bethke is a wife, mother, grandmother, and 8-year cancer patient. The product of many generations of Italian family cooking, she’s now on a mission to create low-carb, low-fat, low-sodium, and just generally healthier meals that still taste great.

Karen’s sole publication credit is as co-author of “From Castle Dracule to Merlotte’s Bar & Grill” in A Taste of True Blood, but behind the scenes, she’s the real driving force behind Rampant Loon Press.


Eric Dontigney said...

This looks amazing! It's absolutely going on my to-try list of recipes.

Arisia said...

It's even got a delicious story idea: escaping briskets.

LJS3 said...

Ah. Corned beef. We used to live close to a deli that had the best Reuben I've ever eaten. I need to check the availability of corned beef brisket in this area. I definitely want to try out your recipe, though I'll have to leave out the juniper berries. Allergies, and such.