On corned beef, and corned beef done right

Irish eyes are smiling: If you're going to do it, according to corned beef and cabbage aficionado Ambrose Clancy, do it right.
By AMBROSE CLANCY //

Old joke: What’s the shortest book on the shelf?

Clancy: Here’s the beef.

Answer: “The Culinary Arts of Ireland.” One page, one recipe – “throw stuff in a pot of water and boil it until every last trace of flavor is eliminated.”

It’s an old joke because it doesn’t apply anymore. Ireland has become a modern European nation, and its natural resources of fresh vegetables, lamb, beef and fish are served in wondrous ways, in every town and village.

Ireland and food, however, are not really all that funny, considering the horrific famines of the 19th century. The Irish were the poorest of the poor, starving, with families running for their lives, crossing an ocean, trying to escape a catastrophe that eventually claimed more than a million souls.

Two million made it out alive, to waiting ships. But many more died on the journey to a find a safe harbor.

Even in mid-20th-century Ireland, the poor still suffered. Writer Brendan Behan once said he remembers growing up in a Dublin slum where getting enough to eat was considered an accomplishment, but getting enough to drink was a victory.

Still, there’s a specific wing of the gallows humor museum that will always be reserved for the Irish. (Q: What’s more Irish than potatoes? A: Not having potatoes.)

Now, for those who unhappily remember the old days, when St. Patrick’s Day was approaching and corned beef and cabbage were served up in Irish bars after sitting on steam tables for a week, or boiling away in the lace curtain kitchens of the Irish diaspora, all has been changed, as W.B. Yeats would say, changed utterly.

Mary Lydon: Real deal.

We went to a great American cook, Mary Lydon, who traces her roots to Galway and Kerry, and asked her for her take on making the old dish new and scrumptious. She invited us into her Riverhead kitchen and showed us how it’s done.

Corned beef, it should be noted, is not the Irish national dish, much to the surprise of many Americans. Rather, it’s part of the Irish-American culture, originating in the late 19th century when the Irish found it a cheaply available substitute for their familiar bacon and cabbage.

In this country, there had also been a popular New England boiled dinner, which was similar (the distinct difference from the Irish dish is the addition of beets).

In recent years, we think of this dish when St. Patrick’s Day arrives. It’s usually served in questionable liquid with flabby meat and over-cooked vegetables.

We offer here a delicious alternative. Ms. Lydon, the floor is yours:

Corned Beef (Done Right)

  • 3-4 pounds corned beef (choose thin or flat cut, which is leanest and has a better appearance. If the cuts are smaller, choose two of similar size)
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 1 tbs peppercorns
  • 1 tbs mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 garlic cloves, whole
  • 12 small red potatoes
  • 6 carrots
  • 1 medium head of cabbage (preferably savoy cabbage)
  • 1 14-oz can of whole beets, no sugar added

Remove the fat “pad” on the side of beef with sharp knife.

Put beef and next six ingredients in a large pot and cover with cold water.

Bring to boil, skim top, cover and simmer at low for up to three hours.

Turn beef over midway, and test with fork toward end of cooking time. The meat should be very tender but not falling apart.

When done, remove to baking dish with a little liquid and keep in a warm oven.

Strain and degrease the broth.

Scrub the potatoes and leave whole; peel carrots and cut into chunks. Cook each separately in lightly salted water, then drain them, toss in butter and keep warm.

Cut cabbage in eight wedges and tie with butcher’s twine to keep their shape.

Cook cabbage in broth until crisp tender (about 10 minutes). Drain and remove twine.

Warm the beets in their liquid, drain and keep warm.

While cabbage cooks, slice beef.

Arrange meat and vegetables on a large heated platter. Sprinkle vegetables with parsley.

Serve with cornichons and two kinds of Dijon mustard, smooth and country style. Red wine and cold beer are naturals. And the desert possibilities are endless. But, like James Beard, I think a perfect choice is chocolate cake. If guilt sets in, cut thin slices.

I love to serve this meal on a weekend when we have guests, and always make enough for leftovers.

The next day, chop the meat and vegetables together (any proportions are fine). In a heavy pan, sauté a small chopped onion in some butter, then add everything else and cook over medium heat until hot and crispy.

Then make dents in the hash, drop in as many eggs as there are people waiting patiently and cover for about five minutes, until the whites are cooked through and the yolks are still runny.

Serve with really good rye bread, cold butter and ketchup – and of course, a Bloody Mary (with or without the vodka). Sláinte!

Ambrose Clancy is an award-winning writer/editor and veteran Long Island journalist. He currently serves as the editor of The Shelter Island Reporter.