Coming from a family of Irish decent, I’ve always had a thing for St. Patricks’ Day. Not so much the start drinking at 8 a.m. and get sloppy drunk kind of celebrating, but more like a mix of live Irish music, a Guinness or two and a fine Irish feast.
Speaking of sloppy drunk fests, I was in Detroit this past weekend where they hold the annual St. Patrick’s Day 5k and parade the Sunday before the actual day. I participated in the 5k then had a token beer after as my daytime drinking skills have always been lacking. I walked the parade route that was full of drunken revelers and popped into a bar that was serving up corned beef, potatoes and cabbage.
It was food for the masses and did the trick for a post race hunger but was nothing like the tender, moist corned beef on rye that I had a few days earlier at the Stage Deli, a Detroit institution that goes way back and caters to the Jewish community there along with anyone who is a fan of amazing deli goodness.
This brings me to the primary topic of my column, what is the difference in the preparation of Irish and Jewish corned beef? In a nutshell it comes down to a few simple differentiators, the quality and cut of the brisket, the brine, the method of cooking, the thickness of the slice and the quality of the bread you serve it on or with.
The corned beef you find in your local supermarket around this time of year is already brined and usually flat cut. They instruct you to boil or slow cook it’s own liquid with the veggies you will serve with it. I’d stay far away from the boiling unless you are crunched for time. At least the crock-pot will tenderize it and make it suitable if your objective is to celebrate the day with a reasonable corned beef and cabbage meal for friends or family.
I tend to think of Irish-style corned beef as sliced medium thick on a plate with potatoes, cabbage and carrots. It’s pretty simple fare but helps with the beer consumption for sure. For the Jewish deli version I’m thinking it’s best left to the professionals but if you do decide to try it at home, steaming the brisket is the way I’ve been told to do it. Also make sure you have the best possible rye bread available, basic yellow mustard and a high quality pickle. If you really want to get authentic a serious rotary meat slicer is essential as the thinner the cut of corned beef the better.
A side note on this, if you are thinking this is traditional Irish fare going way back think again. Despite being a major producer and exporter of beef, most of the people of Ireland ate little of the meat produced, in either fresh or salted form, due to its prohibitive cost. Most of the farms were owned by wealthy absentee landlords so the locals were unable to afford the cattle they raised.
It was not until the wave of 18th and 19th century Irish immigration to the United States that the popularity of corned beef among the Irish started to gain traction. It was cheap and readily available in the U.S. and their proximity to the New York City Jewish population who produced similar salt-cured meat product from brisket further facilitated the popularity. They purchased it as corned beef from Jewish butchers and the tradition took hold.
I’ve yet to find a standout deli style corned beef sandwich in San Diego though there are a couple of places that will do in a crunch. Milton’s in Del Mar does a decent job but a corned beef sandwich there will set you back $17. That does not seem right to me but they say it’s over-stuffed so maybe that explains it. I was just on Milton’s website to research this column and they are promoting their corned beef and other Irish dishes for St. Patrick’s Day. Not only do they have sandwiches but Shepherd’s Pie, Corned Beef Hash Benedict, Reuben Rolls, Reuben Sliders and Corned Beef and Cabbage. It really does make sense if you have all the ingredients to become an Irish deli for the week. Others that have been mentioned to me include Elijah’s on Clairemont Mesa in San Diego, and D.Z. Akins also in San Diego.
So there you have it, the corned beef lines have been blurred and cross-pollenated more than ever and not one ethnic group can really lay claim to it. Beef has been salted for preservation for a long time in many different cultures and that’s really what we are talking about here.
Whatever you do on St. Patrick’s Day, have fun and be safe!
Lick the Plate has interviewed over 700 chefs, restaurateurs, growers, brewers and culinary personalities over the past 10 years as a column in The Coast News and in Edible San Diego. He can be heard on KSON, FM94/9 and Sunny98.1. More at www.lick-the-plate.com