Like corned beef and cabbage, it’s not authentically Irish, but it’s completely delicious. And that’s no blarney.
St. Patrick’s Day is upon us, meaning it’s time we dug out everything green in our closets to wear, grab a six-pack of Guinness, and eat the one dish you won’t find in Ireland: corned beef and cabbage.
Americans—whether Irish by blood or just for the day—typically celebrate St. Patty’s by attending big parades or visiting a corner pub. But this year because of COVID (again), those large gatherings are not happening.
In my home city (St. Louis), one of our parades will be “virtual” this year (not sure how that’s going to be pulled off, but here's more info. In the city’s most Irish neighborhood, Dogtown, there’s no parade, but neighborhood pubs are doing reservations for limited gatherings, homes are decorated, and the beer and good times will be flowing.
And the corned beef will be carved. In fact, a quick poll of friends indicates corned beef and cabbage is part of everybody’s celebration. My friend, Julie, said in addition to the corned beef dinner, she's telling her little girl to put shoes out overnight so leprechauns can leave candy. She also teaches her about Irish ancestors.
But as any self-respecting Irish person will tell you, it’s not an authentic dish, but rather something 19th-century Irish immigrants put together with Jewish friends in New York’s ethnic neighborhoods. Corned beef and cabbage was cheaper than pork and potatoes. The bland vegetable also took on flavor from the salty, spiced beef. Once the foothold was made in NYC, the dish was picked up across the U.S.
What is corned beef, really?
It’s salt-cured brisket, a cut of beef that comes from around the chest of the animal. It’s typically tougher, requiring a low-and-slow method of cooking. The brine also tenderizes the brisket.
Next, point or flat cut brisket? In my grocer, it seemed point cut corned beef was stocked (at least the day I visited). This is a good choice for shredding the meat, and there’s typically more fat running through the cut. A flat cut, on the other hand, is better for slicing the corned beef and making sandwiches for later. It’s leaner, but there is a layer of fat on the bottom.
I’ve cooked both cuts in the past, with flat cut as a preference. But for this casserole, the point cut will work just fine.
No matter what cut you buy, though, the important tip to remember is to carve it against the grain.
How do I cook corned beef?
Whether you use a slow cooker, the oven, or your stove top, the key is patience because it will take a little while for this cut of meat to cook to tender perfection. I typically do either the stove top or the slow cooker. Tip: If you use the slow cooker, don’t put your cabbage and potatoes in at the beginning as they will turn mushy.
This time, I used my stove top, and followed recommended 50 minutes per pound instructions, cooking a 3½-pound corned beef in my Dutch oven for three hours. Cover the meat with liquid (you can use the juice from the corned beef package), open the little spice package, and add it to the pot. I also like to add two bay leaves and a couple cloves of garlic to mine. Tip: If you have beer, add a bottle to the pot, followed with tap water to cover your corned beef. Bring it to a boil, turn down to low simmer, cover and let the stove do the work!
So, I know you’re going to make corned beef next week and you will have leftovers. Should you be tired of the next-day Reuben sandwich (by the way, nothing wrong with that), remember this throwback casserole. It’s not really Irish, but it’s sure tasty.
Going old school
I’ve tweaked a recipe from my Mom’s vintage church cookbook. This thing has to be from the 1970s. The original calls for two cans of corned beef, but I’m not a fan of this product. There’s so much sodium; plus the dish just tastes so much better with corned beef you’ve cooked. Plus, when you use leftover corned beef, it’s easy to trim excess fat before cubing it for the casserole.
I also swapped out the ½ pound of Velveeta for 1 cup of shredded cheddar. If you want to add a little more cheese, no judgment here. And because my daughter hates green peppers, I left this ingredient out. A good swap here—if you are of the similar mind—would be frozen peas. Also recommend using the low-fat/low-sodium cream of mushroom soup.
Another thing I changed was adding one clove of minced garlic. It cooks up, but brings added depth, as do the little caraway seeds. Remember, this bakes in the oven for an hour, so cook the noodles to just al dente; just cut back a minute or two on the package instructions. I love it when some of the noodles go golden and bit crispy around the edges. So good!
So, yeah, corned beef and cabbage dinners were a part of my childhood, and we often had this casserole later in the week following St. Patty’s. The other memory I have of this holiday goes back to our time in the College Hill neighborhood on the city’s North Side. There was a tavern—I can’t remember the name—somewhere on Ferry Street not far from our house. Every St. Patrick’s Day, the proprietor put an open coffin with a skeleton dressed in a black suit with pennies over the eyes. Whenever I passed this on the street, I was attracted to and creeped out by it!
I didn’t realize it at the time, but we lived north of what historically was the city’s first Irish neighborhood called Kerry Patch. The first Irish St. Patty’s parade was here in 1820. It was a complicated neighborhood, and it’s fascinating to read about. It’s also a shame that evidence of Kerry Patch has disappeared; gone are the churches, businesses, homes.
And so friends, I leave you with this Irish toast: May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you're dead. Happy St. Pat's Day!