The St. Patrick’s Day tradition of eating corned beef and cabbage has a curious origin. To begin with, it is not an Irish tradition, but an American one. In Dublin, and elsewhere across the Emerald Isle, local people are far more likely to be eating bacon or ham with their cabbage on March 17.
Although ‘corned’, or salted, beef was historically an important industry in Ireland, especially in County Cork, cows were mainly farmed for their milk. In poor times, only the rich ate beef. As St. Patrick’s Day falls during the fasting season of Lent, the celebration was an excuse to feast on whatever was available and affordable, and, for most, that tended to be cured pork with early spring cabbage.
However, when refugees from the Potato Famine of 1845 fled to America, they found that beef was much cheaper than pork. Cured brisket, often purchased from Jewish butchers in the neighborhood, proved to be a more convenient alternative for many Irish immigrants in the late 19th century. And so, what was seen as a luxury product in their homeland soon became the staple St. Patrick’s Day meal.
Happily, there are many ways to enjoy corned beef and cabbage. As with many good things, the best ways may take a little time, but the finished product should be a satisfying meal that is delightfully different. First, though, let’s start with a good old-fashioned recipe for corned beef that has plenty of flavour.
Traditional corned beef
This recipe requires a large lidded crock pot or slow cooker. Allow at least 30-45 minutes cooking time for each 500g of meat, although longer is better. Slow cooking on a low heat may take six hours or more, but is likely to produce an even better end result.
2 kg corned beef
1 large peeled onion, studded with 6 whole cloves
1 tbsp lemon juice
Bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, 1 bay leaf)
2 tbsp brown sugar
Vegetables – 2 carrots; 2 stalks celery; 1 cabbage, quartered
Halve onion, and stud with cloves. Place meat and all other ingredients, except vegetables, into the pot and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, and then simmer for two-three hours. Add vegetables and simmer until they are cooked to satisfaction. Skim any fat from the surface of water when necessary.
Insert a skewer into the thickest part of the meat to check for tenderness. The skewer should go in and out easily. When cooked, remove the meat from water and slice thinly. Strain the vegetables and season with black pepper before serving. Serve the meat with a horseradish sauce.
There is likely to be plenty of leftover meat, which is perfect for sandwiches or to make one of the following recipes:
Corned beef and cabbage tortillas
Into a frying pan, place a chopped onion and sauté for about three minutes. Add one large shredded carrot, and half a chopped cabbage. Then add 2 tsp Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and a little water to prevent the mix from sticking to the pan. Cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the cabbage has wilted.
When the mix has cooled slightly, add 1 cup of Swiss cheese and about 60-100g of chopped corned beef. Wrap in flour tortillas or calzones and cook in an oven for about 15 minutes. These wonderfully healthy treats may be served hot or cold.
Corned beef fritters
Mix together 1 egg and ¾ cup of milk. Stir into 1 cup self raising flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Add 200g chopped corned beef and ½ cup of grated cheese.
Heat a little oil in a frying pan, and add tablespoons of the batter mix to fry as patties. When they start to bubble, flip and cook the other side. When cooked, drain on paper towels and serve with vegetables including, of course, cabbage.
Corned beef is a wonderfully versatile meat that is delicious hot or cold. Because it is so tender and easy to chop or slice, it also makes a great addition to casseroles, or in hash recipes using leftover boiled potatoes. While it is fine to enjoy a traditional meal of sliced corned beef with cabbage and other vegetables on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s no reason why something a little different shouldn’t offer a tasty and nutritious alternative.