First came Irish bacon. It probably appeared sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, probably as a bonus of the increasing flax trade between several Irish ports and New York City. Certainly, in the 1830s, when the Irish first arrived in numbers, Irish bacon was already a staple of the city’s chop houses. But the Irish immigrants couldn’t afford to eat Irish bacon—it was a luxury product. It probably wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, when the Irish in Ireland had advanced enough economically to treat themselves to a festive dish of bacon and greens, that any Irish American considered the possibility.
How bacon and greens evolved into Corned Beef and Cabbage is anybody’s guess. Some surmise that the Irish adopted the meat of their German, Jewish, or even German-Jewish neighbors or WASP employers and turned it into a dish to help celebrate their Saint Patrick’s Day, an essentially New York City–Irish holiday that is now part of all Irish American culture.
It’s said that “everyone in New York City is Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.” The beer is green, the bagels are green, Italian pastries are filled with green cream, Latinos eat green rice, and everyone enjoys Corned Beef and Cabbage.
Yield: Serves 6 to 8
1 (4- to 5-pound) corned beef brisket
1 teaspoon pickling spices
1 head cabbage
2 pounds boiling potatoes
6 to 8 small carrots (optional)
Place the corned beef in a pot that holds at least 5 quarts. Cover completely with cold water. Place over high heat and bring to a simmer.
As soon as bubbles start to break on the surface of the water, adjust the heat so the water simmers very, very gently. With a slotted spoon, skim off the scum as it accumulates on the surface. When the scum stops coming to the surface, add the pickling spices.
Continue to cook, with bubbles just gently breaking on the surface, for 3 to 4 hours, until fork tender.
The meat can be safely held in its water for about 2 hours; reheat gently.
Cook the vegetables until fork tender in separate pots of boiling fresh water, or, especially for the cabbage, use some of the water in which the corned beef was cooked.
Serve the corned beef sliced, on a platter, surrounded with some of the vegetables or with vegetables in a separate bowl. Serve with mustard and/or horseradish.
The hardest thing about cooking corned beef is finding a good piece of meat. “Corned” refers only to the brining/pickling process that the meat has been through, not the cut, which is brisket. There are two muscles to the whole brisket, and their grains run diagonally to each other. The bottom, leaner muscle, which today often has too little integral fat to cook up juicy and tender, is usually called “first cut,” “thin cut,” or “flat cut.” The so-called second cut, or point, the top and smaller piece, has more fat and is more succulent. Between the two muscles is a layer of fat.
Ideally, you want to cook a whole brisket (both sections together) with all its fat. You can trim off the fat after the meat is cooked. Unfortunately, whole corned briskets (even fresh briskets) are difficult to find, and second-cut corned beef brisket is even more difficult to find. What most supermarkets carry is first-cut corned beef vacuum-packed in plastic. Look for the fattiest piece in the case, then be sure to treat it gently.
Many people cook the cabbage and potatoes in the same water as the corned beef. Because the vegetables need to be cooked in water that simmers more violently than the meat, I prefer to scoop out water from the corned beef pot and cook the vegetables in a separate pot or pots.