This article was published in the March 2014 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
“Don’t let me forget to put the beef in the brine,” Mom said. She was busy preparing to host her first Irishman—my husband—for a St. Patrick’s Day dinner. She would not disappoint.
That salty aroma from the kitchen, redolent of Cork, means it’s March and corned beef and cabbage will be on the menu in homes and restaurants across America. Luckily the legendary snakes that St. Patrick banished from Ireland never became a part of Irish culinary history, but beef did!
In Ireland’s wet climate, rich green grass grows year-round which makes for a prime environment to raise livestock, especially cows. In early Irish history, cows were milked and used for plowing fields, only later were they raised for beef. However, in modern day America, it is wrongly assumed that Irish cuisine is laden with corned beef and cabbage dinners.
“Mom, you do know that they don’t eat corn beef and cabbage on a regular basis in Ireland,” I replied. I debunked many American assumptions while living in Ireland in my early twenties—the ubiquity of corned beef was one of them– but corned beef and cabbage remains enshrined in the American imagination as the quintessentially Irish dish.
In a quest to understand more, I set out to explore the history of corned beef and cabbage.
“The most probable reason for the popularity of corned beef among the Irish Americans was not the lack of availability of bacon, as sometimes argued, but because corned beef was widely available at a reasonable price,” wrote Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire and Padraic Og Gallagher, two eminent experts at the School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology at the Dublin Institute of Technology, in the Journal of Culinary Science & Technology.
“Irish immigrants aspired to better themselves in America, and part of this betterment was the consumption of foodstuff they might not have been able to afford at home,” they wrote.
Beginning in the 18th century, corned beef was a leading Irish export. It was distributed mainly from Cork to the French colonies, consumed by the British Navy and eaten by soldiers from various countries during World War II.
Funny enough, even the name, “corned beef,” isn’t from Ireland. According to Mac Con Iomaire and Gallagher it originates in the 17th-century England, derived from corns—or small crystals—of salt used to salt or cure meat.
It is clear that corned beef and cabbage have their roots in the Emerald Isle, but the modern day expression of this culinary treat is predominantly Irish American.
So, as a fifth-generation Irish American I engaged my aspirations of self-betterment and contacted one of only two restaurants in Chicago that smoke their beef briskets after they brine them.
Big Bricks doesn’t get its’ name from the all brick exterior, but from “Bricks,” an older sister restaurant that serves pizza in a dinning room that is home to a historic arch of bricks that predates the Chicago fire. The difference at Big Bricks is the smoker. All of their meat is smoked in-house and true to form, they will smoke their corned beef brisket too.
We were standing only a few feet away from the smoker, a black, boxy looking thing. It apparently has a huge personality, according to Jeff Bush, Big Brick’s head chef. Only he and another chef work with it.
“The brine is ready for the brisket if the egg stays suspended in the liquid” said Bush, as he peered into the large tub in front of him. Bush carefully submerged nine pieces of brisket in three large tubs filled with brine. He had prepared it from scratch the night before, adding peppercorns, garlic and a few secret ingredients, one of which he shared with me.
“We get our bay leaves fresh from Petaluma, California. They come from the bay leaf tree in Bill’s back yard,” said Bush. Bill Brandt co-owns the restaurant with Nick Kontalonis. Brandt got the idea for their gumbo, but then Bush started using the leaves in other dishes. He even let me take a few leaves to try in my brine.
“So this will be ready in two weeks.” He said as he pushed a bunch of sterilized dinner plates down into the tubs to keep the brisket submerged and then he fastened the lids tightly. “That’s it. Now we wait and shake these every few days.”
We walked back from the large freezer where the tubs will sit, passing large stacks of hickory and applewood logs. “We had this wood outside, it makes a better smoke,” said Bush as he picked up an applewood log and threw it on the fire. Although the smoker is big, it’s efficient and only needs one log of wood to keep the temperature consistent over an hour.
“We’ll have corned beef sandwiches on the menu through March 17,” he noted, adding “We serve it on rye, lightly folding the corned beef between layers of sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and the restaurant’s own version of Thousand Island.” My mouth was watering. It was noon and I hadn’t eaten lunch.
“So when can I try it?” I asked as I put my coat on and prepared to leave the restaurant. That was a few days ago, and I can’t get the delicious smoked meat smell out of my nose or the scarf I wore during the visit. Two weeks from now, Bush will rinse away the brine and smoke the brisket for 12 hours. And I will be eagerly perched at the bar, waiting to try the first bite.
Recipe: Quick Brine and Slow Cook Corned Beef and Cabbage
No time to brine? In a St. Paddy’s dinner party pinch, I made this work with 24 hours notice. The key: one two pound piece of fresh beef brisket and shredded cabbage. Most major grocery store chains should have these spices. Feeds four.
Total brine time: 24+ hours
Total crockpot cook time: 6 hours
6 allspice berries
1 tsp. whole mustard seeds
4 coriander seeds
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
4 whole cloves
1 tsp. whole black pepper corns
4 cardamom pods
1 bay leaf
½ tsp. ground ginger
1 cinnamon stick
Dash freshly ground nutmeg
¼ cup honey
¼ tsp. aromatic bitters (optional)
Dash lemon zest
Dash orange zest
1 cup kosher salt or sea salt
10 cups water
2 lbs. beef brisket
16 gallon zip lock bag
1 small cabbage or bag of shredded cabbage
1 yellow onion
- Combine all the brine ingredients in a large saucepan with 10 cups of water and bring to boil until salt dissolves. Let cool to 45 degrees F.
- Score the beef brisket with a sharp knife in a lattice pattern on both sides.
- Place brisket inside a large zip lock bag and the pour brine over the brisket, sealing out the air. Set the zip lock bag inside a large pot or deep pan, to avoid any leaks while it’s brining in the refrigerator.
- Once 24 hours have passed, remove the brisket from the zip lock bag and run it under cool water to wash away the brine.
- Slice the onion and cover the bottom of the crockpot. Pour ¼ inch of water over the onion.
- Place the brisket in the crockpot, laying it gently over the sliced onion, fat side down. Dust it very lightly with lemon, orange zest, mustard seed and whole black pepper corns, then put the cover on. Let cook for five hours on high.
- At the five-hour mark, add the shredded cabbage and cover for one more hour or until cabbage is tender.
- Serve with toasted and/or buttered rye bread.