I have always lived among the Irish. I grew up in Boston, a legendary Celtic hub, and settled in Missoula, Montana, 100 miles downstream from America’s most Irish city per capita: Butte. I used to credit my affinity for that feisty tribe to this coincidental geographic overlap, but now I see a deeper connection. And you can see it by looking no further than the nearest plate of corned beef and cabbage.
Corning was traditionally a way to preserve meat before refrigeration. Tough cuts were cured in sugar and salt, the grains of which were the size of corn kernels. It was a delicacy in England, but since Ireland had lower salt taxes for a time, it became corn central.
Corned beef and cabbage became an American Irish delicacy in Boston and New York, where immigrants from the Emerald Isle found themselves in Jewish neighborhoods, with the means to bring home a corned brisket from the local delicatessen once in a while and cook it Irish-style: in a pot with cabbage and potatoes. As such, it resembles a meaty version of a cabbage-based borscht my Jewish ancestors made in Ukraine.
The Irish of Montana, meanwhile, are a bit more “Wild West.” The gold rush of 1862 brought them to Butte, which sits on the continental divide and was once America’s largest city west of the Mississippi. As a young reporter in Missoula, I felt like I’d struck gold myself when I was assigned a story on Butte’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
After the parade, revelers raised their pints in massive beer halls and howled in festive crescendos, like “the wave” going around a stadium. It was there that I sidled up to the bar and ate my first bowl of corned beef and cabbage.
In Missoula, my favorite breakfast joint serves corned beef hash, aka chopped corned beef and potatoes, fried until brown and tossed with scrambled eggs. That, I realized, is the final destination when first we dunk a brisket in that sweet and salty brine.
Corned Beef Brisket
Like most contemporary corning recipes, this one calls for a nitrate salt to help tenderize the meat and give it a bright red hue.
• 1 brisket, about 4 pounds, preferably marbled with fat
• 3 quarts distilled or spring water
• ½ cup canning/pickling salt
• ½ cup tenderizing salt (it has nitrate in it)
• 1 cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons pickling spices
• 2 bay leaves
• 8 whole peppercorns
• 2 minced garlic cloves
Add everything but the brisket to a gallon pot and heat to a boil. Turn it off and let cool to room temperature. Place the meat in the pot with a weight on top to keep the meat submerged. Let it brine, refrigerated, for about a week.
Irish Borscht (corned beef with roots and cabbage)
• 1 corned beef, prepared as above
• 2 pounds medium-sized potatoes, uncut, unpeeled
• 1 large onion, sliced in half end to end
• 1 pound carrots, cut into ½-inch-thick rounds
• 1 whole green cabbage, cut into 8 wedges
Drain the corned beef and replace the water. Bring to a simmer and replace the water again, to remove the salt. Bring to a simmer again and cook, covered, until tender, about 3 hours. Add the potatoes and onion and cook until the potatoes are tender. Add the carrots and keep cooking until the carrots are tender. Add the cabbage wedges and simmer for another 15 minutes. Slice the meat and serve in a bowl with vegetables and broth.
Corned Beef Hash and Eggs
Scramble some eggs and set aside. Fish out some leftover meat and potatoes from the pot. Cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. Heat a pan on medium and add the beef cubes first, along with some oil if there’s not enough fat in the beef. When you smell the beef starting to brown, add the potatoes, and fry for about 10 minutes. Toss in the scrambled eggs, and serve garnished with a four-leaf sprig of parsley.