Sláinte Mhaith on St. Patrick’s Day – The Tasty Tufts Holiday Guide
Bostonians certainly do not skimp on the celebrations during St. Patrick’s Day, but when the parades and questionable beverages are done and consumed, the other major part of the day is often overlooked – the food! Before it became associated with day drinking and excessive consumption of food dyes, St. Patrick’s Day was an important day of celebration for the Irish and their diaspora with a rich culinary heritage all of its own. Whether you want to round out a day out in Boston with a taste of the old country, or spice up your celebration at home, here’s our guide to the history, culture, and cuisine of this special day, as well as some of my (doubly Irish-American) family’s ways of carrying on the festivities (or at least the leftovers) beyond the 17th.
For the Irish and for the communities of Irish-descendants, St. Patrick’s Day is both a Christian holiday (and a brief respite from Lenten obligations) and a secular national day which, despite its religious origins, can even transcend some of the hostilities over religious denomination and politics that separate contemporary Irishmen and the diaspora. After all, the common saying, which Bostonians especially seem to take to heart, is “Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day”. Even if you don’t take a second look at Irish food any other day of the year, I feel duty-bound to feed you well, and while I’m at it, clear up some misconceptions about certain St. Paddy’s food traditions.
The big one, of course, is that corned beef and cabbage aren’t really traditional Irish fare. The dish is as American as Lucky Charms. Corned meat has been a part of the American menu since the colonial eras, in various forms. Corning is a blanket term for brining using large ‘corns’ of preservative, typically a mixture of saltpeter (which lends the pink color) and salt. Before refrigeration, the process was widespread in Britain and Ireland as well as the new world, and in theory any meat could be corned – indeed salt pork, deli meats, and pastrami also technically corned products. The particular association of corning with beef largely comes from the existence of ham and served to distinguish salt-cured beef from salt-cured pork, so a corned beef could come from any cut of the animal. Among Jews, for instance, there’s a rich history of corning beef tongue, while many parts of the Caribbean, Pacific, and even the British Isles know it mainly as a canned product like SPAM, made from off-cuts like beef neck and shank.
For Americans, the typical corned beef is brisket, and the typical preparation on St. Patrick’s Day differs little from a historically widespread but now rare dish called a boiled dinner – hardy winter vegetables like potatoes, cabbage, rutabaga, carrot, and turnip, stewed for hours with tough, economical cuts of meat until the vegetables have softened considerably and the meat has gelatinized. This hearty and somewhat austere winter dish does not strictly need to be made with preserved cuts, but they lend additional flavor and seasoning and were easier to come by and store in the days before refrigeration.
Now I personally find corned beef and cabbage can lack certain qualities – namely complexity beyond that of salt and overcooked root vegetables. The trick to pulling it off is to add flavor and remove some of the salt. To perform the latter, one needs only let the corned beef soak in cold water for an hour or two before you want to cook it. This can also be an opportunity, if you had it frozen, to help it thaw out. Trust me, since you’ll be thoroughly ringing out the remaining salt in the cooking process, you really should try to remove as much excess as possible. To add flavor, you have several options. The most familiar one is to add spices to the cooking water – I like pickling spices (bay leaf, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, pepper). I’ve also seen some delicious-looking takes on corned beef that suggest Jewish influence – covering it in deli mustard, or treating it to a pastrami-flavored black pepper, garlic, and paprika rub. Many food bloggers seem disinclined to do the boiling process, and I’ll direct you to the aforementioned mustard-flavored recipe for a different take on the dish, but I’m going to stick with boiling for this guide.
The easiest way to boil the beef is to use a slow cooker, because a properly boiled brisket requires a lot of time at a low heat to gelatinize. If taken out too soon, you’ll end up with the toughest, saltiest, most brick-like meat you’ve ever eaten. A slow cooker allows you to start this early and reach that essential point at which the connective tissue denatures and the meat softens into something worthy of a reuben or St. Patrick’s Day feast. You’ll need around 5-6 hours of cooking at high on a slow cooker (I’d keep the vegetables out of the cooker for the better part of the process) and about three on a stove top at a low simmer. The best way to keep some texture, nutrition and flavor in the vegetables you add is to cut them big (or keep them whole) and leave them until the last hour. This is particularly important for cabbage, and less so for carrots and potatoes, which could go in with the beef if you really wanted to. As a final suggestion, I’d say that you want to err on the side of too much water (you want everything to remain nicely covered for the whole processs), since even with a pre-soak you’re likely to end up with a lot of salty liquid. This is not a dish typically served au jus, though it’s traditional to dip a little of the briny liquid over the whole thing on the plate to capture a little bit of the seasonings, which are typically discarded.
That being said, I’ve had a lot of corned beef and while boiling produces an acceptable cut of meat (though steam ovens like those at Jewish delis produce an infinitely moister product which is better suited for sandwiches), I’m not terribly partial to the cabbage or the root vegetables being so poorly treated. I’d humbly suggest keeping cabbage out of the boiling pot, as well as potatoes, and just boiling the beef alone or with sweet vegetables like carrots, parsnips, or turnips which will help enrich the flavor of the broth. Cook the cabbage lightly – I like large slabs roasted with butter and caraway seeds, and keep the potatoes for a side dish.
For the most authentically Irish meat preparation, one could of course trade pork shoulder for the corned beef – pork being more commonly consumed than beef. Smoked uncooked shoulders, which I’ve seen in supermarkets, would bridge the ocean as well, since the other major meat used was smoked and salted pork. With plenty of connective tissue to gelatinize and the added flavor of the smoking process, you could ring out a top-shape boiled dinner with a simple substitution.
Continuing through the course, one might look to a soda bread as a fine starchy side which has the added benefit of mitigating the effects of one-too-many green beers. Baking-soda leavened breads are simple, and the sweet white bread typically associated in this country with the words is a fine loaf indeed, though I’d doubt that it’d be seen as proper dinner fare. One would find more typically in Ireland an unsweetened white soda bread, potentially spiced like Jewish rye with carraway seeds, or the famous whole wheat “brown bread”, which tragically is difficult to find on this side of the Atlantic, despite being perhaps the greatest argument for whole wheat bread in the history of baking. So here’s a recipe for the sweet kind, and one for the savory kind, and then a final one which plays a little on the wild side. Soda bread is something even a novice baker can do (even potentially in the aftermath of a day of revelry), and it makes an excellent accompaniment to corned beef or a delicious (with a pat of butter) beginning to the day.
Beyond bread, of course, the other natural choice on St. Patrick’s Day are potatoes. If, as I suggested, you spared them from the boiling pot, you’ve got plenty of ways to prepare them, but I’ll suggest only one: Colcannon! The grandfather of all mash, with a green color that refreshingly comes from actual greens. Even before kale was trendy, it was being blanched and mixed into buttery spuds alongside spring onions by Irish grandmothers everywhere. Yes: you can use cabbage if you’d like. Collards are fine as well; ditto to chard. The spring onions are non-negotiable, as is the butter and milk. You barely need a recipe. Boil or bake or microwave the potatoes until soft and pliable. Mash them up with at least a tablespoon of butter – if they’re not smooth, add more! Add a bit of milk to add some liquid and fat – I like single cream or even whole-milk yogurt; if all you’ve got is skimmed milk you’d best add more butter and a little water or stock instead. Meanwhile, blanch some kale or collards or cabbage or chard. Chop up some spring onions, adding the white parts to the mash and keeping the green bits for the end. Chop the greens into small pices, removing (and eating, because they’re delicious when cooked) the stalks of the kale or chard. Mix it in throughly, adding more liquid if it seems to be getting too thick. Taste and add seasonings – you really just need black pepper and maybe a bit of salt. Finish with the green bits of the spring onion. Pat yourself on the back – you’re getting a tasty way to consume kale that actually increases the bioavailability of its beta carotene and vitamin K by including plenty of fat. Aren’t you glad you didn’t use skim milk?
Almost equally important, of course, is the day after St. Patrick’s Day. Provided you did well the day before and prepared your food Irish-style (properly rich and in large quantities), you will have leftovers, which are really as good as when they were fresh, because half of the recipes for St. Patrick’s Day concern them.
If you’ve got corned beef and potatoes leftover, and are nursing a hangover, go for the hash. It’s easy, it’s salty, it’s rich in carbohydrates and it allows you to distract yourself from your headache by somewhat violent behavior towards your foodstuffs. Hash isn’t so much a recipe as a technique. You assess your leftovers. If there are any large pieces of corned beef, you tear them up – knives optional. Likewise if you chose to have boiled potatoes instead of mash. Get them into small pieces and expose the flesh. Mashed potatoes or colcannon are even easier, since they’re really read to go. If you didn’t make colcannon, chop up an onion. Again, primal-style – chunky pieces. Melt some butter in a pan – seasoned cast iron is best, nonstick is probably what you have. It should be a big pan. Mix together the corned beef, onions, potatoes, and whatever other leftovers you have, such as cabbage or carrots or beets (which make a delicious Red Flannel Hash). SMASH. SMASH. Push the whole lot into the pan and push down with a spatula until you have a sort of frittata, where the potatoes bind together the ingredients. Keep pushing down any parts that seem loose and allow the hash to brown well on the bottom. Turn on the broiler in the oven, drizzle a little Worcestershire on the hash, and stick it in when the bottom is properly crisped. Let it crisp on the top for a few minutes and then enjoy. Goodbye leftovers.
Of course if you don’t have the potatoes, you’re in a bit of a pickle. No worries. A corned beef sandwich takes little more effort than a hash. You might be hard pressed to find rye bread for a Reuben, but a savory soda bread will suffice. Cut large, thin slices. You don’t need to toast it, but soda bread is usually better that way. Put it open-faced on a baking tray. Add corned beef to one or two slices (depending on how many you’re serving). Add leftover cabbage or sauerkraut to the other slice(s). Cheese is optional but delicious – add it on top of the vegetables so it melts nicely. Put it in a 375 oven for five minutes, or under a broiler for 2-3, until the cheese is melted and the corned beef is hot. Recombine, adding mustard or a Russian dressing, and enjoy.
Of course you might be caught on the other side – no more corned beef and just the potatoes. While certainly a less advantagous position to be in, it’s one easily remedied by making boxty – potato pancakes. If you’ve got mashed potatoes, you’re good – otherwise mash them but don’t season them. For colcannon, all you need is an egg and some flour – the typical ratio is similar weights of mash and flour, or half as much flour as mash by volume. You want a doughy consistency. For plain mash, you may want to add some leftover cabbage or grated raw potato to add bulk and structure, as well as a bit of milk and seasoning if you are working from un-mashed potatoes. Finally, add enough milk to thin the batter into the consistency of pancake batter, then pour around 1/4 cup of the batter into a greased skillet. Serve with cheese, butter, and bacon.
With these tips on enjoying the culinary side of St. Patrick’s Day, I hope you’ll think beyond the parades and colored beverages and into the significance and tradition of the day for many Irish-Americans. As a day of celebration and community, it deserves a delicious dinner spread designed to feed a crowd. So gather your family or friends together and toast Sláinte! to the beginning of spring and to your hopeful good health this St. Patrick’s Day.
Cover Image: Source.