NEW JERSEY — Just check the menu of any Irish bar/restaurant in America on March 17, and you’ll be sure to find corned beef and cabbage among the specials offered for St. Patrick’s Day. After all, corned beef and cabbage is the quintessential Irish meal … or is it?
The reality is that the Irish themselves didn’t eat a lot of beef in Ireland years ago. It was an item that they could not afford. On the Feast of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, the special dinner was either bacon or lamb. In fact, you would likely be hard pressed to find a restaurant in Ireland that served corned beef and cabbage.
Those who escaped poverty by coming to America couldn’t afford much meat when they got here. They settled in places like New York, Boston and Chicago, and weren’t particularly welcomed. Their Catholic faith was met with disdain, and they faced open resentment in the form of signs that said, “No Irish need apply” when looking for work.
Although their economic situation was better than that of the country from which they came, the Irish immigrants were far from wealthy. Usually, they lived in the poorest of neighborhoods, including the Lower East Side of New York, alongside Jews from Eastern and Central Europe.
It was from the Jewish butchers that the Irish bought corned beef, made from brisket, the toughest cut of meat, because they could not afford to buy much else. The meat is “corned” (salted) and boiled for hours to soften it. The accompaniments were potatoes, a filling source of food that the Irish had eaten for centuries, and cabbage, perhaps the cheapest vegetable that one could find. Not only was the meal inexpensive, but it is also easy to make because it can be cooked all in one pot.
So, if the meal only requires one pot and all you have to do is boil it, then it must be hard to mess up, right?
According to TheKitchn.com, a common mistake in making corned beef is cooking it at a boil for too long. By doing so, the meat is likely to turn out tough and chewy, rather than soft and tender. Instead, simmering it at a lower temperature for a long period time will result in a more tender corned beef. Be sure that there is enough water in the pot to cover the meat. You can add water when necessary.
The meat is usually sold with an accompanying spice packet for flavor. Be sure to add it in. Estimate about an hour per pound to the most tender results. Thus, expect to cook a three-pound cut of corned beef for about three hours under a low flame. (If you use a crock pot or other slow cooker, it will take even longer.) It is possible to overcook corned beef; if it starts falling apart when you cut it (go against the grain of the meat), it means you have cooked it too long.
With the vegetables the important thing to remember is not to boil the potatoes and the cabbage for the same amount of time. The potato is a harder vegetable and takes longer to cook than cabbage, which becomes soggy when cooked for too long. Cut the cabbage head into four wedges and cook for about 15-20 minutes. Many recipes call for the potatoes to be added to the water after the corned beef has cooked for two hours. Use a fork to determine when the spuds are tender.
In a typical year, Kilkenny House in Cranford, NJ, makes about 2,000 lbs. of corned beef during the week of St. Patrick’s Day and roughly 5,000 lbs. of it during the month of March, according to owner Barry O’Donovan.
“It’s by far our biggest seller,” O’Donovan said. “We’ll also sell a lot of fish and chips. Our fries are hand-cut and only lightly salted. We let our customers season it as they wish with salt and pepper and malt vinegar.”
If you’re not a fan of corned beef and cabbage, there are certainly other traditional meals to eat for St. Patrick’s Day.
Fish & Chips — Usually beer-battered codfish (sometimes haddock or pollock) served with French fries (or chips as they are called on the other side of the Atlantic). Try sprinkling salt and malt vinegar onto the chips for an authentic experience.
Shepherd’s Pie — This favorite of Ireland and England is made of ground lamb or beef cooked in gravy with a mix of frozen peas, carrots and corn, topped with a layer of mashed potatoes and Parmesan cheese that is baked until the top is golden brown.
“In Ireland, the big meal would be a Sunday roast,” said O’Donovan, who has worked in the restaurant industry since coming to the United States. “You would make Shepherd’s Pie on a Monday with the leftovers. In the earlier days, it was made with lamb, covered in gravy and baked with the potato on top. Here, we use beef.”
Irish Stew — Lamb, potatoes, carrots and onions cooked together in one pot.
Bangers & Mash — Irish sausages and mashed potatoes. They are often served with gravy and a side of beans in Irish American restaurants.
Irish Breakfast — A traditional Irish breakfast consists fried eggs, Irish bacon, black and white pudding, and fried tomatoes served with beans and toast. Black pudding is a sausage made of pork with fat and blood mixed with barley and other fillers. White pudding is similar, but without the blood that causes the dark coloring of black pudding.
Although there is no parade this year in New York City, John Meade, the owner of St. James Gate Publick House (167 Maplewood Ave., Maplewood), says he will be open at 8 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, since it has become a tradition.
“People would come in and have an Irish breakfast early and then go into the city,” said Meade, whose wife Donna has been busy making Irish soda bread for the expected crowds. “Last year, we were closed on the 16th. This year, we have a tent outside and 35% inside seating capacity. We’ll be open and will have pipers, step dancers and a band.”
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