DIY Corned Beef—Done!

It has been a fun week of St. Patrick’s Day-themed food prep at our house. As I’ve chopped and cooked, hustling from one recipe to another and digging into the history of the foods associated with Ireland, I’ve felt an almost spiritual connection to the Irish people. Theirs is a rich and layered culture, and my background music of choice, the Springsteen album Live in Dublin, gave me additional inspiration. Here’s a taste, for your listening pleasure as you tag along for the rest of my corned beef adventure.

It has been a deliciously rich week, too. We’ve shared these tasty recipes, including two versions of mashed potatoes, a no-yeast bread, a no-bake dessert and some bangin’ sausages. By the time we finish the leftovers, I expect I will have sweet Irish butter flowing through my veins. Wow!


The Irish food party started last week, when I detailed our adventures with making our own corned beef. Whether or not you jumped on the DIY wagon with us, I thought you may appreciate seeing the end result. As mentioned, we avoid meats processed with nitrates and nitrites, so I certainly do not go out of my way to find or use them in our homemade version of this St. Patrick’s Day classic. The ingredients we do use to brine our grass-fed brisket—kosher salt, pickling spices, brown sugar, Irish ale, celery juice and sauerkraut brine—add layers of flavor, and we don’t care about the pinkish color the added nitrates would have otherwise lent.

Let’s pick up where we left off, from the point of pouring the brine over the briskets and sending them to the refrigerator for a nice, long nap. I noted that we would finally make good on our goal of making pastrami from one of the briskets, and we have done that (I’ll share it tomorrow), but corned beef is the guest of honor this week, and the post-brine process is very simple. I turned the briskets each day to help them brine evenly, and the corned beef got an extra day’s soak on Sunday—a total of eight days, which is about right for a nearly 6-pound hunk of meat. I rinsed it thoroughly, nestled it into the slow cooker on top of celery and onion chunks, and sprinkled it with about half a bottle of fresh pickling spices. We have done corned beef nearly the same way for several years, so I decided to try a twist that I saw in my news feed, though I cannot for the life of me remember the source. Anyway, the suggestion was to use white wine in the brining liquid. This makes perfect sense to me, given that I use wine to roast so many other meats, so I tried it. This will become a new standard for us.

This may well be the best batch of homemade corned beef we have ever made. The meat is perfectly tender and easy to slice, and the flavors are richly entwined with every fiber of the meat. The flavor is richer and more complex than any store-bought corned beef I’ve had, and my husband, Les, suggested that it rivaled the delicious corned beef we enjoyed a few years ago at Katz’s delicatessen in New York!


Instructions

  1. Remove brisket from brine and brush away as much of the picking spice mixture as possible. Discard the brine, and I’d recommend that you pour it through a colander to strain out the seeds, berries, bay leaves, and chunky solids that might otherwise clog your kitchen drain.
  2. Rinse the brisket. Cut up a whole yellow onion and a few stalks of celery. Scatter the aromatic vegetables into the bottom of a large pot or slow cooker. Place the brisket, fat side-up, on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle about half a bottle of fresh pickling spices over the brisket.
  3. Pour in 1/2 cup dry white wine, and enough water into the pot to completely cover the meat. Bring pot to a slight boil, then reduce heat and simmer about one hour per pound of meat, until brisket is desired tenderness.
  4. Carefully remove brisket from the cooking liquid and rest on a cutting board for 15 minutes before cutting.
  5. If you are cooking cabbage and carrots to accompany the corned beef, but them on to boil now, and use the brisket braising liquid to echo the corned beef flavors.
  6. Slice brisket against the grain—opposite the direction of the meat fibers.
  7. You’ll find that the corned beef slices particularly well after chilling. To reheat slices of corned beef, place slices in a steamer basket over simmering water. Or, strain more of the braising liquid into a jar and keep it in the fridge for steaming the leftovers. Why waste that flavor? 🙂

You don’t have to be Irish to love it!

Want to print this recipe?


Irish Cream Chocolate Cheesecake

The only thing I can think of to make a chocolate cheesecake better is a little bit of booze, and the only thing that can top that is to make it no-bake. Done and done. This easy, no-fuss dessert comes together quickly, and it doesn’t require gelatin or any special measures to set up firmly. Chocolate-flavored graham crackers provide a dark, flavorful base for this cheesecake, and the filling is sweetened cream cheese accented with a ton of chocolate and a wee bit of Irish cream liqueur. I’ve used My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme, the same as we made at Christmastime, but if you want to make it super easy, make a quick run to the liquor store for a small bottle of Bailey’s.

I used a springform pan for this dessert, but I’ll bet you could also make it in a pie plate with sloped sides for easy serving. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and fresh berries or a little bit of Jameson-spiked whipped cream. Or, do what we did and just dig in.

This is a wonderful, sweet finish to our St. Patrick’s Day celebration!

The filling is smooth, creamy, silky, dreamy. It is reminiscent of a mousse, but richer!

Ingredients

1 sleeve + 3 chocolate graham crackers

4 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted (plus a bit extra to grease the pan)

Line the bottom of an 8” springform pan with parchment paper, cut to size. Rub unsalted butter on the parchment and sides of the pan. Break up the graham crackers into a food processor and pulse into rough crumbs. Pour in the melted butter and pulse a few times to combine. The mixture should look like wet sand. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan and up the sides about an inch. Refrigerate the pan for at least an hour to firm up the buttered crumbs.

For best results, measure out your refrigerated ingredients ahead of time and allow them to come to room temperature before you begin.

Cheesecake filling:

10 oz. semisweet chocolate chips

6 oz. milk chocolate chips* (see notes)

8 oz. pkg. plus 1/2 of second pkg. full-fat cream cheese, room temperature

1/4 cup (superfine) caster sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, room temperature

1/4 cup Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur*

*Notes

At our house, we really love the flavors of darker chocolate, but blending with milk chocolate is important for texture. Darker chocolate has lesser amounts of cocoa butter, and it can become gritty in recipes. To ensure the creamy, smooth texture that is a signature of cheesecake, it’s best to include some portion of milk chocolate.

Bailey’s Irish cream liqueur is the simplest thing to use in this recipe, but if you have time to make your own (using My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme recipe), there’s an advantage to doing so. The homemade Irish creme is twice as thick (less watery), so I was able to incorporate two additional tablespoons of that crazy good flavor.

Instructions

Here we go with a visual walk-through, and full written instructions are included at the bottom.

  1. Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. Place a heatproof bowl over the pan and add the semi-sweet and milk chocolate chips. I used a steamer insert in between, as an extra measure to keep the heating gentle. Do not let water or condensation into the bowl with the chocolate. Heat until chocolate melts, stir it smooth, then let cool slightly. I transferred the melted chocolate to a second bowl to cool it more quickly.
  2. In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese with electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add caster sugar to the cream cheese, scraping down the sides as needed so that sugar is fully blended. The superfine sugar will dissolve pretty quickly.
  3. Lightly whip heavy cream in another bowl until thickened, but not peaked. Stir in Irish cream.
  4. Fold cooled chocolate into cream cheese mixture, then stir in the spiked whipped cream mixture.
  5. Spoon or carefully pour the filling mixture into the springform pan over the chilled chocolate crust. Smooth the top, cover and chill at least two hours, preferably overnight.
  6. To serve, run a hot knife around the edge of the cheesecake filling to separate it from the sides of the pan. Carefully release springform ring and transfer cheesecake to a serving plate. Cut into slices as garnish as desired.

It’ a boozy little slice of Irish heaven.

Want to make it?


Colcannon

Often regarded in the U.S. to be a food for St. Patrick’s Day, colcannon is traditionally enjoyed at Halloween in the old country of Ireland. Cooks there would hide coins or trinkets or charms inside, and legend said that what you found in your hearty spoonful was an omen for the coming season—be it riches or poverty, marriage or singlehood. The exact origin of the dish is disputed, but historians are certain that it has been enjoyed in Ireland since at least the mid-1700s, and there’s no arguing that it is creamy, satisfying comfort food at its best.

Well, did you ever make colcannon made with lovely pickled cream
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the ‘melting’ flake
Of the creamy flavoured butter that our mothers used to make

Oh you did, so you did, so did he and so did I
And the more I think about it, sure the nearer I’m to cry
Oh weren’t them the happy days when troubles we knew not
And our mother made colcannon in the little skillet pot

Excerpt from The Auld Skillet PotMac Con Iomaire
Who doesn’t love the little “melting flake” of butter? 🙂

With fiber-rich potatoes, cabbage, onions and butter, colcannon could seriously stand on its own as a meal. My version subs in cooked kale and leeks for the cabbage and onions, and it is a gorgeous addition to our homemade corned beef and cabbage dinner.

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds potatoes (mix of russet and golds), peeled and boiled until tender

2 fat handfuls fresh curly kale, washed and chopped

1 leek (white and light green parts), cleaned and sliced

8 Tbsp. good Irish butter (divided)

1 cup light cream, room temperature

Salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. While potatoes are cooking, melt 2 Tbsp. of butter in a skillet or small pot. Sauté chopped kale and sliced leeks until wilted and tender. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Drain potatoes, return to pot and add 4 Tbsp. of butter and light cream. Mash until soft and fluffy. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Add kale and leeks to the potatoes and fold to blend. Serve family style with remaining butter on top.

Want to make this traditional Irish recipe?


Bangers & Mash!

There cannot possibly be a food more deserving of the title “pub grub” than bangers and mash. This hearty, stick-to-your-ribs dish is original to Ireland and other parts of the U.K., and a real treat on St. Patrick’s Day, but its history reflects hard times for the Irish people. During W.W. I meat shortages, sausage makers resorted to stuffing the links with lesser amounts of pork or lamb, substituting fillers and higher-than-usual water concentration. As they cooked, the sausages exploded from their casings with a banging sound. Thus, “bangers.”

Today, you don’t have to look very hard to find a more meat-centric version of the sausages, and I found this delicious variety made by Johnsonville. They are slightly sweet, but with plenty of garlic flavor that I think holds up nicely to the dark stout beer used in the thick onion gravy. If you can’t find sausage that is labeled specifically as “Irish,” I would recommend any bratwurst-type of sausage as a fine substitute.

These Johnsonville sausages were delicious! If you do not find sausage labeled as “Irish,” I think bratwurst would be a good substitute.

The Irish, especially peasant populations, have always relied heavily on the nutrient-dense potato, for its fiber, antioxidants and minerals (especially potassium). Potatoes contain a resistant starch that is not absorbed by the body, but provides a vehicle to deliver nutrients to feed our gut bacteria, which is crucial for overall good health. Isn’t it nice to know that a favorite comfort food can actually be good for you? At our house, it’s a rare occasion to have any kind of potatoes other than my beloved’s fabulous garlic mashed, but their richness, and especially the parm-romano flavor, is not quite right for this meal. I’ve taken a different direction, using buttermilk and a moderate amount of butter to cream them up a bit, and a couple of spoons of horseradish, which gives them legs to stand under the intensely flavored Guinness onion gravy.

My version of the gravy begins with sautéed onions, and is finished with a very generous glug of Guinness stout, plus some broth. This gravy is big and bold, and if you wish, you can shift the ratio of stout or leave it out altogether in favor of beef broth—that’s up to you.

Garlicky sausages, simmered in Guinness and then piled onto hearty potatoes with the Guinness-onion gravy. This is some serious Irish pub grub!

The preparation of these three components (bangers, mash and gravy) will happen concurrently; if you are working ahead, the whole meal heats up nicely as leftovers.

Ingredients

Package of Irish banger sausages (or similar substitute)

1/2 cup Guinness stout ale*

2 1/2 lbs. starchy potatoes (I used a combination of russet and golds)

4 Tbsp. salted butter

1/2 cup thick buttermilk

1 1/2 tsp. prepared horseradish

Salt and pepper

It’s surprising to get so much flavor from so few ingredients. The scotch cocktail in the back is for the cook, not the gravy. 🙂

Guinness Onion Gravy

3 Tbsp. salted butter

1 large yellow onion, sliced (mine was about the size of a softball)

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup Guinness stout ale

1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth

2 tsp. beef bouillon base*

2 tsp. dark brown sugar

Salt and pepper

*Notes

The Guinness stout ale is very strong, and carries a somewhat bitter note. I believe the secret to making delicious gravy with the stout is cooking it slowly, so the malty flavors remain but the alcohol cooks out and mellows in flavor. If you are averse to the bitter flavor, or avoiding alcohol, substitute a hearty beef stock for similar results. This recipe calls for a 12 oz. bottle; you will use part of it to simmer the sausages and the rest to finish the onion gravy. I purchased the “Foreign Extra” stout, but for less intense flavor, use a Guinness draught stout.

I use vegetable broth regularly for the nutrients and flavors, and I have amped up the flavor with a hearty spoon of beef bouillon base. If you prefer, skip the base and use beef broth.

Instructions

Let’s run through it together in pictures, then scroll to find written instructions, and a downloadable version you can print for your recipe files.

  1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Cook in salted water over medium-low heat until fork tender.
  2. Drain potatoes in a colander (reserve the water, if you wish, to make a batch of my sourdough potato bread with onions and dill). While potatoes drain, add butter and buttermilk to the cooking pot over medium heat until butter is mostly melted.
  3. Return hot potatoes to the pot and mash, seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir in horseradish and additional butter, if desired.
  4. While the potatoes are cooking, place a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat and pour in 1/2 cup of the Guinness stout. Add sausages to the stout and simmer, turning sausages a few times, until sausage is plump and stout is reduced to a couple of tablespoons. This should be about 25 minutes. Transfer sausages to a separate dish and set aside to make the gravy.
  5. Pour any reduced stout into a glass measuring cup, along with vegetable broth and beef base.
  6. Add butter to the same pot used to simmer the sausages, and add onions and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and sauté over medium heat until onions are soft and translucent, at least 10 minutes.
  7. Sprinkle flour over onions in butter and stir until onions are coated and flour begins to cook. This is a roux that will be the thickener for your gravy. When the bottom of the pan begins to accumulate cooked, stuck-on flour, move the onions aside and pour in about half of the remaining Guinness stout. Stir, scraping up the cooked flour from the bottom.
  8. When the pan is de-glazed, pour in the remaining stout and the broth mixture, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thickened and reduced. You should take about 25 minutes for this step; don’t rush it, as simmering is necessary to blend the flavors and reduce the bitterness of the stout. Give it a taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired. If the gravy is overly bitter, stir in the brown sugar and simmer a few more minutes.
  9. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl in a small amount of olive oil and add the plump banger sausages. Cook and turn until sausages are fully reheated and nicely browned.
  10. Plate the mashed potatoes, spoon on a bit of Guinness gravy, then top with bangers and a generous ladle of the onion gravy.

Want to make this classic Irish pub grub?


Scallion-Sriracha Salmon Cakes

Most every night for the past few months, I have awakened around 3 a.m., for no apparent reason. My insomnia usually lasts at least an hour and a half, during which time I ponder all of the good and evil in the world, or play mindless word games on my smartphone, or venture into the dark corners of our house to find and snuggle our sleeping pets. I’d like to make one suggestion for others who have experienced this phenomenon of waking at 3 a.m.—do not pick up your phone and begin Googling possible causes for said awakenings. The search results are grim, and in a matter of moments, you will begin to question everything from your diet (am I eating sugar too close to bedtime?) to your spiritual condition (what do you mean, exactly, by ‘witching hour?’). My therapist believes I am probably flummoxed over a combination of things, related mostly to work-from-home stress and general pandemic fatigue. Whatever the case, I’m exhausted. Every once in a while though, these sleep interruptions result in something good, and this recipe is a fine example of that.

Out of the blue two weeks ago, I awakened with a start and asked myself why I had never made fish cakes with sriracha and scallions. You might be thinking this is a bizarre question to ask oneself so urgently at 3 in the freakin’ morning, and you’d be correct, but this is my life now. Once I go down that rabbit hole, it isn’t long before I begin dreaming up ideas of just how such a dream dish should be completed, right down to the garnish. Sometimes I pick up my phone and make record of my ideas—and that’s a smart thing, because if I don’t jot it down, my next successful 40 winks may wipe it clean out of my brain. From this particular wide-awake culinary epiphany, I made these exact notes, because I didn’t want to forget what sounded like a great recipe.

I mean, isn’t this the kind of thing that wakes everyone up at 3 a.m.??

It took me a few days to round up my ingredients, and when I got down to it last week, with a few tweaks to my original plan, the result was delicious! These scallion-sriracha salmon cakes were light and fresh, low calorie and easy as could be to make, with just enough heat to make your tongue tingle. I modeled the ratio of ingredients after my favorite crab cake recipe, using only enough mayonnaise and panko crumbs to hold the flaky salmon together with the finely minced garlic and red bell pepper. A little extra panko on the outside before pan frying gave the cakes a terrific crispiness to offset the moist and tender interior.

And the flavor was exactly as I dreamed.

Crispy coating, tender inside, spicy and delicious; these turned out just as I imagined!

Ingredients
Makes 2 servings

6 oz. fresh salmon portion (skinless)

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 Tbsp. sriracha

1/2 tsp. fish sauce* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. minced red bell pepper

2 scallions, thinly sliced (divided)

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 beaten egg

A few shakes Asian Reds hot pepper flakes*

1/4 cup panko crumbs, plus extra for shaping cakes

2 Tbsp. peanut oil

*Notes

Fish sauce is a pungent, fermented condiment found in the Asian section of most supermarkets. If you cannot find it, substitute with soy sauce.

The Asian Reds hot pepper flakes are a specialty item that popped up a while back in my hubby’s Facebook feed, and we could not resist ordering a variety of products from this company, though we have no financial incentive from doing so. I like this pepper seasoning because it includes the hard-to-find varieties of pepper that play so well with other Asian flavors, including the sriracha in this recipe. If you don’t want to spring for them, substitute any crushed red pepper flakes, or omit them for less heat.

We are loving these Asian Reds pepper flakes. They offer a different variety of hot pepper flavors that is a perfect highlight with other Asian ingredients.

Instructions

Here we go with pictures, and keep scrolling for written steps and a downloadable copy for your recipe files!

  1. Heat a small, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Pan steam or lightly sauté salmon fillet until just flaky (better slightly underdone than overdone). Cool then refrigerate several hours or overnight.
  2. Combine mayo with sriracha and fish sauce; measure out about 3 Tbsp. for finishing the cakes at serving. I put the reserved portion into a zip-top snack bag (sort of a makeshift piping bag).
  3. Add half of the chopped scallions, red pepper, garlic and spicy Asian Reds seasoning to remaining mayo mixture. Fold in beaten egg and panko crumbs.
  4. Flake fish into large-ish pieces and gently fold into mayo mixture, taking care not to break up the fish pieces too much. Sprinkle additional panko crumbs into your hand and shape mixture into four patties, about the size of hockey pucks, with a light coating of panko on both sides. Place each fish cake onto a parchment lined plate or small baking sheet.
  5. Cover the fish cakes with plastic wrap and chill at least two hours. This gives the mixture time to firm up, and the panko will absorb some of the moisture to better bind the cakes.
  6. Heat peanut oil in a medium, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Cook salmon cakes 3 or 4 minutes per side, until browned and crisp. Serve over rice with your favorite vegetables, top salmon cakes with reserved sriracha mayo drizzle and reserved scallion slices.

If you can dream it, you can make it. 😀

Want to make this recipe?


Irish Soda Bread

If you have ever thought, “I can’t make bread,” then this is one recipe I hope you will try. Not only are the ingredients simple, but the method is also very different from a yeasted bread. Baking soda and buttermilk react quickly to give rise to the bread, so you don’t have to wait around for the dough to double in size. No kneading is required or even desired, as the delicate nature of the dough can be toughened with too much handling. Heck, you don’t even need an oven, because soda bread can be “baked” inside a cast-iron Dutch oven, right over an open fire if necessary.

This quick bread, long believed to be original to Ireland, is actually drawn from the history of Native Americans, who were first on record to use soda ash to leaven breads. Early Irish immigrants to the new country took notice of the chemical reaction the soda had with sour milk, and with the eventual advent of modern baking soda, the recipe found its way into a cookbook, which launched soda bread into popularity all over Europe. Today, it is closely linked to Irish-American culture, and very much associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

As if the ease of making it wasn’t attractive enough on its own, this easy-breezy soda bread is also remarkably flexible, and it can take you on a flavor journey to either end of the spectrum of sweet-to-savory. You can make it plain and simple, or dress it up with herbs, oat grains, spice seeds, dried fruit, honey or just about anything else that makes you happy. Other quick breads usually have a moist, tender interior. But soda bread, which has no eggs, butter or oil, is better described as soft and somewhat crumbly. My favorite flavor combination—and the one I’m sharing today—is golden raisins and caraway seeds. It may sound unusual, but it is delicious, especially toasted at breakfast with a generous smear of good Irish butter. I cannot wait to taste it again! 😊

Fresh from the oven, and smells so good!

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some extra for dusting

1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour* (see notes)

1 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda (not baking powder)

1/2 cup golden raisins

1 tsp. caraway seeds

1 3/4 cups thick cultured buttermilk*, at room temperature

*Notes

Whole wheat pastry flour is lighter in protein (and texture) than regular whole wheat flour, so it is perfect for a quick bread such as this one. I love this brand, which is available online but sometimes difficult to find in stores. If you cannot find it, don’t worry—just substitute for a total of 4 cups all-purpose flour.

Made from soft white wheat, this type of flour is lower in protein. It’s less suitable for yeast-risen breads, but perfect for pancakes, biscuits, cookies or quick breads.

Buttermilk is an important ingredient for this recipe because its acidity activates the baking soda to leaven the bread. Regular dairy or plant-based milks will not work on their own, but if you must substitute, add about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar for each cup of other milk to achieve similar results. You only need enough buttermilk to sufficiently moisten the dry ingredients, so you may not use it all, but have it ready just in case.

Before we begin, do you remember doing this in science class, back in the day? I still love to have fun in the kitchen, so here’s a little reminder of what happens when baking soda and vinegar come together. The reaction between soda and buttermilk is very similar, and helps explain what makes this simple bread rise.

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F, with rack in the center of the oven. I’m baking my soda bread on a baking stone, so that gets preheated with the oven.
  2. Combine flours, sugar, salt, baking soda, raisins and caraway seeds in a large bowl.
  3. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in most of the buttermilk. Use a wooden or heavy spoon to mix at first, then switch to mixing with your hands when the dough begins to feel stiff. If needed, add the remaining buttermilk, but only enough to moisten and incorporate all the flour.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured countertop or board and knead very briefly, until dough is cohesive but still “shaggy” in appearance. Shape dough into a round ball, about eight inches across. Transfer the dough to a parchment lined (or oiled) baking sheet.
  5. Use a sharp, serrated knife to make deep cuts in the shape of an X or cross on top of the dough.
  6. Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden brown and crunchy on the edges. If you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should sound a bit hollow.
  7. Transfer soda bread to a cooling rack for a few minutes. Enjoy warm or room temperature.

Want to make this recipe?


DIY Corned Beef? (yes, you can!)

Today is March 9, and we need to talk about St. Patrick’s Day. Why the urgency, you may ask, with eight days to go? In our home, the food preparation for this fun holiday has already begun, in that we have started the brining process for our annual home-cured corned beef. Several years ago, I swore off meats processed with unnecessary nitrate and nitrite chemicals, and though it’s easy enough today to find commercially prepared “uncured” versions of corned beef in supermarkets such as Whole Foods, I get a kick out of doing it myself. This year, my husband, Les, and I purchased two large grass-fed briskets for this purpose. One will be a traditional corned beef preparation, and the other will travel an extra mile to become pastrami. The brining step takes anywhere from seven to 10 days, so we started ahead accordingly.

If this sounds exciting to you, then hightail it to the market today or tomorrow to procure the necessary supplies, and you’ll find directions for brining at the end of this post. Otherwise, sit back and relax for a brief “did you know” lesson on some of the dishes we think of this time of year, and a sneak peek at what I’ll be preparing in the week ahead. For many Irish-Americans, this mid-March holiday is usually a time for lively street parades (especially in Boston and New York), the wearing of the green (lest ye be pinched), toasting to good health with a pint (green or otherwise), and feasting on corned beef and cabbage, colcannon, bangers and mash, or Irish soda bread. But how authentic are these “St. Patrick’s Day” foods, really?

I’ve done some research this week, and honestly, it’s hit-or-miss. But in searching out stock photos from the internet, I’m drooling a bit, just thinking about these delectable foods!


Corned beef is associated with Ireland, but it originated in the U.S., where Irish immigrants found beef to be plentiful and more affordable than in their native land. Traditional Irish cuisine leans more heavily on proteins that are native to the land, including lamb and fish.

Colcannon, a mixture of cabbage and mashed potatoes, is an authentically Irish food, but is traditionally made around Halloween, not St. Patrick’s Day. Playful (or superstitious) cooks might still hide coins or lucky charms (not the cereal!) inside, giving dinner guests a chance at good fortune, though it sounds more like a good shot at a trip to the ER, or perhaps a ruse to convince children to finish their vegetables.

Bangers and mash is a rustic dish of sausage (usually pork or lamb) on top of mashed potatoes with onion gravy. This dish is definitely original to Ireland, as well as other parts of the U.K., and it earned its nickname because of the sound the moisture-heavy sausages made when they “popped” during cooking. I love bangers and mash with Guinness-based gravy, and the immature side of me just thinks it’s fun to say “bangers and mash.”

Finally, soda bread, long considered to be an original Irish food, technically isn’t. Culinary historians credit Native Americans as the first to use soda ash as a leavening agent in bread, but Irish immigrants to the new country quickly recognized the technique as a means to enjoy bread during yeast shortages. When baking soda became available in the U.K., the Irish adopted the chemical leavening trick to make breads from the stuff they had on hand—soft, low-protein wheat flour and sour or cultured milk.

I love food history, and even though some of these foods are questionable in their authenticity to St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be making (and sharing with you) some version of all of them between now and next week.

Our corned beef is already underway, and if you’d like to play along at home, here’s how to begin. As I mentioned, I do not use the nitrate chemical known as “curing salt,” and it is not necessary for home-cured corned beef. The intended purpose of curing salt is to inhibit growth of bad bacteria while the meat is brining, but between modern refrigeration and the natural nitrites that occur in another ingredient I use, my brisket is well protected. One noticeable difference in nitrate- and nitrite-free corned beef is the color; mine will not have the rosy hue you see in commercially processed corned beef. The flavor, however, is exactly the same (or better).

Essential gear

You will need a container for brining the corned beef. It should be large enough to hold your brisket, plus about a gallon of liquid brine mixture. Choose a non-reactive, sealable vessel for this purpose—in other words, do not use a metal pot! A plastic container with a tight lid is fine, as is a food-grade plastic brining bag (plus a container large enough to hold it). Depending on your container, you may also need a non-reactive bowl or plate heavy enough to weigh down the brisket so that it is fully submerged at all times. For cooking the brined brisket, any slow cooker, roasting pan or Dutch oven will do, but you won’t need that until next week. You will also need enough space in your fridge for said container.

Essential tips

Prepare your brining liquid in advance, and allow time for it to cool completely before adding your brisket. I’ve seen some recipes that begin with cold water, and that may be OK, but the coarse salt and sugar will dissolve better and more quickly over heat, so I usually warm the liquid to incorporate those grainy ingredients, then cool it down (usually with ice cubes) before adding the rest. Do not pour warm brine onto the brisket—this would promote bacteria growth.

Essential Ingredients

These are the must-haves for making corned beef at home.

4- 5 pound beef brisket, preferably flat-cut, trimmed of excess fat

3 quarts filtered water

About a cup of kosher salt or coarse sea salt* (see notes)

About 1/2 cup dark brown sugar

1 packet or bottle of pickling spices*

Optional Ingredients

These are the must-haves PLUS the extra stuff I add to my brine. Isn’t it funny that all the extras have GREEN labels? 🙂

12 oz. bottle Irish ale*

12 oz. bottle celery juice*

1/2 cup real fermented sauerkraut brine*

*Notes

Kosher salt and coarse sea salt are about the same by volume and can be used interchangeably here. You can also use canning and pickling salt, or fine-textured sea salt, but because the crystals are much smaller, you should use slightly less (somewhere between 3/4 and 7/8 cup). Do not use table salt containing iodine.

Pickling spice is a blend of dry ingredients, usually including peppercorns, mustard and coriander seeds, allspice berries, ginger, garlic, bay leaves and sometimes chile peppers. You could whip up your own blend if you so desired, but the simplest thing to do is purchase a jar of spices ready to go. McCormick makes a good one that you will find in the regular spice aisle of just about any supermarket. You will use the entire bottle, and you may as well pick up two of them so you’ll have extra spices later for cooking your corned beef.

The remaining ingredients are optional, but I’ll explain here why I use them. A few years ago, a guest at our big Super Bowl party had left behind a growler jug of a local IPA that was much more “hoppy” than beers we usually enjoy. Not wanting to waste it, I glugged about a pint of it into our corned beef brine, and it was fantastic. Every year since then, I’ve put a bottle of Irish ale into the recipe and it always turns out great with that little extra layer of flavor. I think a bottle of Guinness would be great, too.

Celery juice powder is a natural source of nitrites, one of the same chemical additives in commercially processed corned beef. I haven’t yet seen the powder available anywhere, but my supermarket carries celery juice in the same refrigerated section as kombucha and probiotic drinks. Check the ingredients of any celery juice product you choose. This one I use is only celery juice and a hint of lemon juice. I don’t want to know who is actually drinking this stuff, but I’m glad it’s available. 🙂

Real sauerkraut is a naturally fermented product, containing loads of healthy probiotics. Good bacteria threaten bad bacteria, so a few splashes of the brine from the natural sauerkraut is my extra security measure during the brining process. I would not recommend using the brine in canned sauerkraut, as it likely contains vinegar and who-knows-what else. But if your kraut came from the refrigerated case, and the ingredients listed on the package are only cabbage and salt, and it says “naturally fermented” or “live cultures” somewhere on the jar, you’re good to go. Hang onto the sauerkraut for all the yummy Reuben sandwiches you’ll make next week.

About the pink color:

I’ve tried a few other tricks to get the reddish color that is typical of commercially produced corned beef, but most did not work and others were only nominally effective. If you feel inclined, try adding about a cup of pure beet juice to the brine (more seems to affect the flavor), or try some beet powder if you can get your hands on it. But if you can overlook the idea of artificially enhanced color, I promise the flavor of home-cured corned beef is even tastier than the pink version you grew up with. It’s a good trade-off.


Ready? Let’s do this!

  1. Heat about 3 quarts of filtered water to a near boil, then turn off the heat.
  2. Add kosher salt and brown sugar. Stir until dissolved, then toss in a couple of cups of ice to cool it down.
  3. When the brine is fully cooled, add the Irish ale, celery juice and sauerkraut brine.
  4. Place your brisket into the non-reactive container. Sprinkle the pickling spice over the top of the meat. Carefully pour the cold brine over the meat.
  5. Use a heavy, non-reactive plate or dish to hold the brisket under the brine liquid. You don’t want the top or any edges exposed to air while the curing takes place. I usually use a flat-bottomed Pyrex dish to press it down, and when I seal the container, it becomes sort of wedged to keep the brisket from floating to the surface.
  6. Refrigerate on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator for at least 5 days for a smallish brisket, or up to 10 days if your brisket is on the larger side. Check on the brisket each day, and turn it so the brine and seasonings make their way into every fiber of the meat. Keep it submerged.

If you don’t have room in the refrigerator, you can do the brine step in a cooler. Be sure the container holding the brisket and liquid is fully sealed, and refresh the ice as needed to keep it cold for the duration of the brining process.

When brining is complete, rinse the brisket under cold running water for several minutes, then proceed with cooking as usual.

Are you gonna try it?

Later this week, I’ll post my recipes for Irish soda bread and “bangers and mash.” Stay tuned!


Reminiscing

On this date last year, my husband, Les, and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of unmasked strangers in an historic theater for a concert performance by Little River Band. You remember LRB, and the group’s inescapable 1978 hit, “Reminiscing?” I had convinced Les to go with me to this show, one of more than a dozen concerts we’d been to over the course of the previous two years. While he was plowing through an online master’s degree for his new career as a mental health counselor and working a full-time job in another city, we did not have a lot of meaningful time together. Les had proposed the idea of us going to concerts—lots and lots of concerts—as a fun way to stay connected during the hectic stretch. We dropped some major money on tickets, but we always had something fun to look forward to. We saw legendary acts, including Eagles, James Taylor, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen on Broadway, and, well, Little River Band.

Yes, I know, even a second grader would be able to correctly pick “which of these doesn’t belong?” Though LRB may not come to mind as iconic in the way the others do, this show had special meaning for me. As I sat in that beautiful theater (wondering whether any of the people around us were equally nervous about our close proximity and potential spread of the deadly virus that had hijacked the news), I did some reminiscing of my own—back to Red Rocks Amphitheater on Sept. 7, 1981—where my first-ever boyfriend took me to experience my first-ever concert, Little River Band. The Red Rocks show didn’t come up in my search, but this clip from another stop on that tour takes me right back to that beautiful night.

Credit: Shorrock Birtles Goble on YouTube

Things got a little blurry for me after last year’s concert. We had dinner out with friends a couple of nights later, and I remember being concerned about a cough I’d picked up somewhere. There was talk of closures and a potential shortage of basic supplies, so I made a run to Costco, where I did my best to act as if all was normal—of course, because I always buy three towers of tuna cans at a time, 12-pack flats of black beans, jumbo bags of pumpkin seeds, cases of bone broth, and the 7-pound bag of quinoa (which I still haven’t opened). We went to Michael’s to purchase canvases and new acrylic paints so that I would have something to keep me distracted if things got scary.

Meanwhile, the nasty cough didn’t go away, and I spent the rest of that month in the guest room, terrified out of my mind that I had coronavirus and would infect my husband. Les drove me to urgent care the next week, but the 12-year-old, unmasked doctor took my temperature and said, “you don’t have a fever, so it isn’t coronavirus.” Wow, have we learned a lot in a year. He gave me a strep test (negative) and a prescription for cough suppressant (which made it worse). The next day, we lost a dear friend suddenly, but couldn’t gather for a funeral to say goodbye. The following week, our governor issued the executive order to close all non-essential businesses, urging us to shelter in place and ride out what we all hoped would be a rough couple of months. And I was still coughing.

It all happened so damned fast.

I thought of my friends who worked in the food service industry and wondered if they would be OK. Should I send them some money? I thought of my friend whose mom was in cancer treatment and wondered if she’d even survive (she’s doing great). My job was already work-from-home and not likely to change. Les entered his counseling career in the nick of time, and business was booming. And yet, life as we knew it seemed over.

And then, of course, came the notifications that so many upcoming concerts we held tickets for were re-scheduled, postponed, re-scheduled again, cancelled. The first was Tony Bennett, and with the recent sad news of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I’m sure we will never have another chance. Then Jimmy Buffett, The Rolling Stones, matchbox twenty, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical—and then I began to consider the most obvious juxtaposition—what if Little River Band, the first band I ever saw in concert, turned out to also be the last? And what a bummer that would be, given that this new version of LRB bore little-to-no resemblance to the original band I had seen with my first boyfriend 39 years prior. It was a pleasant-enough show, and they performed perfect harmonies on all the right songs, but when I boiled it down, it was pretty much a tribute band with none of the original members. After all the amazing concerts I’d seen in my lifetime, would that be the final hurrah?

And would any of that even matter?

A year into this thing, we are offered faint glimmers of hope for a new normal, but it has come with an excruciating price tag. There are too many people still struggling through illness (COVID-19 and otherwise), separated from loved ones (either by miles or a fingerprinted window pane), fearful of eviction notices when the moratoriums end, terrified for their health as they await vaccination, exhausted after 12 months on the front line in hospitals, discouraged by unemployment, living with so much uncertainty, and the grim fact that more than half a million lives have been lost.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

Jimmy Buffett has rescheduled again for April—next month. But is that even appropriate? Les and I won’t be going if it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to a bunch of unmasked strangers, partying like it’s 1981. It was excusable last year when so much was unknown, but not anymore. The matchbox twenty show has been rescheduled for late July, but I’m not sure I’ll be ready then either, unless we are in a good place with vaccination rates. I still believe our COVID-19 sentence could have been a rough couple of months, if only more people had listened to the health experts rather than loudmouthed politicians. But here we are.

Life as we knew it may well be over, and “normal” may be completely different from here forward, and that will be uncomfortable for people who want everything to stay exactly as it always was. I miss the anticipation and excitement of live shows, but we have also thoroughly enjoyed the creative remote experiences artists such as Bon Jovi and Melissa Etheridge have provided, right in our living room. Little River Band wasn’t the same last year as in 1981, but the group put on a fun show. And if it turns out to be the last-ever concert I see—well, then I’m glad I was there, with the last-ever boyfriend of my lifetime. ❤


Banana Bread with Dark Chocolate and Ginger

When Meghan Markle sits down with Oprah this weekend for a “tell-all” interview about what it was like joining—and then separating from—the royal life, I doubt she will be spilling the tea in a way that the British tabloids (and several American news outlets) would have us believe. Frankly, I doubt the interview will be scandalous at all, given that she and Prince Harry (whom I’ve adored since the day he was born) have plenty of reasons to remain close with the rest of the royal family, not the least of which are their adorable son and the new baby that’s on the way. Honestly, can a girl please just have her fairy tale for a minute?

Mark my word, when this interview with Oprah is over, the only things Meghan and Harry will have disclosed is that they love and respect the Queen, and that they have no hard feelings for anyone in the family, and that they have aspirations in life that cannot be fulfilled while living in a royal fishbowl. Oh, and that the British tabloid media is awful—but we already knew that because we all remember the gut-wrenching evening that Princess Diana died while being chased through Paris by the paparazzi. God bless Harry for wanting to protect his wife and family from all that crap.

Here’s another thing Meghan probably won’t spill the tea about: her recipe for banana bread. I clicked on a headline in my news feed recently, intrigued about the idea that Meghan had a “secret surprise” in a banana bread she had shared while on Royal Tour in Australia a couple of years ago. In addition to her previous career as an actress, Meghan had a lifestyle blog before she became engaged to Harry (just one of many things she had to give up), so I knew that she was a maven in the kitchen, and who doesn’t love a fun twist on banana bread? My hopes were dashed, however, when I read that the two “secret” ingredients she uses are chocolate chips and crystallized ginger. Well, I thought, what’s so secret about that?

Look at these two lovebirds! Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and ginger is good for digestion. Good for me AND tastes delicious…yes, please!

First of all, this is not Meghan’s recipe—it’s been around a long time, and I’ve actually been making it this way myself since around 2010, when I had picked up a copy of Molly Wizenberg’s bestseller, A Homemade Life. Molly is also a former blogger and past contributor to Bon Appetit magazine (among other things), and she described this recipe in her book as one that she had adapted from the recipe of a friend of a friend. And that’s how recipes go—we hear about or taste something we like, we ask for the recipe, perhaps we tweak it and send it forward to someone else, and then they share it however they choose. Not much is original in the world of food anymore, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious. And this bread is definitely delicious.

My recipe is a take on Molly’s, which is a take on somebody else’s. 🙂

I’ve been craving the combination of dark chocolate and ginger ever since my new foodie friend Dorothy posted a dark chocolate and ginger tart on her own blog at Valentine’s Day. I haven’t made the tart yet, but I cannot find enough words to describe how much I love these two flavors together. The rich but slightly bitter flavor of dark chocolate holds its own against the spicy bite of crystallized ginger, and the two swirl around each other in an exquisite tango across the taste buds. The friendly and familiar background of an otherwise classic banana bread is a great venue for these two flavors to strut their stuff.

My recipe, of course, is slightly altered from Molly’s, which is slightly altered from somebody else’s, and I have no idea how it may be different from Meghan Markle’s because—as with every other single thing in her life since she met Harry—she has not personally shared her recipe. Somebody else spilled her tea. We only know that Meghan’s banana bread includes some form of chocolate and ginger, and that is enough to convince me that she has excellent taste. But we already knew as much, didn’t we?

You can see the generous bits of ginger peeking out of the banana bread. And all that dark chocolate! Mmm.

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring tips)

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour*

2/3 cup organic cane sugar (reserve 1 Tbsp. to sprinkle on top)

3/4 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled (plus extra butter for greasing pan)

2 large eggs (room temperature)

1 1/2 cups mashed ripe banana* (about 3 large bananas)

1/3 cup Greek yogurt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks

1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger


*Notes

For proper measuring, follow the “fluff, sprinkle, level” method. Scooping directly into the flour bag or container can result in a dense batter.

Whole wheat pastry flour is softer than regular whole wheat or even white whole wheat. It’s perfect for pie crust, cookies and quick breads, such as this one. If you don’t have it, or if you prefer all white flour, combine for a total of 2 cups all-purpose flour.

When I say “ripe” bananas, I don’t mean a few spots on a golden banana. They get sweeter as they age, and if you prefer, you can peel and mash them in a bowl and leave them to brown and sweeten a couple weeks in the fridge. But please, use ripe bananas.

The older the bananas, the sweeter the flavor. This is how my grandmother taught me (as long as there’s no mold)!

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, and position rack in center of oven. Grease a 9 x 5” (or equivalent volume) loaf pan generously with butter.
  2. Combine dry ingredients and whisk together in a large bowl.
  3. In a second bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add mashed bananas, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla; stir with fork or whisk to fully combine.
  4. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and gently fold with a rubber spatula to combine. Easy does it here, just be sure that all flour is incorporated.
  5. Fold in chocolate chunks and ginger bits, being careful not to overmix.
  6. Transfer the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with reserved sugar.
  7. Bake about 55 minutes (give or take a few) until the loaf is nicely browned and a toothpick comes out clean. The toothpick test may be tricky because of all the chocolate, so you may need to poke in more than one spot.
  8. Cool the loaf in the pan about 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack and cool completely.
The sugar I sprinkled on top of the batter created a delicate, crispy crust on the banana bread.

Want to make this yummy bread?


French Onion Soup

Leave it to the French to take a mountain of sliced onions, a bit of broth and a few Provencal herbs and transform them into a heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth soup. The dismal weather that has become something of a default around here this winter has had me in the soup mood, and this one is astonishingly simple—from ingredients to technique.

One thing that sets French onion soup apart from others is the amount of time spent simply preparing the onions. You can use a mandolin or processor to make quick work of slicing them, but there isn’t much you can do to speed up the cooking. In a Dutch oven on the stovetop, it can take up to two hours to properly caramelize the onions—that is, to draw out their moisture and let all the natural sugars burst forth. If you work too quickly, you’ll have sautéed onions, but they won’t have the luxurious sweetness that is a signature of French onion soup. One way to get this done with minimal fussing is to use a slow cooker, set on the lowest setting. Another is to caramelize them in the oven, allowing a low-and-slow transformation, perhaps even overnight. The extra effort and preparation time has landed this soup in the Sunday Supper category here on Comfort du Jour, but I promise—however you approach the whole onion caramelization thing, it is well worth the wait.

If you’re the make-it-all-yourself type, feel free to slow roast some beef soup bones and make your own stock, too. I had a momentary lapse of reason and tried this myself, but mainly ended up with a bucket full of tallow and two sinks completely filled with dirty pots and bowls. As far as I can tell, a good quality store-bought stock is a gift from heaven, so that’s what I used. Make it vegetarian with a good vegetable stock or combine the two as I did for wonderful layers of flavor.

The final touches on top of French onion soup are toasted baguette or bread slices and melty shredded Gruyere cheese. Yes, it’s a luscious bowl of classic French comfort food that is guaranteed to warm you up in these final weeks of winter.

The melty cheese on top makes this soup even more satisfying!

Ingredients

4 pounds sweet onions, sliced

1 stick unsalted butter

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence seasoning* (see notes)

1 bulb roasted garlic

1/2 cup dry wine (red or white, for deglazing the pot)

8 cups (2 quarts) low-sodium broth or stock (beef, vegetable or combo)

Crusty French bread slices (toasted, for serving)

Shredded Gruyere or Swiss cheese (about 2 Tbsp. per serving)

*Notes

Herbes de Provence is a blend of seasonings native to the Provencal region of France, and the brand I use includes thyme, rosemary, garlic, lemon peel and lavender. The combination of this seasoning is aromatic and typically used somewhat sparingly, but it is such a central flavor to French onion soup, I’ve used a good amount in this large batch. As always, take note of the salt content of any seasoning blend you use so that you can adjust the overall salt accordingly.

Instructions

I’ll walk you through it, and you’ll find written instructions below, plus a link to download the recipe for your files. 🙂

  1. Slice onions about 1/4” thick, preferably from stem to root ends, rather than into rings. For this recipe, I think it’s helpful to have the onion pieces generally the same size, and the top-to-bottom slicing will help you achieve that.
  2. Place a heavy Dutch oven over low heat, and melt the stick of butter in it. Add the onions at the same time as the butter if you’d like. But if you are using a slow cooker, melt the butter first, then toss the onions thoroughly to coat before cooking on low setting. Season with salt and pepper. Stir the onions around in the pot, and resist the urge to turn up the heat. Proper caramelization is important for this recipe, and it’s a long, slow process. Happily, you don’t have to stand over it constantly; as long as you stir the onions occasionally, it’s fine.
  3. After an hour or so, start watching for signs of browning on the bottom of the pot. This is a sign that the onions are caramelizing and once it begins, it proceeds more quickly. Stir more frequently from this point, but do not increase the heat.
  4. When caramelization is complete, the onion mixture will begin to look like it’s frying rather than simmering—this is because the moisture content has fully dissipated. Add the herbs de Provence, roasted garlic, salt and pepper.
  5. Pour the wine into the pot, and use your utensil to scrape up any browned bits that have stuck to the pot. The acidity of the wine will dissolve those tasty bits back into the onion mixture.
  6. Add the stock, bring to low boil and then reduce to simmer, covered, for a couple of hours.
  7. Serve the soup in warm bowls or crocks, place the toasted bread on top, then scatter shredded Gruyere or Swiss over the bread. If your bowls are broiler-safe, put them on a baking sheet and broil just long enough to make the cheese gooey. Alternatively, you could put the bowls in the microwave for about 30 seconds, or go high-tech with a kitchen torch and brûlée the cheese into blissful melty goodness.
I want to plunge a spoon right through this screen and into that cheese!

Want to make this recipe?