Corned beef and cabbage is well known as an Irish meal. It wasn’t really eaten much by Irish people, though, until a large population of immigrants came from Ireland to America. It was considered a luxury there and too expensive for common folk to eat, but was much cheaper in America. Costs have since come down, and today corned beef and cabbage is enjoyed all over the world.
Corned beef is actually salt-cured meat. You can buy it already cured, or you can cure it yourself. To cure the meat, you will make a brine of 8 cups water, 1 1/2 cups Kosher salt, 1 cup light brown sugar, one tablespoon sodium nitrate, and three tablespoons pickling spice. Soak an entire beef brisket in the brine for three weeks, stirring every three days, until the meat turns pink.
You can leave sodium nitrate out of the recipe if you are concerned about using it or don’t have any on hand. There have been claims that it may cause cancer, although those have not been proven. What is known for sure is that sodium nitrate blocks bacteria that causes botulism from forming, which was helpful years ago, before refrigeration was available, but is not as serious a concern today. If you don’t use it to make your corned beef and cabbage, the only difference you will notice is that the meat stays gray instead of turning pink.
Pickling spice comes pre-made, but you can also make your own for an entirely homemade meal. It’s easy, and you may already have these ingredients in the pantry. Combine one tablespoon each of coriander, mustard seed, red pepper, black pepper, and allspice. Add two tablespoons cardamom, two teaspoons each whole cloves and ginger, three bay leaves and 1/2 stick cinnamon, and you have your own pickling spices ready to go.
If you choose to buy the meat already cured, your first step will be to rinse it well with cold water. Put it into a large roasting pan with deep sides and set aside for now. Heat one quart of water on the stove before adding two tablespoons each of salt and brown sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add one bottle of Irish beer if desired. It isn’t necessary but adds a nice flavor. Add the liquid mixture to the roasting pan containing the meat. If the liquid doesn’t cover the meat entirely, add a bit more water until it does.
Corned beef always comes with a packet of pickling spices because most people don’t want to wait three weeks to cure the meat themselves. If you did not cure your own brisket, put the pickling spices into the roasting pan at this point and put a lid on it. Cook in an oven for four hours at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
The meat is done if a fork easily goes into the meat. Drain the liquid from the roasting pan, but save it to cook the potatoes and cabbage. Cover the meat with aluminum foil to keep it from getting cold. Set aside for now while you concentrate on the vegetables.
Split the liquid from the roasting pan between two pots, one for a head of cabbage and the other for potatoes. Remove the cabbage core and cut the head into quarters. Separate the leaves when adding to the pot. Make sure at least half of the cabbage is covered with water because it will shrink when it cooks. Season it with one tablespoon each of salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup butter and cook on medium heat until the cabbage is tender. Drain the water. Scatter the leaves all around the meat in the roasting pan.
Cut 6 - 8 potatoes into small chunks and add to the other pot of water you saved while the cabbage is cooking. Cover the potatoes with liquid completely, if they aren’t already, with chicken stock. The chicken stock adds to the liquid from the roasting pan to give the potatoes an extra layer of flavor. Season with one tablespoon each salt, pepper, and parsley, and also add 1/2 cup butter. Cook on medium heat until the potatoes are tender. Drain the water. Arrange the potatoes on top of the cabbage, all around the meat.
You have time while the cabbage and potatoes are cooking to work on the garnish. Parsnips are a perfect garnish and add yet another layer of flavor to your corned beef and cabbage. Cut the ends off of 7 - 8 parsnips, peel the skin off and then slice them on a mandolin as thin as you can. Put them into a pot of water, boil for five minutes until they are almost tender, then drain. Heat a fryer and drop in the parsnips, cooking until they are crispy. Remove and put onto a plate covered in a paper towel to drain the grease. Sprinkle on top of the meat.
The most important part of corned beef and cabbage is how you slice the meat. You will end up with tough slices if you cut the meat with the grain because the muscle fiber will still be intact. Slice corned beef across the grain in thin slices to break up that muscle fiber, which will ensure each bite is tender. Serve slices of the corned beef with a healthy serving of potatoes and cabbage, and treat yourself to a delicious meal.