The Irish sure love corned beef, to be sure, to be sure. It’s almost a national dish.
But historically speaking, corned beef is not really Irish at all. Traditionally Irish cooks would poach slabs of bacon in much the same way we now braise corned beef. But when they came to America in droves during the 19th century they were forced to find a new staple food, as bacon was priced beyond their humble means. They turned to the more affordable salt beef made famous by New York’s early Jewish butchers and discovered that it too could be cooked in a style that suited the Gaelic palate.
Returning migrants brought this taste of the New World back to the Emerald Isle, and in a short time it became the iconic food of St Patrick’s Day.
This posed a problem for the devoutly Catholic Irish as this most Gaelic of celebrations occurs during Lent, a religious festival with its own rules about what may be served at table. Fish on Fridays, old mate! So in years when St Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday what are poor Paddy and Mick to do? Fish is called for by the church, yet tradition demands corned beef.
Rather than risk a gastro-schism that could rend the faithful asunder, parts of the Catholic Church relented its rules in consultation with the congregation, and some bishops now permit the flock to have their beef and eat it too.
The next such intersection will occur in 2017. Perhaps the Pope had not the stomach for a beef over beef.
In Australia we refer to corned beef as ‘silverside’. This is the name of a hindquarter section of beef with a thick silvery membrane along its outer wall. A tougher cut, silverside is best cooked slowly, and is our most popular choice for salt-curing.
‘Corning’, as salt-brining is sometimes called, is an aromatic pickling process undertaken to cure meats prior to cooking. It tenderises the connective tissues, introduces flavours, and pre-seasons as well. Also, it adds weeks to a meat’s shelf life. Traditionally a corned piece of meat will then be braised for several hours, after which it will emerge delicately tender, but without having lost its structural integrity in the way other braised meats can suffer.
Pickled pork, corned lamb and salt fish have their place in the kitchen, but when it comes to the authentic modern Irish experience, a generous serve of corned silverside with cabbage and potatoes cannae be beat!
Here’s my favourite way to eat corned beef.