Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Corned Beef and Cabbage - the one-pot wonder.

It's that time of year again. Even if you're not Irish, it's a good time to celebrate all things Irish with a very traditional, very inexpensive, very simple, and very good dish. A pint of two of Guinness won't hurt either.

Corned Beef and Cabbage - a mid-march treat for everyone.
So this year, I have to work a late shift on St. Patrick's Day, so we decided to have our corned beef and cabbage dinner a few days early. I'm entirely NOT Irish, but I can't get enough of the hearty simplicity of most Irish food. This dish is one of the most simple to make, but will leave you with a full belly and will probably end up in a sandwich for lunch the next day. Aside from the corned beef itself, all the ingredients in this dish are very inexpensive, even in today's crazy economic environment. It nice to know that even though the price of everything is sykrocketing, a reasonable amount of money can easily become a great and plentiful comfort meal.

All you need to make the dish is the biggest pot in the house, and plenty of room to chop up vegetables. I don't own a huge amount of high-end cookware, but my biggest pot is actually one of the best pieces of cookware I have- a gigantic all-clad pot with a nice thick chunk of metal for a bottom. It's indispensable for it's ability to make all manner of soups, stews, mass quantities of pasta or tomato sauces. The thick bottom makes it a good choice for low-and-slow cooking, and it's big enough to feed a small army. If you have a tight budget for cookware- go for the best quality, biggest pot you can afford. You'll also want a good quality large saute or saucepan, but that's another conversation. With a big pot, large one-pot meals such as corned beef and cabbage become easy. My one pot was able to feed four adults and three young children, and left enough vegetable scraps to keep the family rabbit quiet for the day.

For starters, put a nice big piece of corned beef in your biggest pot. Most stores carry corned beef in vacuum packs. There will probably be a little blood and meat juices in the bag- just put it all in the pot (it's all flavor). If the meat came with a small packet of seasoning, you may as well use that too (it's usually a basic pickling spice blend. If there is no seasoning packet- don't worry it takes very little to make the dish work- the meat contains a large amount of flavor on it's own, and only needs a little help to pass it's flavor on to the whole pot.

Red-Skinned potatoes get a quick rinse before going in the pot
I like to add the potatoes next- they'll help weigh down the meat and keep it from floating to the top (and possibly dumping cabbage all over your stovetop). Traditionally, most people use the standard brown potatoes, and peel off the skins before putting them into the pot. I like skin on my potatoes, and my wife suggested something that I liked- red skinned potatoes with the skins still on- so I picked up a three pound bag. Skin-on potatoes takes a major portion of the workload out of the meal- peeling an entire bag can be time consuming.

Big chunky carrots go great in most slow-cooked meals...
The most traditional version of corned beef and cabbage is just corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes with nothing else. There is plenty of room to change things up a little in the vegetable department while still respecting the original. Most of the family is fond of nice large chunky carrots, and they add nice flavor as well, so I peeled a bunch of fresh carrots, and roughly cut them into big chunky pieces. Also, just to add a little extra flavor, I added two small onions, also rough chopped.

There's always room at the party for a little onion.
The seasonings used to cure the meat transform it from a beef brisket into the unique almost pickle-like grainy, stringy, corned beef we all know and love. Those same seasonings will also provide most of the flavor we need for the mountain of vegetables we'll throw into the pot. It needs very few things to really make it work- a little salt, a little black pepper, and a little of whatever else you prefer. There's really no need to over-complicate things, so I'd suggest restraining yourself to one or two additional spices (especially if your corned beef came with the little packet). You should probably start adding your seasonings now- before you fill the pot to a brim with cabbage. Start with about a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of black pepper- you cab always adjust later- but you'll probably get enough salt coming from the meat so be careful about adding too much salt.

Coriander seed pairs well with beef and does well in long-slow cooking dishes.
I added one small handful of coriander seeds. This is a seasoning that, I feel, was made for slow cooking. I also think it pairs well with beef in general, as well as anything pickled- so it seems like a natural companion for a corned beef dinner. That's it for seasonings. It really doesn't need anything else, but feel free to experiment.

Cabbage, lots and lots of cabbage...
Now the cabbage. Rough chop about two heads of cabbage- basically as much cabbage as you can comfortably cram into your largest cooking pot. In my case, the fit was just right- the cabbage filled the rest of the pot with almost no room to spare- which is ok since it will soften and wilt a good amount as it cooks. In general, the cabbage should occupy about 50% or more of your pot. Once you finish stuffing cabbage in the pot- load it up with water- enough to cover the cabbage if you have the room, or up to within about an inch of the top if you've overstuffed yourself with cabbage like I did. Turn the heat on low, and let it cook with the lid on to help weigh down the overflowing cabbage at first. You'll need to simmer away slowly for at least three hours- and, as is usually the case for a dish like this one- longer is better. I set mine up around lunch-time and let it go until it was time to eat .

When you start getting close to dinner time give the broth and some of the cabbage a taste, and adjust your salt and pepper if needed. Turn off the heat about 15-20 minutes before serving. Fish out all the vegetables and potatoes with a slotted spoon, and let the meat rest in the remaining broth for about 15 minutes- this gives the meat a chance to unclench itself a little, and absorb some of that nice broth it's been stewing in all day, and seems to help keep the meat from drying out as soon as it comes out of the pot.  Once the meat has had it's relaxing swim in the pot, take it out and cut it up. Some people like theirs sliced into thin deli slices, I prefer mine cut into chunky, steak like slices- so slice it however you feel appropriate. If the meat looks a little dry, pour a little of the cooking liquid on top to help keep it moist. The liquid is tasty enough that you may just pour it on anyway, and any extra can easily be re-purposed as a soup base.

Corned beef and cabbage dinner served.
The flavor of the meat, and that touch of coriander basically permeate everything on the plate. The corned beef itself shines, but somehow, the cabbage ends up being the star- it soaks in the flavor, and lends it's own earthy counterpoint to it. The carrots and potatoes will have some of the same effect, but the cabbage seems to make the most of it.

This dish just has it all - lots of flavor, filling, makes enough for the whole family (with leftovers), is mostly inexpensive considering the sheer amount of food, and is extremely easy to do well. Corned beef and cabbage exemplifies everything that makes simple comfort foods great.

One odd piece of trivia to know is that corned beef and cabbage is really an Irish-American dish, rather than a native Irish one. The closest original in Ireland is Bacon and Cabbage- which sounds great, by the way. Much the way we Italian-Americans have Spaghetti and Meatballs as our most ubiquitous comfort food- despite the fact that in Italy, spaghetti and meatballs may be served in the same meal, but never paired as a single dish. I think that Corned Beef and Cabbage plays the same role to the Irish-American that Spaghetti and Meatballs does for the Italian-American- a dish based closely on traditions brought over from the mother country, but twisted a little to suit new surroundings- something (relatively) new that's still steeped in a long tradition.


  1. You enjoy that corned beef and cabbage! As a native Irishman, my taste for it... well... it's gone! xD

  2. is that potato cooked?

  3. I have never made this but will try..I like corned beef and always wanted to make it..I'll try not to wait until St. Pat's Day! Thanks for posting it!!