Corned Beef

David and I were a bit more adventurous in our younger days. I mean, heck, we up and moved to Anchorage for starters. That's kind of scary but at the time we really didn't give it second thought. In fact we didn't really think about it at all. I don't even think we bought a jacket before we went. We simply packed up our central California type clothes and got on the plane. Back then we were working in theatre, David doing technical work, building sets and everything that goes with that and I was working the administration side of things, box office and subscriptions, that sort of stuff. Theatre in Alaska was pretty much the same as anywhere else, you build a set, you put up the lights, rehearse the actors, sell the tickets and raise the curtain upwards of 8 times a week. One might think that being so far out of the way, the production values would be more like small town community theatre but that could not have been farther from the truth. Fact is the reputation of the company drew in some of the best people from all over the United States and it definitely showed in the quality of the productions. But my Alaskan theatre experience will have to wait for a different post. Back to my original topic... The first time I ever ate lobster was in Anchorage. That might not seem adventurous to most people, but it was to me because we also had to buy our own lobster and bring it to the costume shop where all the other staff gathered for a “good old fashioned lobster bake party”. David and I went to the local market and picked out two lobsters from the tank and headed over to the shop. 

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The thing nobody told us was that we weren't supposed to pick out the biggest lobsters we could find. When we arrived everyone had these nice small lobsters and ours were two to three times the size. Plus I was naive; I had no idea how lobsters were cooked. I can't even bring myself to talk about how horrified I was at the whole experience. I am pretty certain that was the last time I ever ate lobster though. After that my adventuring side began to wane just a bit. The first time I attended a real Hawaiian pig roast was in Anchorage. On that day, David and I were invited to join a very large group of people at the home of a friend who told us he would be roasting a pig. OK we thought, that's no big deal, we've had pork roasts before so it sounded like fun. What we didn't know was that it would be the whole pig and it wasn't roasted in the oven... instead it had been "roasted" overnight in a giant hole in the ground covered with leaves. At some point during the almost "all day" event, while we stood around drinking, talking, and eating hors d'oeuvres, our host dug up the pig and transferred it to a giant rotisserie spit and the hole in the ground was filled with wood and set ablaze. The spit turned the pig (for what seemed a long time) over the fire while a group of us stood nearby watching in fascination as around and around it went. As I watched this giant pig turning and turning, over and over, I decided right then and there I just wouldn't eat it. The site of this giant, whole, pig spinning around and around over the fire was both surreal and fascinating at the same time. To borrow an overly used cliché, it was like a train wreck, you just couldn't look away (you wanted to, but you just couldn't) However, when that poor (not at all little) pig was finally ready, and it had been carved and plated, and I got a taste of it... well... Let's just say I went back for many, (too many) helpings.

Other thing that were adventures for me? Well, there was a restaurant in downtown Anchorage where I ate elk for the first time. This restaurant was the first place I ever saw that had buffalo on the menu too (I know that's pretty common now, but this was back in 1986). And, just a little outside of the downtown area there was a bar/nightclub called "The Fly By Night Club" where all the food served was made with SPAM. Now SPAM was not anything new to us, but when you purposely go to a specific bar because that's all they serve... well, I call that adventurous in a way.

I am guessing that for many of you, none of these things would actually qualify as adventurous in your book, but for me, a guy who pretty much hung out at home watching TV and playing video games in my off time, these were all new experiences for me. Up until some of these things happened probably the most adventurous thing I did was decide to eat pizza that had pineapple on it. Actually there are a few things that I look back on now, that again, to many will sound so humdrum but to me we're milestone achievements in my culinary journey. My dad used to cook an egg (over easy) and place it on a hot Eggo brand waffle then top the whole thing with a little maple syrup. The first time I saw him make this I was so taken aback. I knew that it just couldn't possibly be good. Then I started to think about it... Waffles are just bread after all, and I love bread as you may already know. So really this was just an egg sandwich in a way. So… I tried it, and hey it wasn't that bad. No, actually it was good. I liked it. I would learn later in life of places that put fried chicken on waffles (a very popular dish down in the southern parts of the USA) and douse the whole thing in syrup. (Just FYI, that's good too!) Another odd combo for me was putting sour cream on my hamburger. I learned this from a friend while at the drive thru of our local Jack in the Box. When my friend ordered her cheeseburger with sour cream I scoffed and dismissed it without a second thought. Then she asked me to try it and ... wow... fantastic. I can tell you we ate so many cheeseburgers with sour cream that the workers at the Jack in the Box knew us by name. 

So while these things seem ordinary now, for me, each one was a giant step into an unknown place. Each was a leap of faith in a way and while there is nothing out of the ordinary about corned beef, the thought of curing it myself, was. The thought of curing anything at home seems odd to me. I mean just the thought of leaving an uncooked piece of brisket sitting in the refrigerator for a week, in brine, was a little weird. But in the end I decided why not give it a try. Why not see what happens, what's the worst thing that can happen... food poisoning?  Wait... what? That's actually a real thing? No... No... I must press on. As it turns out making corned beef at home isn't scary at all, like most things it's just getting over the hurdle of the first time. 

I really like corned beef, and unless it's March you don't see it in the stores that often, so making it at home means I can have it whenever I want. And I can make it how I want. Generally in the supermarkets around St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll find pre-packaged corned beef. It’s a piece of brisket with either a small packet of spices included or it’s already been marinating in a brine while in the bag. All you have to do is open the package, drop the whole thing into some water and allow it to cook for a while. It’s pretty easy and for the most part it will suffice for the one day a year you eat corned beef. But for me, that just wasn’t enough. So I turned to my “good friend” Alton Brown. I figured that if anybody was going to help me over my fear of making corned beef at home and teach me a few things at the same time it would be him. I was right too. Oh and Alton, before I forget, you are also welcome at my house anytime… what are friends for, right?

Corned beef, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and mustard on rye bread... Yum!

After watching and learning from Alton I turned to Michael Ruhlman, authur of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. Now I will also admit something here... and that is the real reason I was interested in learning how to make corned beef: It’s because it is a stepping-stone to pastrami. That’s right, basically smoked corned beef is pastrami, which I think just might be the very best thing about food. If I like corned beef, I love pastrami. I can’t think of a better sandwich than pastrami and swiss cheese on rye bread. Just thinking about it makes me hungry. Just FYI, if you ever see me in a deli ordering a sandwich… 10 to 1 it’s gonna be the pastrami. 

So all right… now I know that doing this at home isn’t for everybody, and that’s ok. I completely understand. And as I said earlier for many of you corned beef may only be eaten once a year and the prepackaged stuff will be more than adequate served alongside some cabbage and potatoes or turned into corned beef hash on Sunday morning. For the rest of you that want to give it a try, maybe alter the flavors a bit to your liking, or just want to be able to say… “yeah, I corned a beef brisket”, well here we go. Side note here: After making this for the first time, I can safely say, I will never buy a pre-packaged corned beef again. The flavor is better… the texture is better… basically everything about it is better! I might even go so far as to say perhaps the best thing about food is when you can make something better than you ever thought it could be.

Yep, I basically made corned beef so I could make sandwiches!

You are going to need a special ingredient for this if you want the beef to stay pink on the inside after it’s cooked, and that is a product called Pink Curing Salt, also known as Prague Powder #1 or DQ Curing Salt #1. You can find it at Amazon, which should be no surprise. You can do without it, but by doing so, your beef when cooked will be grey in color and not at all appealing to look at... not the best thing about food if you ask me. You’ll also need a 2 gallon zip lock bag to brine the meat in and a container to hold it so it’s just not a loose bag in your refrigerator. I am aware it seems like there are a lot of spices in the brine, but I’m sure you have a fair amount of them already. Plus you can tweak the flavors here as well. Michael Ruhlman adds coriander seeds to his brine, but I didn’t have any of those so I left them out. Alton Brown adds juniper berries to his, again I didn’t have any of those so I went without. I say make it this way once then if you like, do some research and change it up some next time. Other than these few measly things don’t forget it brines for 5 days before you cook it so you’ll need time as well.

So lets get to it. This is how I made mine…

First we need to make the pickling spice so it’s ready to go.

Ingredients for Pickling Spice:

  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon allspice berries
  • 1 cinnamon stick, crushed or broken into pieces
  • 1 to 2 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 1½ teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1½ teaspoons ground mace

Directions for pickling spice:

Combine all the spices in a small jar and mix well. Store tightly covered until ready to use.

Now for the brine and the brisket:

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1½ cups kosher salt
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 4 teaspoons pink curing salt (sodium nitrite), optional but recommended
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons pickling spice (see ingredients above)
  • 1 (5-pound) beef brisket

Directions:

Into a large pot, add the gallon of water, the kosher salt, the sugar, the pink curing salt (if using), the garlic, and the pickling spice. Basically everything except the beef!

Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the salt and sugar have dissolved.

Remove the brine from the heat and let it cool to room temperature, then put it in the refrigerator to chill completely.

When the brine is completely cold put the brisket into a 2 gallon zip lock bag and pour in the brine.

Seal the bag, removing as much air as possible, and place it in a large container (just in case the bag springs a leak). Alternately you can use a pot that is just large enough to hold the brisket and the brine. Weigh down the brisket with a heavy plate to keep it submerged, and cover the pot.

Refrigerate for 5 days. Once a day turn the bag over to help distribute the brine evenly.

At the end of the five days its time to cook the brisket.

You’ll need:

  • 1 large carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons pickling spice (from ingredients above)

Directions:

Take the brisket from the brine and rinse it thoroughly under cold running water.

Place it in a pot just large enough to hold it and add water to cover by about 1 inch.

Add the carrot, onion, celery, and pickling spice.

Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce the heat to low, and cover.

Simmer gently about 2½ to 3 hours until the brisket is fork-tender, adding water if needed to keep the brisket covered.

Keep the brisket warm until ready to serve.

If desired simmer additional vegetables in the cooking liquid (such as potatoes and cabbage) until tender.

 

That’s all there is to it. I know this won’t be for everybody, but I hope those of you that are a little "adventurous" will give it a try. If you make it once you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner in life. And I hope that one of you that is particularly good at smoking meat will call me and offer to make my corned beef into pastrami… we could be friends forever after that!

Riley tries to get sympathy by reminding us he hurt his paw a while back, and that clearly means he deserves some corned beef.