The history behind the traditional St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage meal has little to do with St. Patrick — or even Ireland.
Food is an integral part of how we celebrate every milestone from birth to death. Entire holidays have sprung up just in celebration of food, ranging from the quintessential turkey on Thanksgiving to those seemingly endless “national days” celebrating everything from pancakes to tacos.
And much like turkey on Thanksgiving, we are compelled to eat corned beef and cabbage in the middle of March each year in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. The reason why, however, has less to do with St. Patrick — or even Ireland.
For Brendan McGill, chef and owner of Hitchcock and Bruciato on Bainbridge Island, Hitchcock Deli in Georgetown and Café Hitchcock Downtown, eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day is a way of reclaiming his own food traditions.
Corned beef and cabbage kits
To preorder Brendan McGill’s meal kits, to pick up on Bainbridge Island or the Georgetown Deli on March 14-16, call the deli you plan to order from, or order online at hitchcockdeli.com. A $100 kit includes a brisket, red potatoes, organic cabbage, a Guinness for the braise, a spice packet and a jar of whey-fermented mustard; enough to feed four to six people.
Bainbridge Island: 206-451-4609
“This isn’t one of those sexy food traditions where I learned it from my Irish grandmother,” he says with a laugh.
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Yes, McGill’s dad is Irish, but making the dish and eating it was a casual thing in his household until he was an adult.
“I really took it on when I was 17 or 18, living by myself and cooking at home a lot. I would go to Don and Joe’s, they would have it all packed up, and it was cheap and an easy braise, so I just thought of it as confirming my Irish-American identity somehow.”
Take just one look at his restaurants, however, and you can see that McGill isn’t a guy content with just leaving things on the surface level. The back wall of the deli in Georgetown is anchored by massive crocks fermenting sauerkraut, the mustard is made from scratch. The pizza at Bruciato is topped with his own bacon, and the plates at Hitchcock are fortified with fermented sauces, fruit conserves and vegetables he and his staff have created from scratch.
He looked at corned beef and saw a research opportunity.
First, he needed a lesson in Irish history.
“In Gaelic Ireland, cows were kind of a sacred animal only used for farm work and dairy, but when the English colonized Ireland, they loved beef and started ranching it all over Ireland,” he says.
Ireland soon became a top exporter of beef, but unfortunately most of the country’s residents were too poor to afford to eat their biggest export. Ireland also had a very low salt tax, allowing Irish companies to import better salt than England, and considering refrigeration wasn’t the same in the 18th century as it is today, salting — or corning — beef and other meat products was incredibly popular.
Irish corned beef soon dominated the global trade routes, again making it too expensive for most native Irish to enjoy.
In 1845 the Irish potato famine hit, and soon hundreds of thousands of Irishmen and women were sailing for America, settling in immigrant neighborhoods often side by side with Jewish immigrants — and Jewish delis and butcher shops.
With higher wages and often a better life, suddenly corned beef was affordable.
“They threw their favorite tuber into it, the potato, and whatever’s cheap, cabbage. It’s purely Irish American and has nothing to do with Ireland,” McGill says.
As McGill’s corned-beef research continued, he realized it matched his family heritage. His mom’s side fled Nazi-occupied Germany to settle in the Midwest, while his dad’s grandfather emigrated from Ireland via Ellis Island.
“The fact that that combination created this dish in a broad sense, I really like it,” he says. “It feeds my soul somehow.”
So after years of grabbing a pre-brined package at Pike Place Market’s Don and Joe’s, McGill took the process into his own hands and has been regularly serving corned beef on sandwiches. Every year he whips up an Irish feast at Hitchcock on St. Patrick’s Day.
But his enthusiasm doesn’t always translate to the diners, and he admits that sometimes no one will order the St. Patrick’s Day special.
“It’s just not what people go to Hitchcock for,” he says. “Maybe this year I’ll make it a little cuter. Instead of doing it in a rustic style with a gut-busting portion with all the accoutrement, I’ll sneak it into the tasting.”
Additionally, he’s selling full corned beef and cabbage kits to people who want to try their hand at making the dish at home. For $100 per kit one can get a brisket, red potatoes, organic cabbage, a Guinness for the braise, a spice packet and a jar of whey-fermented mustard; enough to feed four to six people.
He says it doesn’t necessarily take a ton of skill to make corned beef from scratch at home. All you need is salt, spices and water.
“You don’t even need a smoker. This is basically pastrami before you rub the whole outside with black pepper and coriander and smoke it hard.”
However, creating corned beef from scratch is at least a two-week process where your preferred cut of meat bobs in a salty brine before being steamed or braised to finish.
Instead, grab a pre-brined brisket and let your oven do the rest.
“I would take it out of its packaging and pat the meat dry. Sear it hard in a pan and then do a standard braise,” he says.
This entails putting the brined beef in a 350 degree oven for three to four hours, preferably with a can of Guinness poured in for moisture.
“Once you can tell it’s starting to get there — it’s not all fall apart yet, but you can tell it wants to — I would add the vegetables.”
McGill recommends adding small potatoes and whole wedges of cabbage to the braising dish and giving it another 45 minutes in the oven. Finishing touches include Irish soda bread slathered with Kerrygold butter, a soundtrack that includes The Pogues and a shot of Redbreast or Jameson.
Corned Beef & Cabbage
Note: It’s important to start with pre-brined brisket, or brine your own
3 pounds all-natural beef brisket, pre-brined and pre-seasoned
5 pounds red potatoes, whole
2 heads organic cabbage
2 cans of Guinness beer
Pickling spices, recipe follows
1. Pull your corned beef from the brine — give it a pat dry, and let it sit out for 20 minutes or so to come up to room temperature.
2. Set oven to 350 degrees and place a Dutch oven, cast-iron or steel pot (something with a nice thick bottom) in to preheat with it. Once the oven is ready, carefully remove the pot and place on a medium-high burner. Add a drop of oil to coat the bottom and then carefully lay the brisket down in it. Sear on both sides to a nice dark brown.
3. Pour Guinness straight over the brisket — this will immediately come to a boil. Add the pickling spice and bring up to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Put a lid on it and place back in the oven.
4. Baste every hour; after three hours start checking for fork-tenderness. You want it to be mostly falling apart. Just as soon as the beef seems to pull apart reluctantly, add your potatoes. Slice the cabbage into large wedges and arrange with the corned beef and potatoes, at least partially submerged. Remove the lid and continue to simmer for another half-hour or so, or until the cabbage and potatoes are tender the meat can be forked apart. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
5. Spread a thick layer of Irish butter on soda bread, gather your friends, and dig into the pot. Let the whiskey and Guinness flow freely, and enjoy the special day!
For the Pickling Spice:
10 g black peppercorns
10 g yellow mustard seeds
10 g coriander seeds
6 g hot red pepper flakes
7 g allspice berries
4 g ground mace
1 sticks cinnamon
3 g bay leaves
3 g whole cloves
4 g ground ginger
Toast the peppercorns, mustard seed, and coriander. Once cool, crack in spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Pulse bay leaves and cinnamon stick in grinder. Add to remaining spices, mix well and store in glass container.
— Recipe by Chef Brendan McGill, of Hitchcock and more