Only because of a common food myth is corned beef and cabbage a recipe associated with St. Patrick's Day, and associated it is: corned beef and cabbage is widely considered to be the most popularly served dish, alongside green beer (or an Irish red ale or stout if you have any sense), on St. Patrick's Day in celebration of its allegedly Irish roots. The fact of the matter is, however, that corned beef and cabbage, which is absolutely delicious, has almost nothing to do with the Irish food history that it is associated with. That makes it prefect everyday fare that needs not wait for a special Leprechaun-graced holiday to be enjoyed. In fact, it's so simple, especially like this in a crock-pot or slow-cooker, that corned beef and cabbage can easily be enjoyed any day of the year.
Corned beef, for those that don't know, is simply brined beef, usually the brisket, which means it's been soaked for a decent amount of time in a salty brining solution until it is somewhat pickled. Brining brings tremendous flavor into the meat and helps keep it moist and tender through almost any cooking method, but since corned beef is most commonly made from the brisket, a slow, moist cooking method for corned beef is preferred to get the best results. The following recipe stews the meat in an Irish ale with onions, garlic, and rosemary, all in the convenience of the crock pot.
Despite its obvious Southern roots and great potential for flavor, cabbage can be a hard dish for the modern palate to wrap itself around, so the following recipe calls for the milder Napa cabbage in place of a harder head. Cabbage is astoundingly good for you, and if it is cooked right, it is astoundingly delicious. To take full advantage of the health benefits of the cabbage in this recipe, it is not cooked in the slow cooker with the corned beef but rather quickly braised separately using some of the same beer-based stewing liquid that the meat simmered in all afternoon in the crock pot. If you've already turned your nose up at cabbage, give it this second chance. As a super secret to making the cabbage perfectly palatable, this cabbage is cooked with bacon as well, which actually ties it into the Irish cooking tradition while making it stunningly delicious.
To finish it off and give it some backbone, this dish is served over buttermilk mashed potatoes, ringing in yet another true Irish touch to the meal. The Irish, traditionally, ate very little beef until about a century ago, rather keeping their cows for dairy products. Those dairy products were enjoyed both sweet and sour, but it's well known that the Irish took a liking to enjoying their dairy particularly sour: the sourer the better. This part of their food culture came across the Atlantic with them to the Appalachian region and characterizes the old-fashioned Southern love of buttermilk. Here, it's mixed with another famous Irish staple, mashed potatoes, to round out the dish.
As for "Stan," he's a friend of this Examiner that taught him a Czech cooking method that is employed to round out this dish's full flavor. Interestingly enough, considering that Stan's technique is characteristic of traditional Czech home-cooking, it shares deep similarities with Irish tastes and methods. For the proper "a la Stan" version of this recipe, though, be sure to use a proper Czech beer like Pilsner Urquell. He wouldn't have it any other way. This recipe also comes out light on the meat and heavy on the cabbage and potatoes, following Stan's good Czech food advice: "Just a little meat and lots and lots of vegetables, especially potatoes." It makes for a great balance.
Recipe: Beer-stewed crock-pot corned beef and Napa cabbage a la Stan - Ingredients:
For the stew:
- 1.5 lbs. corned beef brisket (raw), cut into 2x2x4 (inches) chunks;
- 1 medium onion, chopped into large pieces;
- 5-6 cloves of garlic, crushed and roughly chopped;
- Optional: 2 carrots, scrubbed and cut into large pieces;
- 3 bay leaves;
- 1 sprig of fresh rosemary leaves (or a heavy pinch of whole dried rosemary leaves), whole but with stems removed;
- 1 bottle of Irish ale (or other favorite beer -- Czech beer for true "a la Stan");
- 2 tbsp. butter;
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
For the cabbage:
- 1 small-to-medium head of fresh Napa cabbage, sliced in half-inch slices crosswise;
- 1/4 sweet onion, sliced in long, thin strips (quarter the onion and then cut across at 1/4-inch intervals);
- 3 strips of bacon;
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped;
- 1/2 c. stewing liquid from the stew above;
- Salt and black pepper, to taste.
For the potatoes:
- About 3 pounds of potatoes, peeled and cut for boiling in cold, salted water;
- 1/2 c. stewing liquid from stew;
- Approx. 1/2 c. (churned) buttermilk (e.g. Cruze farms) -- more if needed;
- 2 tbsp. butter;
- Salt and black pepper, to taste.
- Several hours ahead of time, add all of the stew ingredients except the butter to a crock pot or slow cooker. Let it cook on high for about 4 hours or on low for 6-8 hours (e.g. while at work).
- About half an hour before you're ready to serve, begin to boil the potatoes until fork-tender. For this, start the potatoes in cold, salted water that you bring to a boil with the potatoes in it. While they boil, prepare the cabbage, onion, and garlic for the cabbage dish. Drain the potatoes and add them back into their hot pan over very low or no heat, covered, for 5-10 minutes (this tip finishes steaming the potatoes, dramatically improving their texture when mashed).
- Meanwhile, remove the meat from the crock pot and slice it cross-wise into quarter-inch slices and skim off some of the fat. Reserve two separate half-cups of the stewing liquid after the fat has been skimmed.
- In a large skillet or (better) a wok with a lid, fry the bacon until crisp (this can happen while the potatoes are boiling, actually) and remove it from the pan. Add the cabbage, onions, garlic, and some salt and pepper to the pan and stir and toss for a moment or two, then cover for about 2 minutes. Chop the bacon roughly in that time. Then, uncover, add 1/2 cup stewing liquid and the bacon, stir, and cover the pan again for 3-5 more minutes over medium-low heat. Keep the pan covered and turn off the heat at that point.
- Combine the other ingredients in the potato dish and mash with a masher (hand mashed has a great texture for this dish, so go through the tiny bit of extra effort). Add extra buttermilk as needed to get the proper texture, but because the stew's broth is thin, try to keep these potatoes a little stiff.
- Add the butter and sliced meat back into the crock pot and stir the butter through as it melts. At this point, either add the cabbage mixture to the pot as well or choose to serve it on the side. For a neater result, consider draining most of the cabbage cooking liquid back into the crock pot.
- To serve: Mound mashed potatoes on one side of a stew bowl and press them into something of a bowl shape with a spoon. If serving the cabbage as a side, heap it to one side of the potatoes. Ladle the corned beef stew over the top of the potatoes and cabbage, being sure to include a fair amount of broth.
Tip: Consider cooking the entire corned beef brisket in one go (usually, they are about 3 pounds, so this recipe calls for half of one) and when removing the meat from the pot, reserve half of it. You could make corned beef hash and eggs, corned beef in white gravy over biscuits, or any number of great leftover-corned-beef recipes the next day, and your broth will have a stronger, meatier flavor for it. Subscribe to stay tuned (for free), and you'll find a double-secret recipe for leftover corned beef will be posted soon.
Buy it locally! Good corned beef briskets are available frequently at Knoxville-area Kroger stores. Fresh rosemary can be picked up there usually too, or you can get it at The Fresh Market or Earth Fare stores, two of which are in Knoxville. Napa cabbage is also available likewise in Knoxville. For bacon, consider getting premium bacon at The Fresh Market or Earth Fare, or better, get some Benton's Bacon, a great Knoxville-local product. Similarly, don't miss Cruze Farms' real churned buttermilk, available around Knoxville in smaller shops (like the Horn of Plenty Market on W. Broadway in Maryville) courtesy of the Knoxvillian Cruze Farms.
Update: Knoxville food writer and Knoxville Healthy Food Examiner, Elizabeth Kelly, has a somewhat more traditional and every bit as delicious recipe for corned beef and cabbage in your crock pot that is available by clicking here. Check her out! She's good!
If you liked reading this article or this recipe, subscribe at the top of the page to receive free e-mail notifications every time the Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner publishes a new article. You don't want to miss the follow-up to this article using the leftovers in a unique way.