I was looking through recipes for main dishes linked to St. Patrick's Day, and it seems that almost any braised cut of meat will do just fine. The prevalence of cheap cuts of meat, which of course tend to be tough, ended up imprinting generations of immigrant American families with stews and pot roasts. The iconic Irish dish, Corned Beef and Cabbage, has been improved greatly in the past few years by using a different cut of beef for the main ingredient. You will have noticed this if you have a few years of this ethnic dish under your belt as you shopped for it over the years.
When I see corned beef packaged up at my neighborhood Fry's Supermarket in Tucson, I notice a cut that has much less fat and is more homogenous in its makeup. That is an improvement, because it won't fall apart into big, tough chunks as it cooks. Traditionally, corned beef ought to be fork-tender, but sometimes that's a lost cause because of low-quality meat.
If you get caught in that predicament, cut the meat into small pieces before serving and serve your gravy with it--which turns it into kind of a corned-beef stew, but if it's tough, it's tough.
The traditional cabbage and potatoes served on the side of corned beef may be dear to the heart of Irish communities, but cabbage and potatoes were also a staple for my mother, who was of Polish descent. The reality is that the cheap, nourishing vegetables are eaten by everybody because that's what the women find at the markets.
It is also the reason that so many immigrants open their own markets. I have visited a small shop that featured Middle Eastern staples, in San Diego, and what I found there was quite interesting and new to me.
The priest of my church, who was born in Detroit, Michigan, picked crops in the fields with his Mexican family until his father opened the first Mexican food store in Detroit, after which my pastor worked in it until he went away to school. This kind of entrepreneurship took place all over America, and it provides us with what is virtually a museum of ethnic food from coast to coast.
I learned this past week that there are three major population centers in the U. S. for people who come from El Salvador: Los Angeles, Austin and Houston. That's interesting, and I never knew it before. If I am ever in any of the three cities I will find a Salvadorean restaurant and check it out.
Irish Soda Bread is traditionally served with just about everything on the menu in the iconic Irish communities like Boston, and it is called soda bread because for whatever reason, those who were making the bread were not in the habit of leavening it with yeast. Just as sourdough bread came into its own in the West, soda bread evolved in Ireland the the U. S. and is not a staple. The recipe is infinitely varied, but I see it as almost a huge biscuit, baked whole and not cut or dropped into smaller cakes. So if you are planning a Saint Patrick's Day dinner--and I hope you are--you can make the soda bread any day this week, freeze it and have it off your mind while you deal with dinner this Sunday evening.
It is so nice to have St. Patrick's Day fall on a Sunday evening, and it doesn't happen that often. The reason I hope you will celebrate it is that St. Patrick's Day is about as dangerous as New Year's Eve with all the encouragement offered to drinkers to skip food and go straight to green beer. I have more than one reason for disliking the overemphasis on alcohol on this day, so I want everyone to stay home and enjoy the flavors of corned beef and soda bread, and reflect on the Irish gifts that have been given to this country.
IRISH SODA BREAD
4 cups self-rising flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 cup raisins
1-3/4 cups milk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Butter and flour a cake layer pan, knocking off excess flour.
Sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the butter is pea-sized lumps. Add raisins, then add the milk and stir just until the dough is evenly moistened but still lumpy.
Transfer the dough to a well-floured surface and gently knead it with floured hands about 8 times to form a soft but slightly less sticky dough, then form it into a ball.
Pat the dough ball into a domed 8-inch round and place it in the cake pan. Cut a 1/2-inch-deep X on top of the loaf with a sharp knife.
Bake in the middle of the oven until it is golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped, 45-55 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Freeze this bread when it has cooled, and you are ready to file it away in the freezer and go on to the dinner. I recommend self-rising flour because I have learned how much it simplifies non-yeast baking. Try it, and you will want to have it on hand all the time.