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One of the quickest and easiest ways to change the flavor of a food is to brine it. Essentially a heavily salted liquid with aromatics, a brine can add flavor to meats and fish, turn vegetables into pickles and, in the case of this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge, alter the profile of beef brisket into the popular March meal: corned beef.
When I was growing up, at some point in mid-March, there would be a pot of boiling water on the stove with an oddly pink piece of meat in it, along with some potatoes and other vegetables. Corned beef, so named because the large salt crystals used to brine the brisket resembled kernels of corn, the very Irish-American dish, was always served around St. Patrick’s Day in our Armenian-American home. I never really cared for it and when I no longer lived at home it wasn’t something I ever considered cooking for myself.
Around ten years ago I learned about brining from the same person it seems as if most of the world learned it from, Alton Brown. O.K., maybe I’m exaggerating, but it did seem like Brown brined a turkey on Good Eats and suddenly every home cook was trying it. In the days before I could easily find pasture-raised chicken, turkey or pork, brining made a world of difference in the flavor of supermarket meats that had had all the taste bred out of them. Now that I’m fortunate enough to buy really excellent local meat, I don’t brine as much as I used to, but it’s still an excellent technique for older chickens or very lean cuts of pork like chops or loin.
Or in the case of beef brisket, because you can turn it into corned beef that actually tastes delicious and not at all like something displayed in a huge pile in a supermarket refrigerated display once a year. A brined brisket can also be smoked and steamed into pastrami perfection, but to paraphrase Brown, that’s another article.
The corned beef you’ll see below started like most of my corned beef and pastrami creations of the last few years, with a good size, pasture-raised, 100% Angus brisket from Blackbird Farm (I work with the farm, but certainly wouldn’t work there if I didn’t love their beef). My brine is a combination of ingredients from a few different sources that I’ve played with over the years. When I began to assemble everything, the photograph you see above came into my head and I had to make it (see last photo for exactly what’s what). A few people who’ve seen the photo already have asked why the pink curing salt is still in it’s bag and not in a bowl. That’s because I have a crawling 1-year-old and while it may be an adventure if she gets a hold of a peppercorn or juniper berry, the nitrite should be kept secure (and then I thought the red pepper flakes and tiny mustard seeds were probably a bad idea to let loose on the floor as well). So after making the brine and submerging the brisket for about seven days in the refrigerator, I then had (uncooked) corned beef.
It’s been over twenty years since I’ve had to endure the Dadekian mid-March corned beef. In the meantime, I married an Irish-American girl whose family loves a boiled dinner. So now I happily “corn” a brisket a few times a year and the other night we had a Dadekian mid-March corned beef dinner, complete with boiled potatoes, carrots and onions. My mother-in-law made soda bread so I made rye. Hopefully, my Irish-Armenian-American daughters Brigid and Moira will look forward to it each year.
My photos this month reflect a close-up look at brisket and the striations in this heavily used muscle (kind of the breast of the animal). When cutting brisket, be it corned beef or pastrami or just cooked as it is, it’s recommended to slice across the grain, to get a piece where all those muscle fibers are short and easier to chew.
Also, like my bacon, the brisket never leaves a refrigerator or stove-top, so pink curing salt is not a necessity here. However, if you don’t use pink salt your final boiled corned beef will be more of a gray color than the vibrant red we’ve come to know. I’ve had to get pink salt online at The Spice House. There is now a locally available source, Persimmon Provisions in Barrington, Rhode Island.