Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Anticipating St. Paddy's Day with Locally Corned Beef

When Richie Vought was a kid growing up in National City, he used to visit his dad's workplace, Stan Glenn's meat palace in Chula Vista. Two memories stand out: the hot dogs that Glenn used to give away to kids and the line of wooden barrels in a corner of the walk-in cooler in the back, all holding large pieces of meat brining into corned beef.

Decades later, Vought, a second generation meat cutter (Dad was a meat cutter and Mom was a "butcherette" during World War II), is master meat cutter at Iowa Meat Farms, working under Glenn. And, those barrels? They're no longer wood, instead your basic 32-gallon plastic trash cans, but inside is the beginning of a most delicious corned beef based on years of playing around with the brining recipe to replicate those flavors Vought remembers. Iowa Meat Farms and its sister shop, Siesel's Meats, sell between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of corned beef a year, mostly around St. Patrick's Day but they do carry it year round.

Corned beef got its name because the beef was preserved with coarse grains--or corns--of salt, going back hundreds of years before refrigeration. The technique could also be applied to pork. Brining has since replaced salt cures, but the name remains. Now, is it truly an Irish dish when paired with cabbage? The website Irish Cultures and Customs provides research that they say shows that it's about as Irish as spaghetti and meatballs; beef was just too pricey and pork was the preferred meat, particularly bacon joints. Irish immigrants to the U.S. found that beef was cheaper than in the mother country. But the newcomers treated the beef in the same way they did the bacon joints, soaking off the excess salt, and then boiling or braising the meat with cabbage.

At Iowa Meat Farms, the process begins with trimming the large brisket of excess fat and separating the two overlapping muscles--the round and the deckle, or point.

The round (left) and the deckle, or point of the brisket
Then they prepare a salt brine that includes sodium nitrate, phosphate, pink salt, sugar, pickling spices, garlic, and water. In go the pieces of meat with the brine into those containers to brine for six weeks. This breaks down the muscle and lets the meat absorb the brine's flavors.

This is one of 10 barrels in the cooler at Iowa Meat Farms, each holding about 350 pounds of meat, and weighted down by water-filled containers.
Once the meat comes out of the brine it's ready for cooking. Here's what you do:

1. Place the meat in a pot, with just enough water to cover. If you want, you can add a few fresh cloves a garlic, but that's really it.

2. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender. Tender = inserting a fork into the meat and trying to lift it out. If the meat comes up with the fork, it's still not ready. If it falls off immediately, it's done. Vought tells me that it should take about three hours for a two-and-a-half-pound point and two hours for a five-pound piece of round.

3. If you like to boil vegetables to accompany the corned beef, Iowa Meat Farms suggests that you cook the meat first and keep it warm in a low oven, covered with foil. Then layer the vegetables--potatoes, carrots, cabbage--into a pot with the potatoes on the bottom, covered by the carrots and then the cabbage. Then strain enough of the cooking liquid into the pot to cover the carrots. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer, and cook until tender--perhaps 30 to 45 minutes.

The round, cooked and ready for slicing into a sandwich.
The point, also cooked, and perfect accompanied by boiled cabbage and potatoes, slathered in Irish butter. Be sure to cut against the grain.
Alternatively, you can cook the meat in an oven, placing it in a covered roaster and adding enough boiling water to nearly cover the meat. Tightly cover the roaster and place in a 350-degree oven. It should take roughly the same amount of time to cook. This is a good method if you have a particularly large piece of meat.

Now for serving. The smooth round makes for wonderful sandwiches. I pulled out a couple of slices of rye bread, slathered them with deli mustard mixed with horseradish and had a delicious lunch. At the shop, the folks used the point for their sandwiches and they looked equally good.

Vought told me his favorite way of preparing corned beef for his family is to blend together French's yellow mustard, a couple of teaspoons of horseradish, and honey. Then he smears it over the top of the cooked corned beef and runs it under the broiler for about three minutes. You pull it out just as it starts to bubble and glaze. Let it cool, then slice and serve with cabbage, boiled potatoes, and butter.

Iowa Meat Farms will have its first batch of corned beef ready March 9 and they're holding their 2nd Annual Barrel Festival to offer tasting the next day, March 10, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at both their store and Siesel's Meats.

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