Irish borscht

by Ari LeVaux

a funny holiday is observed on March 17 in Suffolk County, Mass. (which includes Boston). Green ink was used to sign this holiday into law, and lots of Irish people and their friends celebrate it by drinking copious amounts of beer and whiskey.

I’m referring to Evacuation Day, marking the day during the Revolutionary War when the British redcoats retreated from Boston. To some Irish, saying goodbye to a Brit is legitimate cause for celebration, but native Massholes like me have known since first grade that Evacuation Day is just a clever ruse to get the day off to public workers who would otherwise have called in sick. That’s because, not coincidentally, St. Patrick’s Day – which was denied holiday status – also falls on March 17.

You don’t have to be Irish to enjoy the official food of my hometown’s unofficial public holiday. In fact, back in Ireland, the dish is mainly prepared for export and tourists. But in the U.S., corned beef has become a genuine part of American culture, dating back to the times when Irish and Jewish people shared the low-rent districts of East Coast cities. They ate a lot of corned beef, though some called it brisket or smoked meat.

Brining meat in salt water is an age-old preservation method. The word “corned” refers to the large grains, or “corns,” of salt. Corned beef and cabbage, which often contains potatoes, onions and carrots, was a dish you could make at the end of winter in the days before refrigeration. Today, it’s a meal that makes sense for hoarders trying to make the most of the dregs of last year’s harvest.

While beef is most often the recipient of corning, the process works on other meats – the tougher the better. Most of the meat I eat is wild game, the strong taste of which is tamed by a good corning. I mention this because corning your wild meat might be a good way to sneak it into otherwise unappreciative mouths. And for those who are into wild game, corned venison is a treasure. The corned wild game recipe I use comes from an excellent book called Dressing and Cooking Wild Game.


2-3 lbs brisket, flank or shoulder roast, no thicker than 1 inch.

2 quarts spring or distilled water

1 cup canning and pickling salt (or, if you want the typical pink color that preservatives give to the meat, use ½ cup pickling salt and ½ cup tenderizing salt)

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons mixed pickling spices

2 bay leaves

8 whole black peppercorns

1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced

Roll the meat with kitchen string if you want to be fancy, and place it in a glass or ceramic bowl. Combine remaining ingredients in a saucepan and heat to a boil. Remove, allow the brine to cool, and pour it over the meat. Cover and refrigerate four-five days, checking to ensure the meat is fully submerged. Drain and rinse with cold water.

To prepare corned meat and cabbage, bring a pot of water with a chunk of corned meat to a boil. Change the water, and boil again. Reduce heat and simmer until the meat is tender – three-five hours for most cuts. Then, and only then, add carrots, potatoes and onions if you wish. Simmer for half an hour, and then add cabbage, sliced or cut into wedges. Half an hour later, it’s ready.

It’s a good idea to prepare more than what you think you will eat for lunch and dinner on March 17, in order to leave leftoverfor hash the following morning.

Cook leftover potatoes in the pan with safflower oil. Add corned beef and chopped onions. Toss leftover corned meat with fried potatoes, on low heat. Take your time, and let the corned beef develop a crisp. Meanwhile, make scrambled eggs in a separate pan, erring on the side of undercooked. Toss it all together, seasoned with salt and pepper, and serve with coffee. It will probably chase away your post-Evacuation Day blues.

Of course, you might still call in sick. And in Boston, rest assured they will. Especially this year, with the public holiday falling on a Thursday.

Corned beef may not be any more Irish than the Irish Curse, but it remains a celebration of Irish culture nonetheless, just like St. Patrick’s Day. And whether you call it St. Paddy’s Day, Evacuation Day, or, as we did in high school, Ejaculation Day, it’s a great day to eat corned meat and cabbage. •



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