In the USA, nothing reminds us of St. Patrick's Day and the Irish more than corned beef.
But the truth behind this delightfully pink cured meat, which is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, might surprise you.
When I was little, I thought that there must be corn in corned beef, but it is not so. Corn, which means grain in Old English, refers to the large grains of rock salt used to cure the meat (and is also the origin of our name for corn, the yellow vegetable).
If you cook corned beef without first brining it in a solution containing sodium nitrite (pink rock salt), it will be gray (and lack some of the distinctive flavor we associate with corned beef). Gray corned beef brined in regular kosher or rock salt will do in a pinch (or if you're wary of nitrites), but if you're craving the real deal, sodium nitrite is the way to go.
Corned beef has been made in Ireland for hundreds of years, but it wasn't regularly eaten by the Irish themselves. In Ireland, cows were mainly used to produce dairy and to do field work. The British, however, had a taste for beef, and as the demand for beef grew, they outsourced the cattle raising to Ireland. The Irish raised the beef, turned it into corned beef (which was nonperishable due to the salt), then exported it to the British and later the Americas.
In Ireland, pork was and is the most popular meat. Beef was a delicacy and too expensive for people to eat on a regular basis. But when Irish immigrants came to the USA, the opposite was true. Here, the pork joints the Irish were used to consuming were much more expensive or not available in the same cuts. Jewish corned beef brisket was much more affordable and had a similar meaty, salty flavor as the pork back home. It soon became an Irish-American favorite that's still being enjoyed in our country today.
In Ireland, a more traditional St. Patrick's Day meal would be lamb or bacon.
Abe Lincoln had corned beef, cabbage and potatoes served at his inauguration meal, which took place in March. Back then, preserved meats like corned beef were salted and brined over the winter, then eaten in the spring. Little did Honest Abe know that his meal of choice would become so popular over the next 150 or so years!
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