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by Jeff Wilkin

Type A To Z

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Features reporter Jeff Wilkin on pop culture

My Irish curse

There’s an old Irish saying: “May you be in heaven a half hour before the Devil knows you’re dead!”

Here’s a new one: “May you be in heaven a half hour, laughing with a beer in your hand, while the Devil endures the hell of eating lousy corned beef at Wilkin's house.”

Daniel Webster beat the Devil with words; if Old Scratch ever visits my Albany headquarters around St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll beat him with indigestion. That’s because I’ll serve him corned beef, a dish I never cook correctly.

He’ll chew slices for 15 minutes, like taffy. He’ll wonder why the reddish-colored meat is stringy and tough. He’ll spit out pieces of fat, throw down his pitchfork in dietary disgust and look at me with anguish: “What in the HELL did you do to ruin this meat?” he’ll scream.

I’ll tell the Old Gentleman the truth. I can’t cook corned beef. I’ve tried for years, and had another mess on my hands Sunday night. Even ketchup could not save the day.

Some people think the Irish curse refers to a weakness for liquor. Not at my house.

I’ve tried boiling and simmering big slabs in large pots; I’ve stuffed the stuff in crock pots. This time around, I tucked the beef into a comfy pocket of aluminum foil, poured in a little beer, a little water and a bunch of spices.

The wrapped package went into a sturdy aluminum cake pan, and I followed directions to bake for about an hour and 40 minutes, 350 degrees. When I took it out, the beef was not completely cooked. So I invested in another 30 minutes of low heat, and was soon enjoying corned beef that had more in common with Bazooka than the Blarney Stone.

My Irish ancestors from County Cork are probably laughing around their fiddles. My grandfather, Frank J. Kane, must be shaking his head sadly in the Great Beyond. Of course, corned beef is more an American invention than an Irish delicacy. But as a fan of tradition, I love a plate of the red beef, cabbage, potatoes and carrots around March 17.

I’ve written stories about the guys at Hibernian halls who cook this stuff. I’ve hung out with chefs at Schenectady County Community College for The Gazette’s “SCCC Kitchen” feature — and have picked up a few culinary tips as a result. Nothing has helped my Irish dish. It has never come out the way restaurants cook the stuff; I used to visit Brandon’s restaurant on Van Vranken Avenue for an Irish lunch. This local spot offered corned beef that just about — and I hate to use the cliche — melted in your mouth. It was that tender.

Other people do not have this problem. “Yeah, I cooked some this weekend,” said Marc Schultz, who takes photographs for this newspaper, and also has had the chance to hobnob with SCCC experts. “Threw it into a crock pot for about eight hours. Melted in your mouth.”

I’m actually a pretty decent bachelor cook. I make a pretty good chili con carne, I’m a cool hand with an omelet pan. My meat loaf and mashed potatoes are in Howard Johnson’s class. Steaks, shrimp and London broil are in my repertoire for the charcoal grill. Potato salad, I’m not too bad here, either. I’m not in Phyllis Sharp’s league (Phyllis is the Greenwich spud sorceress), but I can take my Festival Potato Salad (with paprika, curry and plenty of hard-boiled eggs) to any summer picnic without patrons facing gustatory reprisals in bathroom or bushes.

Next March, my best bet will be a half-pound of deli corned beef at my local Price Chopper. I’ll fix a nice plate of carrots, potatoes, cabbage and warmed up, store-bought corned delicacy. I’ll put “Finnegan’s Wake” on the stereo and a fire in the fireplace.

Still have time, and this plan might go into effect tonight.

I’ll make enough for two ... just in case it’s a slow night in Hell.

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March 17, 2009
10:47 p.m.

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Gotta marinate it first in some nice Irish whiskey. Then, if it still comes out bad, you're too drunk to notice.

March 17, 2009
11:56 p.m.

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Don't get the really lean, flat pieces ... the fattier, irregular chunks tend to come out better. We always do ours the traditional way -- boiled in a big pot with carrots and potatoes (and later a whole head of cabbage cut into quarters).

Or, of course, you could always just go get a Reuben at the Parting Glass. But for heaven's sake, ketchup??? Were you serious about that? That sounds horrible!

March 18, 2009
9:17 a.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Hi Mindy: Ketchup has bailed me out of many a sorry meal, and while I will cover meat loaf, omelets, hash browns, toasted cheese sandwiches, pancakes and cheeseburgers with a sea of red, I cannot bring myself to use Heinz or Hunt's on corned beef. So yes, I was sort of kidding about that.
Kidding about the pancakes, too ...

March 18, 2009
5:23 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Jeff, the answers to your corned beef quandary lie in the amount of time and temperature you're cooking your cut. I'll have to disagree with my compatriot in sports: Whiskey is better drank than marinating a beef that's already pickled. However, Mindy is indeed right: The best type of corned beef you can buy are the "points," which also happen to be the cheapest cuts that are out there(between 99 cents and $1.29 last I checked).

The key to any good braise(and I like to braise instead of boil like some eateries do) is getting a good sear down before you start. Take a chef's knife, carving knife, exact-o knife, or some other sharp blade and 'score' the fat-cap(fat side) of the beef. Make quarter-inch deep cuts parallel to each other and about a half-inch apart. Then do the perpendicular direction as well. You should end up with something that looks a bit like a barbecue cross-hatch. Then use fresh cracked peppercorn to season the outside; this will provide both spice and a small buffer when the meat first touches the pan. Now get a pan ripping hot and sear that sucker for a good 10 to 15 minutes. Once the 'cross-hatch' is browned and slightly crispy, flip it and do the same thing to the other side.

Now you're ready to braise. Take a disposable aluminum roasting pan(these work the best), slap the meat in there with a liberal topping of thick-cut carrots, chopped cabbage and the seasoning packet that comes with the beef. Now take your choice of beer -I routinely use Killians Irish Red -and pour one can or bottle over the beef. Then take two sheets of foil and cover the pan tightly, crimping on the sides(this is why I use disposable pans, because the edges bend a bit creating a real tight seal).

Now you wait. And wait. This is where that whiskey or any left-over beer can come in handy. My corned beef stayed in the oven at 325 degrees for about three to four hours. In the mean time, don't check on it, don't break the foil, don't fuss with it in any way, shape or form. You must keep constant temperature on the meat, otherwise your braise may turnout poorly. What will happen is all the tough fibers in the meat will be broken down, transforming it into a really tender cut. It never fails, especially when that meat is marinated as heavily as corned beef is.

And if in doubt...remember you can always ask your newsroom culinarian for a bit of help...

March 20, 2009
10:38 a.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Thanks dude! I will try your advice soon, and if it works, will cover the next couple Rotterdam zoning board meetings for you ....
Now ... how can I cook crispy, restaurant-style bacon at home!?!

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