My 96 year old grandmother, Margaret Banner Lessner, is a third generation Irish Catholic, she spent her life in Chicago until recently. She has enjoyed mostly good health her entire life. Her diet in her 90+ years has been exclusively red meat and old-fashioneds. She doesn’t like vegetables but will tolerate the very occasional bite of potato if it is cooked in beef juices. And sweets, any sweets. She turns 97 next month, and her mind is as sharp as it’s ever been despite her increasing age-related ailments like foot neuropathy and increasing hearing/vision loss.
My grandmother served us corned beef and cabbage year round, it was a family staple. I remember a big platter of corned beef on her best Irish belleek serving dish at her home in Chicago. She always had a stack of white bread on a plate with soft, room temperature butter on the side. On special occasions, she made Irish soda bread dotted with raisins. She would pour herself and the adults glasses of bourbon on ice (she called it bourbon and water, presumably because technically, the ice cubes are water) and us kids got glasses of whole milk after dinner. The adults sipped bourbon freely before and during dinner then switched to weak cups of Folgers coffee with their dessert.
When me and my siblings went vegetarian in our teen years, Gram would serve us potatoes and cabbage soaked in beef broth. She never did grasp the concept of vegetarianism, it was a baffling and deeply disappointing concept to her.
I never liked corned beef growing up or any red meat really, but it was a staple at both my grandmothers who grew up in the Depression era. Beef meant health and prosperity to both of them and both of them did end up enjoying good lives. Every year since I’ve been an adult, I make corned beef around St. Patrick’s Day and think of them.
Irish grandmothers are born with corned beef making skills in their DNA. I remember calling my grandmother as a vegetarian college student asking how to make corned beef, there were never any recipes. She’d rattle off butcher cuts and to me, she was speaking another language.
Since then, I’ve learned you can brine your own beef and create your own pickling spice, exactly to your liking.
My recipe is nothing like I grew up eating but the smell of it cooking triggers the same feelings of family and warmth to me.
My grandma Marge turns 97 next month. If you’d like to send her a birthday card, you can send one online to her: http://www.wesleyglen.com/care_cards, just send it to Margaret Lessner. My goal is 97 cards by April 21, you can help us get there! Her caregivers read her mail to her and as her friends all pass away, there’s less and less mail for her each year.
Corned Beef & Cabbage (my version takes a week)
Brine (5-8 days for best flavor):
2 c kosher salt
1/2 c pink curing salt (yes, nitrites, you need them here)
1/2 c brown sugar
5 T pickling spices (recipe below)
~1 gallon water
1-2 cans or bottles of beer (I like lager, but Irish stout works too)
5 cloves peeled garlic
5 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
This is the magical part. Have fun here, experiment how you like.
We want ~5 T total of pickling spice, I use ~1 t ea of: mustard seeds, cardamom pods, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, whole cloves, star anise, carraway seeds, peppercorns (any color), ground ginger, coriander seeds, celery seeds, allspice berries, and whatever else I have around including cumin and garam masala. Mix & match, add and subtract ingredients to your liking.
1 3-5# beef brisket
3# red potatoes, quartered
1 head cabbage, cored & quartered
2 carrots, peeled & cut into 1 in pieces
1 onion, quartered
3 peeled cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
5-8 days ahead:
1) Put ~3 T of the pickling spices in a large pot and heat to medium until it’s aromatic and the mustard seeds begin to pop. You’ll begin to smell when the essential oils start to release and become fragrant
2) Add brine ingredients and heat to a boil
3) Remove from heat, cool, then refrigerate until well chilled
4) Place beef in a pan and cover with the brine. If beef floats, weigh it down with something heavy, like a bowl
5) Refrigerate 5-8 days, turning the beef every day or every other day to evenly brine
1) Remove beef from brine and rinse with cold water
2) Place beef in a large pot and pour 2 cans/bottles of beer and enough water to fully cover the beef
3) Add 2 T of the remaining pickling spice
4) Add bay leaves and garlic cloves
5) Bring to a boil then lower heat to medium low and cook while covered for 3 hours
6) After 3 hours, add cabbage, carrots, and potatoes, cover and cook another 30-60 mins until beef is fork tender and veggies are cooked
Remove from heat, allow the beef a few minutes to rest, then slice the beef against the grain. Serve with the veggies on the side and a little of the beef broth over all of it. We always slathered our beef with Dijon mustard, or you can mix equal parts Dijon mustard & sour cream for a creamier and milder mustard sauce. We sopped ours up with white bread, I recommend something grainy instead.
Corned beef & cabbage is an Irish American tradition, not something they do in Ireland. I’ll be serving it at Jury Room & Betty’s on March 17th. Tip Top usually has it too. And Tonya is making a hot dog at Dirty Frank’s West topped w/ corned beef & Swiss. Sorry, no green beer.
“Grandmothers hold their children’s hands for just a little while…
And their hearts forever.”
My grandmother Marge & her sister Rosemary last July, enjoying chocolate cake & old fashioneds. Rosemary also has an aversion to all vegetables and enjoys longevity and health on a similar lifelong beef & bourbon diet: <<br />