I am a recovering vegetarian. My 10 year plant-fueled career spanned my formative cooking years. I became a whiz with all things vegetal, but was robbed of a decent knowledge base of meat preparation. Since adding meat back to my diet about 5 years ago, I've had to learn what to do with it. When I decided to eat meat again, I promised myself I would go all out, saving bones to make broth and not cringing at the sight of tendons and fat. But at times I'm at a total loss, and somewhat intimidated by meat. Hand me a rutabaga, and I'm a pro. Hand me a gorgeous cut of meat, and I have to sit and think for a minute (or 10).
I've been trying branch out of my turkey burger/roasted chicken/baked salmon rut. In the last year or so, I've had a growing fascination with charcuterie. I've wanted to learn to cure meats and make sausages and do all that stuff! Salty, smoky, cured meat is my weakness. I know, I know - it's high in fat, it's high in sodium, it often contains nitrates, blah blah blah. I don't care. I love it. I splurge on really high quality cured meats and relish every bite. Everyone needs a vice. And besides, with all the dietary restrictions and lifestyle changes I've had to make the last three years, if I can eat bacon and sausage and speck and chorizo and not get a bellyache, I'm going to do it. And enjoy it shamelessly.
To support my salty meat habit, I recently got a great book: Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. This book is the ultimate guide for the home cook interested in salting, smoking, and curing their own meats. Shortly after getting the book, I saw that Mrs. Wheelbarrow and The Yummy Mummy were hosting a year-long blog event called Charcutepalooza: A Year of Meat. Not only does that sound like fun, it also is using Charcuterie as a guide! Perfect. The challenge this month was to make something brined, and I opted for the advanced challenge of making my own corned beef. The perfect inspiration to learn, play, and indulge my meaty curiosity.
My former vegetarian self is cowering somewhere in a corner.
Let me tell you about my experience. I used the recipe from Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, with a few small tweaks. I am not posting the recipe here; if you want it, I highly recommend buying a copy of the book. It is worth every penny.
My beef came from Grass Run Farm. I met the founder of Grass Run Farm a few years ago; he was giving samples of his grass-fed beef at the co-op, and I took the opportunity to chat. We talked about our experiences at our shared alma mater Luther College, the beautiful land of the Oneota River Valley, and of course, his beef. When it came time to order my brisket for the corned beef recipe, I was excited to order from the butcher, knowing that I'd be receiving beef very likely raised by a man I've actually met who loves and respects his cattle.
I was nothing but wildly impressed with my order. The brisket was beautiful; the meat was vibrant red, wonderfully marbled with white fat. I gave thanks to the animal from whence it came. I followed the recipe in Charcuterie, with a few small tweaks. I was a little intimidated about brining meat, but I've brined pretty much everything else, so it was about time I enter the world of brined animal flesh. I wanted to do right by the animal. I wanted this brisket to turn out, and share it with people who could enjoy both my preparation and the high quality of the beef. When you have a good product, it's easier to get a good result.
Making the brine smelled wonderful; my kitchen filled with the aroma of spices. I cooled it, then added the meat. then I let it sit in my refrigerator for a week. Every time I opened the fridge, it greeted me. Slowly the meat turned a dark grey-brown color, and the brine darkened.
After a week, it was time to cook it. When I removed it from the brine, the meat was firm, a sold block of salty, spiced flesh. I rinsed it, and added it to a pot with aromatic vegetables and more pickling spice, and just enough water to cover it. My kitchen smelled incredible while it cooked, and my housemates kept coming through the kitchen asking, "Is it done?". I didn't trust the long cooking time, I was so afraid to overcook it and end up with a leather boot. I trusted the advice from Charcuterie, kept the heat low, and just hoped it would work. And you know what? It did! After three hours, I had a brisket that was fork tender. When I sliced into the meat, I revealed a bright pink interior, moist but firm, flavorful and well-spiced. Wow.
As I've eaten slices of the beef the last week, I've taken the time to appreciate the time and effort that went into the process of raising the animal, butchering it, and preparing it with care. My housemate and I ate it hot and cold, often with homemade sauerkraut and freshly grated horseradish. I saved the brine, and let the fat rise to the top, and used the solidified fat for cooking. It has a wonderful salty, spicy flavor that is wonderful for sauteing just about anything. And the salty brine can be used to moisten the beef like an au jus, added to the pan for cooking greens or other foods - the flavor it adds is incredible. As I write this, I am finishing a breakfast of Corned Beef and Sweet Potato Hash. And I'm going to take the rest of it to a St. Patrick's Day potluck at work on Thursday. I'm excited to share it with my co-workers, with some homemade sauerkraut on the side.
I taste love in this corned beef.
My corned beef post from last month was featured by Food52 as one of the ten best blog posts for the March brining challenge. I'm honored! I adore Food52 and admire the work of the other bloggers featured in their round up, so I was thrilled to be mentioned. Be sure to check out Food52's recap of the challenge for all the great posts from the March challenge!