Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Massachusetts II - It's not just for St. Patrick's Day anymore

Apart from WASPs and Germans, Irish comprise the largest ethnicity in the United States.  And thanks to what seems like every other boxing or bank-robbing movie to come out of Hollywood over the past five years, Massachusetts - specifically Boston - is very Irish.

Official Name: Commonwealth of Massachusetts
State Nicknames: The Bay State
Admission to the US: February 6, 1788 (#6)
Boston (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Worcester (2nd largest); Springfield (3rd largest); Cambridge (5th largest)
New England, Northeast; New England (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Clambake; Maple Syrup
Bordered by:
Vermont, New Hampshire (north); New York (west); Connecticut, Rhode Island (south); Atlantic Ocean (south and east)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: cranberry juice (beverage); cod (fish); wild turkey (game bird); baked navy bean (bean); cranberry (berry); Boston cream pie (dessert); chocolate chip cookie (cookie); Boston cream donut (donut)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: New England foods, in particular Boston-specific foods such as: Boston cream pie, Boston baked beans, Boston brown bread; "New England" clam chowder; Irish, Italian and Portuguese ethnic dishes; codfish cakes, lobster rolls and other New England seafood dishes; cranberries and blueberries

Boston, like other parts of Massachusetts, is home not just to a very large Irish-American population but also many Italian- and Portuguese-Americans.  But I often think of the Irish - my people, my people! - when I think of Beantown.  Of course, Boston baked beans are not typical Irish food.  Boiled meats are, and one of the most significant Irish contributions to American cuisine is corned beef and cabbage - or as it is known in New England, the boiled dinner.

Mind you, corned beef and cabbage isn't exactly "Irish food" - it's "Irish-American".  The boiled meats in Ireland, often boiled with cabbage and other vegetables, may be beef, or they may be ham.  The Irish Culture and Customs website busts this well-heeled American myth about Irish culture.  For one thing, the Irish only started eating a lot of beef in the past century, since most Irish were too poor to use cows for anything other than their milk.  Their meat of choice was more often pork - a much more accessible meat.  So why did diaspora Irish eat so much beef?  The website gives an answer:

...It was in the late 19th century that it began to take root. When the Irish emigrated to America and Canada, where both salt and meat were cheaper, they treated beef the same way they would have treated a "bacon joint" at home in Ireland: they soaked it to draw off the excess salt, then braised or boiled it with cabbage, and served it in its own juices with only minimal spicing - may be a bay leaf or so, and some pepper.

This dish, which still turns up on some Irish tables at Easter, has become familiar to people of Irish descent as the traditional favorite to serve on Saint Patrick’s Day. Certainly, there will be many restaurants in Ireland that will be serving Corned Beef and Cabbage on March 17th , but most of them will be doing so just to please the tourists.  [Haggerty 2011]
I have made many a corned beef and cabbage in my life, but I have almost never boiled it.  I'm much more used to roasting or slow cooking it.  So this boiled dinner is a pretty new concept for me - an entire dinner, boiled.  This is also true for my very not-New-England family.  My Italian-American grandmother's recipe for corned beef and cabbage (certainly made for my Irish-American grandfather) was covered in wonderful brown sugar and mustard, and baked in the oven.  You can't boil it while covered in brown sugar and mustard.

I'm not really one for boiling things. Maybe it's a Baltimore thing, I dunno.

The Recipe: New England Boiled Dinner / Corned Beef and Cabbage

There are many recipes for corned beef and cabbage, boiled dinner-style.  The one I ended up using comes from Marcia Passos Duffy on "The Heart of New England" website.  True, the site focuses on Upper New England and not Massachusetts, but this one was one of the simpler recipes that had many of the ingredients I had on hand.  I could have gone the next step and actually corned the beef myself, but I didn't feel like putting out the extra effort.  That and I would have needed an entire week to corn the beef on my own.  Maybe some other time.  If you are interested in trying, check out Annie's Corned Beef and Cabbage from the March 2010 edition of Yankee Magazine.  Passos Duffy, on the other hand, uses pre-corned beef like the rest of us.

Passos Duffy's corned beef and cabbage recipe calls for a 4 to 5 pound brisket.  I scaled it down for the 3 pounder I found at Harris Teeter.

* corned beef brisket (You know those St. Patrick's Day sales in the supermarket where you can find corned beef brisket for 99¢ per lb?  Well it's not St. Patrick's Day for another six months.  I found it "cheap" at Harris Teeter for $4 per lb - a 2 1/2 lb brisket for around $11)
* cabbage (this will usually run you a buck a pound at least outside of March.  Fortunately, there was just enough cabbage in my garden untouched by those damned Harlequin bugs to use for this project.  It was all itty bitty cabbage, but it was still cabbage)
* carrots (I got these from my garden plot, too.  They got big)
* potatoes and onions (bought both for between $1 and $1.50 per lb)
* dried thyme, dried basil leaves, and bay leaf (had them all)
* mustard seeds and coriander seeds (these are not in the recipe, but I wanted to add them myself, especially since mustard seeds often show up in those little throwaway herb and spice packages that come with most corned beef briskets)
* water, for boiling

Before all else, soak the corned beef brisket in water for at least 30 minutes to leach out the extra salt.

When ready, cover the brisket in water in a large pot or Dutch oven, and add the herbs and spices.

Passos Duffy quotes a cookbook from 1845, Esther Allen Howard's The New England Economic Housekeeper, in which Howard makes sure you remember to skim the scum as it boils to the top.  Do this occasionally for the next three hours, which is how long you need to boil the meat.  Do this until "fork tender".

Next, add all of the vegetables except for the cabbage, and boil for 30 minutes.

Halfway through the boiling of the other vegetables, add the cabbage.  Continue to boil for another 15 minutes

Scoop out the vegetables and take out the brisket.  Slice and serve.

As I said before, I usually never boil meat.  I found this version surprisingly tasty.  I had figured that the flavor would be leeched out by the boiling process, but not at all.  I quickly finished this up, and I must say it lasted a while.  I made these Massachusetts recipes just before Hurricane Irene struck a few weeks ago, and when my power went out for almost two days, this was one of the things that hadn't spoiled by the time the lights went back on (by the way, heating it for 250°F for 40 minutes works just fine in a power outage - ah, but microwaves have made us forget how to heat things up in the oven).  Far from having the flavors of the meat and vegetables washed out, this dish ended up being juicier and more flavorful overall.  Additionally, it's difficult to dry this out when it's completely submerged in water. I often have that drying out problem when I roast it.


Dojny, Brooke.  The New England Cookbook: 350 Recipies from Town and Country, Land and Sea, Hearth and Home.  Also available in part on Google Books.  Harvard Common Press: Boston, 1999.

Gand, Gale.  "Boston Cream Pie".   Featured on the episode "Desserts from the Yankee Kitchen" of the show Sweet Dreams (Gale Gand, host).  Food Network, 2011.

Haggerty, Bridget. "Corned Beef & Cabbage - The Feeding of A Myth".  From the Irish Culture and Customs website, copyright 2001-2011.  All rights reserved.

Passos Duffy, Marcia.  "New England Boiled Dinner (Corned Beef & Cabbage)"  From The Heart of New England website, copyright 2004-2011.  All rights reserved.

Shields, John. Coastal Cooking with John Shields (the Companion Cookbook to the Public Television Series).  Broadway Books: Portland, Oregon, 2004. 

Yankee Magazine. "Annie's Corned Beef and Cabbage". From "Meat Recipes", March 2010. Copyright 2011 Yankee Magazine.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Massachusetts" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Massachusetts".