For the longest time, I considered corned beef a "mystery meat," akin to bologna or summer sausage. Thinly sliced and neatly stacked behind glass deli counters, the scarlet-hued flesh seemed at home betwixt processed honey ham and smoked turkey breast.
So imagine my surprise when, as sometimes happens while surfing the Internet, I stumbled upon a reality-warping epiphany: corned beef can be made at home.
Cue the cartoon light bulb above my head.
Growing up in the Shoberg household, corned beef was a cut of meat primarily purchased for special occasions, especially in March around St. Patrick's Day. Once in a while, mom would get the urge and buy some out of the blue. More often than not, corned beef was as much a seasonal meal as Turkey at Thanksgiving or ham at Easter.
But now that I could make corned beef myself, it was like a new world of gastronomical delight suddenly materialized. Think of the possibilities. For starters, corned beef did not need to be relegated to one month of the year. In fact, and in a seemingly unprecedented fashion, making corned meat - a process referred to as corning - is not even all that difficult.
In fact, compared to some painstaking sausage recipes I've tackled, corning beef is downright easy.
Now, a fairly diluted amount of Irish blood runs through these veins, but ask my great-great aunt Joyce about it, and that wee-bit-o-green trumps all the German, Norwegian and Swedish combined. Maybe that's why I find Irish cuisine so delicious, especially in the form of that perfect purveyor of the aforementioned cold cut: the Reuben.
Debate may ensue as to whether a Reuben actually can be considered Irish victual, however. Aside from the rye loaf and corned beef, not much else Emerald Isle is present between those slices of bread. The sandwich itself is a venerable cross-continent culinary conglomerate, what with the Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing.
Come to think of it, the Reuben is an ideal sandwich for mixed-origin mutts, such as myself. Maybe that's why they taste so darn good, too; the Reuben idealizes the very "melting pot" mentality that built this great country we call home.
And better still, corning other meats can lead to some delightful experimentation. For starters, venison is out-of-this-world delicious, as my wife and I discovered after corning a two-pound venison roast from the doe I harvested last fall. One bite from the ensuing Reuben - made with still-steaming slices of corned venison, tangy sauerkraut, rye bread, gooey Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing - and we concluded that corned venison needed to become as much a part of our rotational recipes as stroganoff and kabobs.
Something to think about, especially with St. Patrick's day this weekend.
4-6 pounds of venison (explained below)
5 tablespoons Morton's Tender Quick meat cure (should be in the grocery aisle with the salt)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon bay leaf powder (also explained below).
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons garlic powder
As with most curing processes, corning meat has a tendency of making it tender. Therefore, for the venison, I like to use some of the tougher hunks of roast and save the good stuff for other meals. I've yet to get a four-pound roast off of a deer, but most are in the two-pound range. Therefore, you can utilize two roasts that, when combined, weigh four to six pounds.
Make sure the venison roasts are thawed and patted semi-dry. You want them a bit tacky so the rub adheres, but not so wet that there's a puddle of spice underneath afterward. Also, do a quick scan of the meat and cut off any undesirable bits (i.e. fat, silver skin, cartilage or bone, etc.) that may have been overlooked during the butchering process.
As far as the bay leaf powder is concerned, I haven't found it at the local grocery store. That said, we never seem to have a shortage of whole bay leaves in the pantry, so making some powder isn't all that difficult.
I like to either grind up a half dozen leaves with a mortar and pestle, or throw the lot into a coffee grinder or small food processor. You're not looking for bay leaf "flour" here, just break them up as best you can so they evenly distribute over the meat when you lay the rub on. On that note, it takes quite a few bay leaves to make a teaspoon of ground product. Start with six leaves and go from there. If you're a bit over or a bit under that teaspoon mark, it isn't going to hurt a bit.
Now, mix all the dry ingredients together and evenly coat the roast or roasts. In all likelihood, you will have leftover rub. It's a shame to waste it, so after the rub is applied, place the meat in a zip-top bag and add in the remaining rub. Seal the bag, shake up the whole works, and then place the bag in the refrigerator to cure.
As a general rule, it will take five days to cure a two-inch hunk of meat, turning the bag once a day. My last roast was a big, round thing, and even after seven days it tasted delicious, even though I didn't stick to the "five days for two inches" rule. While longer may be better, cure at least five to seven days in a pinch.
When you're ready to cook, place the roasts in a kettle only slightly bigger than the roasts themselves. Barely cover with water and boil three to four hours, or until tender. Check the water level frequently and add some to account for evaporation.
If you're using wild game, note that this corning process is going to give you a much drier product than fattier animals. If you're planning to eat a hunk of corned venison with a side of potatoes and cabbage, do it straight from the pot. Leftovers will be much drier, and are best left for corned-venison hash or, my favorite, Reubens.