I enjoy cooking the dishes that my grandparents and great grandparents before them would have prepared. Salt Beef is an Irish dish that originates from the 1800s and is still traditionally served with boiled cabbage in its cooked form, Corned Beef. Corned Beef in the UK is something different altogether; a compressed lardy lump of what smells and tastes a little like Pedigree Chum dog food. The texture is dry yet greasy and is often served in sandwiches with tomato ketchup. My dogs love it although I would rather have my sandwich empty than filled with tinned corned beef.
In the US, the Americans have embraced the Irishness of the dish (many of them of Irish immigrant blood) and still serve it as part of St Patrick's Day celebrations. But it is also served in the form of Pastrami (after the meat has gone through the process of being seasoned heavily with black pepper and then smoked) which is thinly sliced and served in delicious sandwiches. I suppose that the thought of salting meat is a bit daunting but when you actually break down what you need to do - rub salt in meat, leave for 10 days, turning once a day - it is so easy that you'll wonder why you don't have a constant supply of it!
As an experiment, I used a tiny piece of silverside (0.7kg) which was, fortuitously, on offer at the supermarket. Obviously, I then had to roughly cut down the spices by two thirds to accomodate. You will also see that the rub contains saltpetre which you can't buy at your local chemist or supermarket any longer (due to it being a rather effective explosive and possible carcinogen). I bought a ready prepared dry cure mix online from SausageMaking.org who also sell pure saltpetre. In short though, the saltpetre is used purely for cosmetic reasons - it keeps the meat looking pink and, to some, more appetising. It is not essential and if you'd rather not use it, either because you just can't get it or because of health concerns, then just omit it.
As I am only on Day 2 of the salting process, I only have a picture of the meat covered in the salty-sweet rub. It is an amazing process to watch. The meat goes from the familiar pomegranate raw red to a rich dark brown, as if already cooked. The salt and sugar draws out liquid from the meat, thereby inhibiting the growth of micro-organisms that would cause the meat to spoil. You need to use a 20% mix of salt to ensure that this osmosis takes place and that all of the bacteria is killed off.
I am terribly excited about the finished article but still 8 days to go!
I found this recipe online at TheFoodie.com who have a whole host of wonderful, old fashioned British recipes. Because this is only a rub, you can easily halve the ingredients to suit your wallet (or appetite). This would be wonderful to turn out on Boxing Day to great fanfare as you proudly announce "I salted this beef myself!"
SALT (CORNED) BEEF
2.7kg (6lb) Beef Brisket, lean
285g (10oz) Coarse Salt
4 tbsp Soft Brown Sugar
2 tbsp Black Peppercorns, coarsely crushed
1 tbsp Coriander Seeds, coarsely crushed
10 Juniper Berries, crushed
1 tsp Saltpetre (optional)
1 Bay Leaf, crushed
½ tbsp Ground Mace
½ tbsp Ground Ginger
½ tbsp Whole Cloves, crushed
Place the beef in a ceramic or plastic container (metal would be unsuitable), rub half of the salt well into the beef. I used a tupperware style sandwich box.
Cover the container with clingfilm and refrigerate for 12 hours, turning once. It is advisable to do this procedure in the evening so it is ready for you in the morning, although I did forget to turn the meat but it didn't seem to cause any adverse side-effects (that I can tell so far!).
Remove the meat from the container, rinse and dry well with kitchen towels. The salt will have leached quite a lot of liquid from the beef, just pour this all away.
Grind together all the spices until a rough mix is formed, it doesn't have to be a powder, than add the salt and saltpetre, mixing well.
Rub the mixture into the beef, ensuring its whole area is covered. This feels so therapeutic to do, although it takes ages to clean you hands afterwards! Don't be afraid to massage the mix deep in to the beef, after all, as well as salting it, you want it to infuse with the deep flavours of the spices.
Place the beef into the cleaned container.
Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for 10 days, turning over once a a day and re-applying any of the spice mixture that has sunk to the bottom of the container.
After 10 days, remove from the refrigerator, rinse well.
Place into a saucepan containing simmering unsalted water.
Simmer gently for 3-3½ hours or until tender.
Serve hot with boiled cabbage and wintery vegetables or turn into corned beef hash by mixing with some fried onions and diced potatoes. Just to reiterate: there is no corn in Corned Beef. The term is derived from an old American reference to large grains of salt as 'corn', hence salted beef have 'corns' of salt embedded in it.
This would also be delicious served cold in sandwiches or part of a ploughmans lunch perhaps or eaten, caveman or cavewoman style, by ripping off great big hunks and dipping into mustard...