St. Patrick’s Day is a pretty big deal in our house.
The Curmudgeon starts playing Irish folk songs once March rolls around, imploring me to stop vacuuming so I can hear the words to his new favorite song on his omnipresent I-Phone. It may have something to do with the fact that he’s 100 percent Irish, but I like to think it’s because we started dating after a St. Patrick’s Day party 39 years ago.
We co-hosted the party in his apartment for a group of newspaper co-workers, including a young woman from Chile who’d been interning as a photographer. It was primarily a going away party for her, but we served corned beef and cabbage because it coincided with the holiday.
As I recall, I did most of the work while the Curmudgeon holed himself up in a bathroom with the phone, talking to a girl he was foolishly dating instead of me. Though he quickly came to his senses, he still has a knack for making himself scarce when we’re hosting big parties. He can usually be found in the shower just as guests are about to ring the bell no matter how much I beg him to dress earlier.
We won’t be hosting a big St. Patrick’s Day party this year because of Covid 19, but there was a time when it was the social event of the year for us. For many years, we invited everyone we knew – and some we didn’t that well – to our house for a traditional feast of corned beef, potatoes and cabbage. For me, it was a celebration that winter was over and spring was here, though more than one party was accompanied by snow.
There were some years we wondered if we could afford to throw the party. One year the party began without us because the Curmudgeon was dizzy and ended up in the emergency room due to dehydration.
My sister and her husband filled in for us as hosts while we were at the ER, slipping into the role with ease. While we were there, I received a call from the babysitter telling me that our dog had toppled five corned beefs cooling on the counter to the floor, devouring two and leaving the other three pierced with shards of glass.
When I got off the phone and told the Curmudgeon what had happened, the ER doctor said, “I’m sorry, but you really are having a shi—ty day.” At one point, it was suggested that the Curmudgeon stay in the hospital with an IV drip, but he commented, “If I don’t get out of here, she’s going to kill me so you better just let me leave.” He did, promising to drink gallons of Gatorade instead of beer that night.
One of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had is driving up to my house and seeing a party in full swing. No one noticed we were missing, or if they did, didn’t much care. All I really wanted to do was have everyone leave so I could go to bed, but it was still early so I rallied.
And then there was the year we wondered if we had the emotional energy to host it. It was 2004 and my mother-in-law had just died from Lou Gehrig’s disease, ending a six-month battle that began innocuously the previous summer with fatigue.
We didn’t feel like hosting the party, but had sent out the invitations weeks before her death. We wondered if we could send out something canceling the party, figuring everyone would understand. And then we decided that she would want us to have it because before it was our party, it was her party. For everyone else, it was our usual St. Patrick’s Day party. For us, it was an Irish wake, a way to honor a loved one by remembering the good times.
For years, she invited family and friends to her house for corned beef and cabbage, serving the most tender slices of corned beef I’ve ever tasted with spicy mustard and homemade horseradish sauce. My biggest dilemma in those days was coming up with a good green blouse to wear because she did everything, never asking for any help.
Though she often disparaged her cooking – “I don’t know how to time it so everything comes out at the same time,” she’d complain – she was a master when it came to corned beef. She knew to buy the lean “flat” cut, leaving the heftier point cut behind in the refrigerator bins. She knew the importance of slow simmering for hours, aware that boiling the meat makes it impossibly tough. She knew how to tent it with foil, allowing it to rest on the counter for about an hour to let the juices settle and make it easier to slice. She knew how to cut it across the grain to ensure intact slices instead of messy chunks caused by slicing meat with the grain.
Though my mother-in-law always simmered her corned beef in her biggest pot over low heat on the stove, I shifted from the stove to the crockpot several years ago because I got tired of checking the pot and seeing that it was always starting to boil, or so low that it wasn’t bubbling at all. The crockpot eliminates all the “minding” needed to simmer slowly. I just toss the meat in with the flavor packet that comes with it, a few cloves of garlic, a sliced onion, a carrot, water, and a can of Guinness, set it on LOW, and let it do its thing. Eight hours later, it’s so tender it’s breaking in half when I try to remove it.
Some tips: always rinse off the corned beef, and add enough water so it surrounds the meat, but doesn’t cover it. Cook the meat with the fat side facing up. Cook for eight hours at low, making sure you have enough time to let it sit to make slicing easier. You can keep the sliced meat moist with a few spoonfuls of the cooking water.
At one point when my parties reached 50 guests, I cooked 10 corned beefs at a clip, borrowing crockpots from family and friends. I put a few crockpots in the kitchen, but stationed some in the basement and my screened-in porch to control the pungent smell of simmering corned beef wafting through the house. It was quite a production, renewing my faith in people’s willingness to share cooking appliances and the capacity of the electrical system in my home.
Today, I know enough to avoid certain brands. Hummel’s has always disappointed, though I love their hotdogs. I don’t understand that at all. I usually buy any brand but Hummel’s, studying the packages for the right amount of fat: not too much, but enough so it won’t be tough. Only the flat cut. I’ve learned the hard way that good corned beef is often a crapshoot, that it’s quite possible to cook a tasteless corned beef through no fault of your own. This is why I often buy two corned beefs in hopes of getting one good one. And don’t forget, those suckers shrink when cooked, meaning extra meat probably is needed anyway.
I don’t profess to be a great cook, but I’ve cooked at least 200 corned beefs over the years and consider myself proficient in this area. I’m so committed to the crockpot method that I now own three crockpots, two more than most rational people. I cook corned beef throughout the year, grabbing it whenever it makes a cameo in the meat section, not just around St. Patrick’s Day. I often cook one or two the week before St. Patrick’s Day as a test run, as I did last week.
My crockpots are working overtime, getting more use than they have in the past year. I wouldn’t have it any other way.