St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage sort of steals a classic Maine boiled dinner’s thunder.
In the not-too-distant past, boiled dinner graced the table a few times every year, followed by corned beef hash the next day at breakfast, and sometimes red flannel hash with chopped beets in it.
It’s a good old boiled dinner with corned beef, potatoes, carrots, turnips or rutabaga, cabbage if you want, onions, and even beets.
Marjorie Standish wrote “Cooking Down East,” a favorite Maine cookbook, in 1969, after having written a column in the Maine Sunday Telegram for years. In the early years of Taste Bud, now about 18 years old, readers often sent me family recipes for various goodies that I found verbatim in Standish’s book. Marjorie’s kindly ghost taught me a lot about traditional Maine cooking.
She waxed eloquently on boiled dinner, dedicating two and a half pages of her book to it, from corning the beef yourself, to using the leftovers.
Why do we corn beef? Historically, corning is a strategy for preserving a fresh, usually fatty piece of beef for a few days longer than it would have kept merely stored in the cold. Before artificial refrigeration — that is, cold generated by means other than nature — a piece of meat could be rubbed all over with coarse salt and stored in a cool place, like a cellar. Or one could submerge the meat in a brine of salt in water. The process turned the beef gray, though most modern, commercially prepared corned beef is a rosy red these days produced by adding nitrites to the corning mix. Even today, lots of Mainers prefer gray corned beef but the likeliest place to find it is custom butcher shops, and only seldom in chain grocery store meat departments.
Why fatty? Fat conducts salt, and salted lean meat gets tough and dry.
For my boiled dinner, I used homegrown potatoes — whole, peeled small ones so they wouldn’t cook apart. I cooked more of them than I knew we would eat at the first boiled dinner meal so that I would have enough to mix roughly half and half with the leftover beef for hash.
Carrots from last year’s crop are keeping well. Peeled, round pieces of carrot cut into 3-inch lengths, went in the pot next. I prefer rutabaga, sometimes called Swede turnips, over plain white, purple-topped turnips, so I peeled and cut one into chunks. Swedes turn a lovely warm orange color when cooked.
I decided against cabbage this time because all I have in storage is red cabbage, which turns a sad blueish gray when boiled. No beets. I was hopeful for parsnips, but a test dig showed the parsnip bed still has frost.
The beef needs at least three to four hours of a good steady simmer to arrive at the right state of fork tender. The vegetables joined it for the last hour.
Three of us feasted on the dinner. There was enough for a batch of breakfast hash. Standish declared that the hash could be all vegetables, and that is a good idea for sure. You can always drop an egg on your portion of the hash if you want a little breakfast protein.
Not a hash eater? You can make a corned beef taco instead with shredded corned beef, spicy coleslaw, a sauce of mayonnaise and/or yogurt seasoned with hot sauce, and garnished, if you want, with some sliced jalapenos.
Boiled dinner doesn’t really need a recipe. Rather, select the vegetables you like best, cook as many or as few of them as you prefer or that your pot will hold. Arrange them on a platter around the beef. Serve with the condiments you like, such as mustard, honey mustard, cream and horseradish, or a sweet and sour mixture of brown sugar, ketchup and a dash of vinegar.
Thank you Mrs. Standish, and a couple hundred years of Yankee cooks.
New England Boiled Dinner
Serves a variable number of people.
1 piece of corned beef, 3-4 pounds
Potatoes, preferably small, peeled, left whole
Carrots, peeled and cut into 3-4 inch lengths
1 small to medium rutabaga, peeled and cut into chunks similar to the carrots
2-3 medium onions, peeled and quartered (optional)
1 small cabbage, cut in wedges (optional)
Beets, small, not peeled (optional)
Put the beef into the pot and just cover with water. Bring to a boil and then reduce it to a steady simmer for three hours, checking occasionally to make sure the water level doesn’t drop below the beef. You may turn the meat over halfway through the cooking time.
If you have a larger piece of beef, increase the cooking time.
After three hours, test the meat with a fork and if the fork pierces the meat easily, add the hard vegetables — potatoes, carrots, rutabaga — and bring back to a boil, then reduce to a steady simmer for at least a half hour. If you want beets, put them on to boil separately.
When the vegetables can be pierced with a fork, add the onions and cabbage and cook for another half hour.
Remove the corned beef from the cookpot and slice against the grain. Arrange on a platter and surround with the cooked vegetables.