March 17, which is just one week away, is a momentous day for Irishmen and Midwestern vegetable gardeners.
Some of us typically commemorate St. Patrick's Day with a dinner of boiled corned beef, cabbage and potatoes -- or at least that is the custom that predates green beer.
This is one of the easiest dinners to make, because all you have to do is take a slab of store-bought corned beef out of its plastic bag and add it and the contents of the seasoning packet to a pot of boiling water. Chop up the potatoes and cabbage, and eat when they are tender.
Long ago, the traditional Irish dinner required a bit more planning and preparation. The process of corning one's own beef must begin at least three weeks before the meal. A slab of brisket (once upon a time, tongue was a common substitute) must soak in brine long enough to tenderize the meat and develop the flavor of corned beef.
For our great-grandparents, corned beef was a practical necessity. Corning made tough meat edible, preventing waste of less desirable parts of the cow, and also preserved the meat. The brining process is little different from pickling, which is the culinary equivalent of embalming.
Canners will recognize the similarities. To corn our own beef, according to an old edition of "Joy of Cooking," we first combine the following ingredients: 4 quarts of hot water, 2 cups of coarse salt, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons mixed whole spice and 1 1/2 teaspoons saltpeter.
The saltpeter keeps the meat pink. Without sufficient quantities of it, the meat turns gray, but this isn't necessarily bad. The gray version is called New England corned beef.
Allow the mixture to cool, then pour it over a 5-pound piece of brisket, which has been placed in an enameled pot or stone jar. The corning process cannot take place in a metal container because the brine will eat the metal. Add three cloves of garlic, place some sort of noncorrosive weight on top of the meat to keep it submerged in the brine, and cover the container.
The meat should cure in the refrigerator for three weeks and be turned every five days.
In the pre-refrigeration days, the corning was done in a crock at room temperature by folks who knew more about meat preservation than we do. The brine had to be skimmed on a regular basis, much like homemade sauerkraut. Butchers frequently performed this process and sold the meat ready to rinse and heat.
Now that finished corned beef can be purchased in a neat package at the supermarket, the only conceivable reason for corning beef from scratch is to be able to say you have corned beef from scratch. You might have to look long and hard to find anyone who would be impressed, but this would definitely distinguish you from other mortals.
The other reason March 17 is significant is that it is the traditional date for planting potatoes, at least in this climate. Most vegetable gardeners around here look at St. Patrick's Day as the beginning of the gardening season. Pity the gardeners in other agricultural zones, who don't have a holiday to designate the start of the planting.
A few years ago I decided that growing potatoes was similar to corning beef. Potatoes are dirt-cheap and growing them is back-breaking labor, so why bother?
Then, last summer, I visited Paul Heitzman's garden east of Eudora, and he tossed a couple of shovels full of young potatoes into a bag and sent them home with me. I was reminded why gardeners bother with potatoes. These potatoes were tender, smooth-textured and had a flavor unlike store-bought spuds.
I might just have to put in a row of potatoes this year -- but I'm not corning beef.