By Himanee Gupta-Carlson
“I’ve always known inside that I’m Irish. Literally, I look like a leprechaun, there’s no denying it.”
Ben Hillis, who owns Puckers’ Gourmet Pickles with his wife Kelley, made this statement with a laugh. But Irish-ness runs deep through his veins, giving him a sense of identity that he associates with values of hard work, humility, taking care of family, and savoring lovingly home-cooked meals slowly at a common table.
“We’re the salt of the earth,” Hillis says. “No nobility here.”
That identity comes full force around St. Patrick’s Day as he prepares his corned beef and cabbage. The dish with which the holiday is often associated grew out of Irish and Jewish immigrants inter-mingling in Manhattan.
“Corned beef didn’t become a thing that was associated with Irish until the Irish came to America and found the beef brisket that was sold in delis,” Hillis said. “It was the closest thing to the salt pork they could find back home and afford.”
While cured corned beef can be purchased, Hillis prefers to prepare his own. He starts 11 days in advance by preparing a brine that he cooks over a low heat to meld its flavors together, and cools down overnight.
Then begins a 10-day curing, in which the brisket is placed in a giant brine-filled zip-locked bag, and cured for 10 days in the refrigerator.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Hillis begins cooking the meat “slow and low” on his stovetop, though he says using a slow cooker is acceptable. The beef simmers for several hours in the brine, additional liquid and a puree of such vegetables as cabbage, carrots, celery, onion, and potatoes. Hillis gauges its readiness on texture and “how good the house smells.”
Toward the end, he adds more root vegetables and cabbage, cooking them through but not to mush. He then puts down a bed of Puckers’ sauerkraut, tops it with meat, and nests the vegetables around it.
The result is meat, deeply flavored by the initial puree, another layer of soft but still crunchy vegetables, and a crisp dash of brightness from the sauerkraut.
“Eating is such a visceral experience,” Hillis says. “When you slow down, tend to your food, you enjoy it all the more.”
The Saratoga Farmers’ Market operates 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays at the Lincoln Baths building in the Saratoga Spa State Park through April. The market moves to High Rock Park in May.
Corned Beef with Vegetables
Recipe by Ben Hillis
* Ingredients currently available at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market
• 3 quarts water
• 1 1/2 cups kosher salt
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into several pieces
• 2 1/2 tablespoons mustard seeds
• 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
• 12 whole cloves
• 12 whole allspice berries
• 20 whole juniper berries
• 3 bay leaves, bruised
• 3/4 tablespoon ground ginger
• 1/2 tablespoon celery seed
• 1 – 4lbs trimmed beef brisket*
• 3 small onions, quartered*
• 4 large carrots, roughly chopped*
• 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped*
• 3lbs potatoes, cubed*
• 2 heads of cabbage, quartered*
1. Place the water into your largest stockpot, at least 3 quarts. Add the salt, sugar, and all of the spices.
2. Bring the brine to a boil. Then simmer until the salt and sugar have dissolved and your kitchen smells delicious. Refrigerator brine overnight.
3. Once it has cooled, place the brisket in a 2-gallon Ziplock bag and add brine. Seal bag and place the bag inside of another container as to prevent possible leakage. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 10 days. Each day make sure the brisket is covered by the brine.
4. On the 10th day, remove the brisket and rinse well under cold water. Place the brisket into a pot just large enough to hold the brisket and vegetables. Fill the pot so that the contents are well covered. Heat on high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 to 3 hours or until the corn beef is perfectly tender.
5. Add the vegetables approximately 45 mins before desired finish. If you prefer more tender vegetables, add them at the very beginning of the cooking process.
* I like to purée some of the the veggies and add it to the cooking liquid. Typically, before the cooking liquid is boiled, purée the celery, 1 carrot, a half of an onion, and half of a head of cabbage in a blender and add it to the boil for a deeper flavor. If you cannot fit all of the purée items in your blender, you may need to do it in more than one batch.
6. Remove the corned beef from the pot and allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes. Thinly slice the meat across the grain and serve with the vegetables. Enjoy!