How To Boil Water
by Joe George
And other good things...
Well it’s that time of year again…a time to watch the parade and enjoy all its revelries, and also an opportunity to eat corned beef-and-cabbage. It’s a simple recipe to prepare and one that tastes delicious with beer. But before I discuss a recipe for corned beef, I have to mention what it is and how it’s cooked.
The most important component of the dish, of course, is the corned beef. Like many traditional foods that have been passed down over the generations, corned beef originated as a form of food preservation. To corn something originally meant to pack it in barrels with salt. Its etymology comes from the large grains of salt that were used, sometimes as big as kernels of corn. Salt draws excess blood and juice from the meat, preserving it; other spices were added for flavor. Another ingredient is potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter. This also acts as a preservative, but it’s most obvious lingering trait is the rosy pink hue in the beef.
New England Boiled DinnerServes about 8
1 corned beef brisket
6 medium carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
4 medium onions, peeled and halved
4 turnips, peeled and quartered
4 medium potatoes, quartered
1 head of cabbage, cored and cut into 8 wedges
4 beets, peeled, quartered, and cooked separately
Place the beef in a large pot and cover it with cold water. Bring it to a boil then lower it to a simmer. Cook the beef for 2 to 2 1⁄2 hour, or until it begins to feel fork tender. Add the carrots, onions, turnips, and potatoes to the pot, and cook them for about 10 minutes. Add the cabbage and cook another 20 minutes. Remove the beef from the pot and place it on a large platter. Arrange the vegetables around the platter and drizzle all with a bit of the cooking liquid. Serve with horseradish and prepared mustard.
Roast Vegetable Pot Au FeuServes 6-8 people
1/3 cup olive oil
2 turnips, peeled and quartered
1 rutabaga, peeled and diced into large pieces
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced into large pieces
2 parsnips, peeled and quartered
6 shallots peeled
12 medium mushrooms
8 whole peeled cloves of garlic
4 small red skinned potatoes, quartered
1 tablespoon course sea salt, divided
2 teaspoons black pepper, divided
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
1-1/2 cups cooked white beans
In a large bowl, combine the olive oil, turnips, rutabaga, carrots, parsnips, shallots, mushrooms, garlic cloves, potatoes, 1/2 tablespoon of the salt, and 1 teaspoon of the pepper. Place on baking sheet and roast them in a preheated 425 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 20 minutes or until they begin to brown. Place the roasted vegetables into a medium stock pot along with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne, black peppercorns, bay leaves, broth, and water. Bring the pot to a boil; skim the surface then lower the heat to a very slow simmer. Cook the vegetables for about 20 minutes. Add the white beans and simmer the vegetables and additional 10 minutes. Ladle the vegetables into serving bowls. Serve with steamed rice or couscous and harissa sauce.
HarissaMakes about 3/4 cup
2 tablespoons cumin seed
1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 tablespoon caraway seed
4 dried red chilies, seeded
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
Combine the spices and chilies in a dry skillet over medium high heat. Stir and shake the pan for a minute or two, until the spices become aromatic and begin to pop in the pan. Transfer to a blender and add the oil and salt; process until smooth. Transfer to a glass bowl or jar.
No matter what some may say about their own personal idiosyncrasies regarding their recipes, cooking this dish is about as simple as it gets: Put it in a pot and boil it. (This may be a bit of a misnomer—the beef is actually simmered rather than boiled.) If you take a look at the family tree of this recipe, you’ll find that this dish has many foreign cousins. Because boiling foods is one of the most primitive and simplest ways to cook, and in fact is one of the oldest methods (cooking over a live fire is the oldest), there are variations on boiled dinners that span the globe.
Corned beef and cabbage is analogous to the New England boiled dinner, but it is unique in that it uses cured meat rather than fresh. There’s also the French version, pot au feu, which translates to “pot on a fire.” The Spanish and Portuguese make a boiled dinner called cozido or cocito, which includes sausages and beans in addition to the traditional meat and vegetables. Some say that the delicately flavored pho of Vietnam, which falls halfway between a soup and a stew, derives its name from the French word feu. Even the famous bouillabaisse of Marseille could fall into this category; the name comes from the two words bouille (boil) and abaisser (lower or slow down).
Now let’s look at why these foods were and still are boiled.
Meat-based meals such as corned beef and cabbage or pot au feu most often use inexpensive cuts of meat for two reasons. The first, of course, is cost, but the second is less obvious: Generally speaking, the tougher the cut of meat, the more flavor it has. This is another reason these recipes and their ensuing broths are so highly flavorful. To cook these meats in most other manners would result in a product that is not unlike chewy leather. Roasting, grilling, or sautéing would not tenderize them, but long, slow simmering does; it breaks down the tough and often hard-worked muscles from which these meats are derived. Vegetables are added later, and often in stages to keep them from disintegrating into the liquid.
As mentioned, boiling foods is one of the oldest methods of cooking known to humans; it was, in fact, originally done in dried gourds and animal skins before the advent of pottery. Some years ago, a fellow cook and I wondered, while working on a particularly slow evening, how this could be. How could you cook in something like a dried gourd or animal skin over an open fire without it burning through? Well, we didn’t have a dried gourd and I certainly didn’t have any spare animal skin around, but we did have a paper cup. And yes, I can tell you firsthand that you can boil water in a paper cup. I’ve done it. In fact, I cooked pasta in the cup.
Telling this story to my teenaged son recently resulted in a look that said: Like, uh-huh, sure, Dad, you and your crazy stories. “The water protects the cup,” I told him. Still a blank stare. “Let’s do it then.”
After removing the battery from the nearest smoke detector, I filled a cup halfway with water and set it directly on the flame of our gas stove. Much to his amazement the bottom of the cup charred and the top rim burned away, but within just a minute or two the water in the cup was at a fast boil.
I have one last quick story regarding boiled dinners. Some years ago I was on holiday in Europe and ate a tainted sausage in Dijon. (I can hear you laughing.) I quickly became violently ill, more ill than I ever remember being prior or to date; it lasted for days. After returning to Paris, we went to a small Moroccan café. I hadn’t eaten in days and didn’t think I could, but I needed nutrients. On the menu I noticed a dish, Pot au Feu de Legumes á la Marocaine; it was translated into English as Moroccan-Style Boiled Vegetables. I asked the waiter to have it made with little or no spices. When it arrived at table, the waiter presented it in the same way one would a traditional pot au feu; the cooked food (in this case, just vegetables) in one bowl, and the broth in another. He also offered the traditional side of couscous and fiery Moroccan condiment, harissa, which I declined. I first took a few spoonfuls of the spice-infused broth, then a couple small bites of vegetables. Much to my surprise I had an appetite, and I could quite literally feel the color returning to my cheeks. Of all the meals that I’ve eaten in restaurants—prepared by the hand of someone else or my own—this is the one that I shall not forget.
The moral of this story, I suppose, is that boiled foods are good; they’re also nutritious and simple to prepare…though I wouldn’t necessary recommend cooking them in a paper cup.
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