Chris requested New England Boiled Dinner for his birthday. According to Wikipedia: This is a “traditional New England meal, consisting of corned beef, or a smoked “picnic ham” shoulder, with cabbage and added vegetable items, often including potato, rutabaga, parsnip, carrot, white turnip and onion.” This is one of the original American “one pot meals.”
The things I do not like about boiled dinners are the mushy carrots and potatoes and the thin, watery broth. As I was getting ready to make this dish, I was reading a carrot recipe in the latest Cook’s Illustrated. This chef was dealing with the same problems-—thatI have always had in boiled dinners—in making a “simple” carrot dish and he had found solutions.
Note: Sometimes the “simple” dishes, those with the fewest ingredients, are the hardest to get right. They do not have bold, spicy flavors to disguise any short comings.
Pre-cooking can give some vegetables and fruits a persistent firmness. The low heat causes a enzymatic reaction between the pectin and the calcium to create a network structure that does not break down in high heat. No more mushy carrots or potatoes!
If you simply throw many vegetables into a pot at high heat some of them will turn mushy when they become even slightly over-cooked. However, if you cook some vegetables at 120º-160º F for 20 minutes their firmness will become set and further cooking at a higher temperature will not make them go soft. These include: potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, beans, cauliflower, tomatoes, cherries, and apples.
A second suggestion, from the same article, was to use a cartouche. Instead of removing the vegetables and reducing the broth, you use a parchment paper lid. This allows the most of the liquid to escape as steam, while still keeping enough of it close to the vegetables so that they cook evenly and completely.
Note: For this kind of dish I prefer my vegetables to be discrete when I can. I sought out small potatoes and onions, so that I could cook them whole and uncut. Those vegetables that I had to cut down, I tried to make them all close to the same size. I tied each the cabbage wedge with a bit of string, to keep them from falling apart.
Chris made it clear, that in his mind, New England boiled dinner was all about the pepper. The problem is that when all of the pepper is added at the beginning, with the meat, it breaks down during the long cooking time. All that is left of the peppers flavors are the earthy base notes.
The same issue of Cook’s Illustrated had an answer for this problem as well. In their article on Tuscan Beef Stew, a dish that depends almost entirely on pepper for its spicing, they discovered that the secret was to add the pepper in stages. They had a long discussion of the flavor components of pepper (and wine).
Pepper has stable, unstable and volatile flavor components. The volatile components cook off after only a few minutes of cooking. After about 20 minutes of cooking, the heat causes the unstable components to break apart and dissipate into the broth. Only the stable flavor components remain in the stew after that point.
Their solution to this problem was to add about half of the pepper at the beginning of cooking. A bit less than half the pepper, finely ground, was then added just 15 minutes before the stew was finished cooking. Finally, fresh cracked pepper was passed at the table to allow their diners to add the volatile components right at the table.
After Dinner Note: This dinner came out really well. It was not like any “boiled” dinner I have ever had. The vegetables were firm, even the turnips had persistent firmness. While the onions did not stay firm, they were kept intact by being uncut, giving a burst of undiluted onion flavor when finally cut open. The layering of the pepper was a good discovery, and will be useful on may other dishes. This was a boiled dinner that even I enjoyed.
Karl’s New England Boiled Dinner (a.k.a. Corned Beef and Cabbage)
1 Uncured Corned Beef Round Flat (seasonal; this comes packed in about a cup and a half of brine with whole spices)
10 cloves garlic, cracked
½ Tbs. pepper corns, cracked
1 lb. small red potatoes (1-1½ inches)
½ lb. small boiling onions (1-1½ inches)
2 carrots, cut into 1-1½ inch pieces
4 small turnips, halved or quartered into 1-1½ inch pieces
1 tsp. black pepper, finely ground
1 small cabbage, cut into 6 wedges and tied with string
1. Place the corned beef, garlic, pepper, and spiced brine in a large Dutch oven and add water to cover the meat.
Tip: Corned beef is extremely salty. Do not add any extra salt. It is possible that the final sauce may be too salty for some diners. Serve it on the side, so that each person may control their salt intake.
Note: For the Dutch oven I was using, covering the meat took about 12 cups of water.
2. Bring the pot to a boil and cover. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3-4 hours, until the meat is fork tender.
Tip: You may do this on the stove top, but I prefer to put the Dutch oven in a 325º F oven.
Note: Two or three times in the first hour, skim any froth that has risen to the top of the liquid. When I made my first skim, right after the pot had come to a boil, many of the whole spices were mixed in with the scum. I washed the debris from the spices, in a fine meshed strainer, and returned them to the pot.
3. Remove the meat from the pot and wrap it with foil and set it in the warm oven.
Tip: Do not forget to turn the oven off.
4. Strain the garlic and whole spices from the broth and bring it to a boil, on the stove top.
5. Remove the pot from the heat and add the potatoes, onions, carrots and turnips in as close to a single layer as you can.
Tip: For a thicker broth, reserve one potato. Grate it finely and add it to the pot after the pre-cooking step.
Note: When you add all of the vegetables it will cool off the cooking broth. Insert a thermometer into the broth to check the temperature. You want the starting temperature to be between 150º and 160º F. If it is too low, return the pot to the heat, briefly, and reheat until the broth reaches that temperature (but not higher). I did not know if the onions and turnips would acquire persistent firmness, but I did not think this pre-cooking step would harm their texture.
6. Cover the pot and let it rest for 20 minutes, off the heat.
7. Replace the pot lid with a cartouche and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15-25 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Note: This technique is used so much in Japanese cooking that they do not use paper. Their pot lids, otoshi buta, are made of wood and do not seal against the rim of the pot. The wooden lids sit right on the soup or stew to trap the heat and to hold down the vegetables, preventing them from breaking apart while being tossed around by the boiling liquid.
8. About five minutes before the vegetables are done, gently stir in the ground black pepper.
9. Transfer the vegetables to a pan and put them in the oven with the meat, to stay warm.
10. Arrange the cabbage wedges in the broth and cover them with the cartouche. Simmer the cabbage for 6-8 minutes until they are done—firm, but slightly wilted.
11. Put the cabbage wedges in the oven with the other vegetables.
12. Return the meat to the broth and heat for two minutes, turning the meat once half way through.
Tip: This is to re-warm the meat and to coat it with the freshly peppered sauce.
13. Transfer the meat to a cutting board and slice the corned beef across the grain.
14. Arrange the slices on a platter and place the vegetables and cabbage around the meat.
Tip: Place the cabbage wedges on last, removing the strings as you go.
15. Serve the sauce and fresh cracked pepper on the side.
Tip: If the sauce is still thin, you may thicken it with a bit of cornstarch mixed with water.