Exploring Corned Beef Hash
There is lobster a la Newburg, which some people think is great,
And terrapin’s a dainty for the culture eater’s plate;
There are many pleasant dishes for the man who has cash,
But there’s nothing that quite equals Hanna’s famous corn-beef hash.— “Hanna’s Heavenly Hash,” Washington Post, June 9, 1906
Where's the Beef?
Corned beef hash (a combination of cured beef, potatoes, and onions minced and fried in a skillet) is often associated with St. Patrick’s Day. Corned beef is Irish, isn’t it?
In a word, no; it’s not an original Irish dish, so how and when did corned beef become associated with the Isle of Erin? Let’s take a brief look at the history book.
In the beginning Gaelic Ireland was a hierarchical society. The top-most layer of the social order was composed of kings and druid priests who carried out the roles of judge, scholar, poet, and physician. The next level of the hierarchy was skilled craftsmen and musicians. Below these were freemen, those who owned land and cattle. The lowest of the low were serfs and slaves, usually criminals or prisoners of war.
The Gaels were polytheistic or pagan and also an agrarian society. Cows were sacred, revered for the dairy products they provided, and for their strength in working the fields. The consumption of beef was reserved for only the wealthiest, the kings and heads of clans. In fact, the general populace scorned these beef-eaters for their gluttony.
Pigs were the most prevalent animal bred for consumption and pork was the most common form of meat in Ireland. This way of life remained unaltered for centuries until 1542 when Henry VIII of England declared himself King of Ireland; the island was brought under English control and the Gaelic political and social order came to an end.
Potatoes in Ireland
One generation later, the potato was introduced to Europe from South America. Potatoes grew well in the climate of Ireland and, unlike grains, could easily be stored during the winter months. Keep this fact in mind as we will be returning to it shortly.
Unlike the Irish, the English were a beef-eating society and under the rule of the House of Tudor, tens of thousands of cattle were exported from Ireland to England to feed (pun intended) the growing hunger for the meat. English cattle-breeders objected to this competition and in 1663 a Cattle Act was passed which prohibited the export of cattle from Ireland to England. This resulted in a glut of beef cattle in Ireland where, coincidently, the cost of salt was one-tenth that of England’s. With large quantities of beef and low-cost salt, is it any wonder that Ireland soon became the center of corned beef production? Irish corned beef became such a popular commodity that it even fed both sides of those battling in the Anglo-French War.
Ironically with high demand prices also increased, and the cost of corned beef was still out of reach for the common citizen. But, they still had the potato. With access to this new staple food, the Irish population began to grow, and grow rapidly. In 1570 there were fewer than 1 million people living in Ireland; by 1840 the population had exploded to more than 8 million, most of them poor. This growing population subsisted on a diet comprised mainly of potatoes and milk, a bland and boring diet, but nevertheless one which provided all the nutrition one needed to maintain life.
Irish Migration to the United States
The disaster began in 1845 when the potato crop was destroyed by an infestation of the fungal disease Phytophthora Infestans, better known as Potato Blight. This devastating disease rotted the potatoes in the ground, rendering entire crops inedible and obliterating the primary food source for millions of people.
There was now nothing for the poor to eat. Although many had enough land to grow crops other than potatoes, they were caught in an impossible bind–they had to sell these crops to pay rent or face eviction. While some landlords allowed their tenants to retain grain crops for food and reduced their tenants’ rents or even waived them, others were merciless.
More than a quarter of a million laborers and tenant farmers were evicted between 1845 and 1854; even more than that number simply walked away from their homes, never to return, rather than face certain starvation. One million died of starvation and/or disease and more than 2 million emigrated; whole families, even whole villages, left en masse.
According to U.S. census records, from 1841 to 1850 780,000 people emigrated from Ireland to America, and in the next 10 years, the number was more than 914,000.
We’ve discussed the importance of the potato in the Irish diet and how the loss of that foodstuff caused the migration of hundreds of thousands of people, prompting them to seek refuge on our shores. And we established that beef was the food of kings; pork, in the form of cured, unsmoked ham, was the protein available to the common Irish family. It is what they were accustomed to and what they sought (and could not find at a reasonable price) here in America. But there was a substitute readily available at kosher delicatessens—corned beef.
And so we have come full circle, corned beef was famous in Ireland but out of reach for the common man, so was not a part of the local table. Only when they came to the United States did corned beef become a customary part of the Irish-American diet.
The word hash comes from the French word ‘hacher’ (to chop) and that is definitely what one must do to make a hash. What we now enjoy on a leisurely weekend breakfast was once a means of using leftover scraps of this and that to feed a hungry family.
A Perfect Corned Beef Hash
The basic ingredients for a corned beef hash are pretty simple, but I think it's important to create the right balance of beef to potato and pay attention to the herbs and seasonings.
Yield: 4 servings
- 3 cups leftover cooked potato cut in 1/2-inch dice (see note below if you do not have leftover potatoes)
- 3 cups leftover corned beef, cut in 1-inch chunks
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cups diced yellow onion
- 1 cup diced red bell pepper, top and seeds removed
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- Minced fresh parsley for garnish (optional)
- Place the corned beef in the bowl of a food processor; pulse several times, until coarsely shredded. Set aside.
- Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and bell pepper and cook until the onion softens and begins to turn slightly golden. Remove from pan and set aside.
- To the same pan (don't wash it) add the cooking oil. Place the well-drained cooked potatoes to the pan. Cook for about 4 minutes. Don't mess with them; leave them alone and allow them to brown in the pan. If you stir them too much they will simply fall apart. After 4 minutes flip them with a spatula to brown the other side. Note that they won't completely brown all over. It's OK.
- Return the onions and bell pepper to the pan and toss in the diced cooked corned beef. Cook 2 to 3 minutes more, until everything is heated through. Toss/stir once or twice to get the meat and vegetables mixed together.
- Drizzle the cream over the top and allow your hash to cook for a minute more. (My mom always did this with her roast beef hash).
- Season with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with minced parsley.
Note: If you do not have leftover potatoes, place one pound of Yukon gold potatoes, cut in 1/2-inch dice in a saucepan of cold water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer. It should take about 5 minutes for the potatoes to be done; the tip of a sharp knife should be able to pierce them easily but they should still be firm, not mushy. Drain the potatoes and set aside.
Make Your Own Corned Beef
What if you have a hunger for corned beef and St. Patrick's Day is far in the future or (conversely) a dot in the rear-view mirror. I've found that in my part of the world, corned beef brisket is only available in March. Simply Recipes comes to the rescue. You can make your own corned beef. It's not difficult—just buy a beef brisket, kosher salt, curing salt, some pickling spices . . . and give yourself 5 to 7 days.
Alternatives to Corned Beef
Corned Turkey Breast
In truth, the flavor of corned beef is not in the beef, but in the classic combination of pickling spices that "corn" (cure) the meat. The author of the website Skinny Taste has created a healthier version of our "star of the show" by making corned turkey. Make Gina's corned turkey and cabbage and use the leftovers to make a corned turkey hash.
Vegan Corned "Beef"
My daughter has been a vegetarian for 20 years, but she still reminisces about some of the foods that she grew up with; one of those is corned beef hash. The creamy crispy potatoes, golden onions, and bell pepper and spices are warm and comforting; but (a big but), there's meat.
Seitan is a non-meat alternative to meat and is commonly used to create faux sausage and chicken. A dough is made of vital wheat gluten (you can buy it in the natural foods section of your grocery store), vegetable broth, and spices. When brined and then simmered in the slow cooker, it takes on the texture and mouthfeel of real meat. It's incredibly convincing. If, like my daughter, you have shunned meat or don't eat beef, give this vegan corned beef recipe a try.
© 2020 Linda Lum