Homemade Corned Beef
My desert island food is corned beef. Hot, piled up on a sandwich, between two pieces of rye bread with spicy brown mustard smeared liberally inside, corned beef is the one food that I could find myself being happily enjoying if trapped on a desert island. (With unlimited ice-cold pitchers of tropical cocktails, of course.) I also want cole slaw and half-sour pickles, too. Although if truth be told, I’m okay with just fat slices of corned beef, warmed, served on their own. Or simmering in a pot with potatoes and carrots with a bottle of French wine alongside.
Many French people know pastrami, but don’t know corned beef as most of us know it. (What they get is a canned version, which looks from photographs to be closer to Spam than to actual corned beef.) Romain can’t seem to get enough pastrami and once we went to a not-so-good restaurant in Paris where I’d heard they had it on the menu. When he was served two slices of bread with only two meager, thin slices of pastrami hidden in between, he walked back into the kitchen with his sandwich in hand and told them it needed to be really, really thick. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was demonstrating how thick it needed to be with his hands to the astonished cooks.
Growing up in New England, my mother sometimes made a boiled dinner of corned beef with cabbage, potatoes and carrots. I can’t say I was a big fan of the cabbage and it wasn’t until recently that I learned that it’s actually called a New England boiled dinner, but the potatoes and carrots were great along with slices of the moist, pink meat always served with a dollop of spicy brown mustard alongside.
When delis were more plentiful in New York City, back then, I’d look forward to our visits to get one of those loaded-up sandwiches stacked ridiculously high. A friend who grew up not far from me, recently told me that you’re supposed to order an extra piece of bread, pull out some of the meat, and eat a “normal-sized” sandwich – then take the rest home to make another one. I didn’t know that. I always ate the whole thing. Gulp.
A few weeks back, I was having lunch with Gregory, a French chef friend who runs Mon Éclair. He used to live in the U.S., and the subject of corned beef came up. I replied that it was unusual for French people to know corned beef, rather than pastrami, and he said “Moi? J’adore le corned beef!”
Part of the affection for pastrami is that it has somewhat of an iconic status, and the vowel-ending word rolls off the French tongue easier than the hard consonant-ending, “corned beef.” But the other part is that “to corn” is a verb that doesn’t exist in the French vocabulary. (The word “corn” originally referred to the large grains of salt that is used for salting the meat.) The verb maïser, or “to corn,” hasn’t been added to the French verb dictionary, yet.
While lunching with my chef pal over lunch, he mentioned that he could get brisket in Paris. Huh? That was news to me, and others who’ve sent me quite a few messages from people over the years looking for brisket-cut meat in France.
French butchers cut meat differently than their American counterparts and an American woman who has lived in Paris since the ’50s showed me some recipes and notes she had collected over the years, which probably answer the question – in words and pictures – what cut of meat brisket is, in French. Feel free to show the picture above to your local butcher in France, in the future.
She also had a handwritten recipe for corned beef, which curiously called for “1 œuf cru dans sa coquille,” or “a raw egg still in its shell.” I figured it was a way to test the brine for salinity, which Michael Ruhlman, author of several books on curing meat, agreed with.
Waiting for our 5 kilos of brisket to arrive, the minimum, I went on the hunt for sel rose. It’s usually called curing salt in English and gives corned beef its distinctive pink color. You can make it without, although the corned beef will not look like traditional corned beef. (I did see this post, where they used beet juice to color the meat.)
I also read about a new-fangled way to “bake” corned beef*, which looked and sounded interesting, until I read the words “too salty,” from people who’ve made it. I’m sort of a traditionalist about corned beef and don’t mind boiling mine. And did have fun brining my own from scratch.
My curing salt was from G. Detou in Paris, and I went to my local market to buy carrots and potatoes. Fortunately, someone had given me a branch of bay leaves from their tree, and once my brined brisket was ready, I was on my way to my own New England boiled dinner.
I served this to French friends, who loved it, and told me it reminded them of Pot-au-feu, a traditional boiled beef dinner served with mustard, coarse salt, and sometimes horseradish. I was fortunate to have leftovers the next day but until I find New York-style rye bread with caraway seeds in it, in Paris, I’ll be eating my corned beef in bouillon, rather than en sandwich.
Related Posts and Recipes
Corned Short Ribs (Washington Post)
Corned Beef and Cabbage (Simply Recipes)
How to Make Beef Brisket Pastrami (Ruhlman)
(Note: I’ve been to Montreal and had it there, and in Brooklyn, at Mile End Deli.)
Nitrate in Food: Harmful or Healthy? (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
The Red-Meat Miracle (New York Times)
Corned Beef or Pastrami: What’s the difference? (Deli Done Right)
Is Corned Beef Really Irish? (Smithsonian)
Information and Websites About Brisket and French Cuts of Meat
According to the handwritten notes in the post, one says that you can use tendron, flanchet, or bavette to make corned beef, that is similar to brisket. Another says that brisket is milieu de poitrine, according to Julia Child (says the note card), accompanied by a diagram. As mentioned, I used brisket meat from Metzger which was purchased from their professional shop at Rungis, Metzger Frères. Note that my friend ordered a 5 kilo (11 pounds) piece of brisket, which is what they call it, and 5 kilos is the minimum order. (Ours came in a large, cryovac package.) My recommendation would be to call the shop (not the one at Rungis) and see if they can order it for you. Note: You may have to buy 5 kilos.
This website gives a good lexicon for French pieces of meat, in French. Although most beef cuts don’t translate exactly from French to English, or vice-versa, Grasspunk has a post: What are the English equivalents of French beef cuts. And Posted in Paris has a series of posts on Making Sense of the Supermarket in France, with a post on Cuts of Meat.