Category Archives: Cooking

Of Corned Beef and Cabbage

I was tipped off on the pendency of St. Patrick’s day when I noticed in our weekly circular that corned beef was on sale. Though my days of Guinness-inspired revelry are well behind me, there is nothing like sitting down to a plate piled high with cabbage, carrots, and corned beef that’s been slowly simmering on the stovetop all afternoon. It’s always been a favorite of mine.

When I was looking through the ad I noticed there were two options for corned beef: flat cut and point cut. Other than the fact that the point cut was almost $2.00 less per pound than the flat cut, I had no idea what the difference was between the two. So I googled it. And I found this fabulous explanation:

What does this translate to in terms of dinner? Well, first of all, brisket comes from the lower chest of the cow and the meat can be pretty tough. As the photo shows, the point cut has a huge ribbon of fat that runs through it, which makes for fantastic pulled or shredded beef but not-so-good for slicing. It’s also pretty unappealing unless you just love chewing through large chunks of fat in the pursuit of corned beef bits.

The flat cut, on the other hand, is much leaner with fat that’s more evenly distributed throughout the muscle and thus better for slicing. Since I’ve always had my corned beef sliced, and we’re more inclined to dine on a leaner cut than a fattier one, we got the closest thing to a flat cut that we could find at the store.

Learning about the cuts of corned beef piqued my interest, and a little more poking around on its history revealed that corned beef and cabbage is not an Irish dish at all, but a distinctly American dish that was adopted by Irish immigrants who were looking for a substitute for their beloved bacon joints.  Mind you, they weren’t talking about bacon as we know it today, but were in pursuit of a brined and hefty cut of meat, like Boston butt or pork shoulder. Evidently, corned beef from the Kosher butcher fit the bill and the rest is history.

So, there you have it! Our beloved St. Patty’s day dinner is actually an Irish-American adaptation of a Kosher cut of beef. And it never caught on in Ireland, either. It’s very much an American thing, and that’s just fine by me.


Breaking with Tradition on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is steeped in tradition and in some ways this can be quite comforting. You may know exactly what you’re going to cook for dinner; or who will be sitting at the table. You might know which serving platters you’ll use, or which wine to bring if you’re not cooking. Yet, in other ways, tradition can be constricting. Dare you break up with your beloved cranberry stuffing recipe that’s served you so well these last ten years?

For us, it was equal parts honoring tradition as it was in breaking with it. We honored it with all-star recipes, and broke with it by having our turkey dinner on the day after Thanksgiving due to work schedules. And O, what a meal!

Keeping it local, we bought a fresh bird from Misty Knoll Farms  through our local co-op. Weighing just shy of 12 lbs, our turkey lived a good life pastured outside before meeting its dinner-bound demise. When it comes to cooking, I follow Alton Brown’s method, circa 2008, religiously. While the method has, without fail, set off every smoke alarm in the house every year that we’ve done it, I find the end result well worth the trouble.


We also made our beloved sweet potato soufflé, which Travis contends is a dessert, but my family has always proffered as a side dish, and roasted carrots and parsnips tossed with a honey balsamic dressing. At some point in the day I started on gravy, too, because that’s just what you do with those creepy giblets and neck. But alas! What were we to pour the gravy on? So that’s how mashed potatoes found their way on our plates, too.


Our compost bowl, always keeping tabs on our cookery.

In the spirit of home-cookery, this week Travis sent me a fantastic article in the Atlantic that I hope you check out if you have a few minutes.  It’s all about the myth of easy cooking and how the food magazine and media industry has built itself up on unattainable principles and outcomes, a byproduct of chefs adapting recipes from restaurants for home cooks and then calling them “easy.” The article gave me great perspective as I cooked my way through Thanksgiving preparations this week in that it’s never as easy as it looks, and it gave me permission to be more forgiving of myself as a cook.

For example, I have a love-hate relationship with pie dough. I can’t intuit when it needs another dribble of ice water, and I always make a mess rolling it out. This week, with my newfound perspective, I took the opportunity to give myself a big gold star each step of the way regardless of how it actually looked. So what if I rolled it into a shape that looks like something I drew in kindergarten? No one is going to see it under 10,000 calories of pie filling anyways!

My favorite insight so far though was watching a Thanksgiving-themed cooking show whilst wearing my new-life-perspective-on-cooking lenses. The meal this guy cooked up in half an hour looked fantastic — dressing made with bread from scratch, butternut squash gratin, smoked duck. How can you go wrong? But in watching the show, it dawned on me that watching a world where you can halve, peel, de-seed and chop up two whole butternut squashes in less than 5 seconds is like going to Disneyland. Just because you’re watching it with your own two eyes doesn’t mean it’s real! I don’t know about you, but it would probably take me the entire length of the TV segment to tackle two butternut squashes without losing any fingers.

So not only did we sit down to a wonderful meal (and a weekend’s worth of leftovers) but it was also an opportunity to reflect on the cooking itself and to appreciate how much time and effort it really does take to make a meal completely from scratch. And to remember that the joy is not just in the fifteen minutes it takes to wolf everything down, but the journey that it took to get there. thanksgiving dinner



Cooking Pear-Shaped Puffballs

I’ve always been a fan of the fungi. When I was younger I loved the way they looked, with their whimsical shapes and kaleidoscope of colors. Unfortunately though, there was never much mycological activity at the horse farm I grew up on other than the occasional package of white or brown button mushrooms from the grocery store, or running over a fairy circle with the tractor while mowing the horse fields.

However, in the woods behind our little house on the hillside, there is an abundance of mushrooms to be found and foraged. Armed with the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Mushrooms, I have discovered great joy in walking through our woods with a purpose.

Pear Shaped PuffballsThis week’s foraging included pear shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon Pyriforme), which are charming little mushrooms that remind me of toasted marshmallows. Feather-light with a soft, springy interior that’s a bright, creamy white, these puffballs are edible and tasty, both raw and cooked.

For those who might go out and look for these little gems after reading this post, please make yourself aware that there are poisonous impostors known as pigskin poison puffballs, which can be easily distinguished with the help of a field guide. The critical element in identifying edible puffballs is cutting them half and confirming that the interior is a clean, solid white with no evidence of gills.

Inspired by the fantastic ideas of the Forager Chef, I sliced my newly-acquired puffballs and mixed them with some sliced portabella mushrooms from the fridge to round out a mushroom sauté that would accompany the day’s purchase of sweet country sausage. The next day we used them to boost a jar of store-bought pasta sauce. Both meals were a genuine success. If not for the rule of thumb that you should always leave behind more mushrooms than you take, I would snip off the whole swathe of puffballs and make soup.

Slicing pear shaped puffballs

Have you ever cooked with puffballs?