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An Irish classic, made new

Old joke: What is the shortest book on the shelf? Answer: “The Culinary Arts of Ireland.”

One page, one recipe. “Throw stuff in a pot of water and boil it until every last trace of flavor is eliminated.”

It’s an old joke because it doesn’t apply anymore. Ireland has become a modern, European nation. Its natural resources of fresh vegetables, lamb, beef and fish are served in wondrous ways in every town and village.

Ireland and food, however, are not really all that funny, considering the horrific famines of the 19th century. The Irish were the poorest of the poor, starving, with families running for their lives, crossing an ocean, trying to escape a catastrophe that eventually killed more than a million souls.

Two million made it out alive to waiting ships, but then many died on the journey to a find a safe harbor.

But there is a specific wing of The Museum of Gallows Humor that will always be reserved for the Irish. Q: What’s more Irish than potatoes? A: Not having potatoes.

Even in mid-20th-century Ireland, the poor still suffered. Writer Brendan Behan once said he remembers growing up in a Dublin slum where getting enough to eat was considered an accomplishment, but getting enough to drink was a victory.

Another Behan observation, which can be taken as hating your ethnicity, or slyly telling your tribe to wake up, was his saying that if it was raining soup, the Irish would go outside with forks.

Now, for those who unhappily remember the old days when St. Patrick’s Day was approaching and corned beef and cabbage was served up in Irish bars after sitting on steam tables for a week, or boiling away in the lace curtain kitchens of the Irish diaspora, all has been changed, as W.B. Yeats would say, changed utterly.

We went to a great American cook, Mary Lydon, who traces her roots to Galway and Kerry, and asked her for her take on making the old dish new and scrumptious. She invited us into her kitchen and showed us how it’s done.

Ms. Lydon, the floor is yours:

Corned beef is not the Irish national dish, much to the surprise of many Americans. Rather, it is part of the Irish-American culture, originating in the late 19th century when the Irish found it a cheaply available substitute for their familiar bacon and cabbage.

In this country, there had also been a popular New England boiled dinner, which was similar. (The distinct difference from the Irish dish is the addition of beets.)

In recent years, we think of this dish when St. Patrick’s Day arrives. And it’s usually a dish served in questionable liquid with flabby meat and over-cooked vegetables.

We offer here a delicious alternative.


3-4 pounds corned beef (Choose thin or flat cut which is leanest and has a better appearance.)

If cuts available are smaller, choose two of similar size.)

1 onion, quartered

1 Tbs peppercorns

1 Tbs mustard seeds

1 Tsp cloves

2 bay leaves

2 garlic cloves, whole

12 small red potatoes

6 carrots

1 medium head of cabbage, preferably Savoy cabbage

1 14-oz can of whole beets, no sugar added


Remove fat “pad” on side of beef with sharp knife.

Put beef and next 6 ingredients in a large pot and cover with cold water

Bring to boil, skim top, cover and simmer at low for up to 3 hours.

Turn beef over midway, and test with fork in 2 to 3 hours.

Meat should be very tender but not falling apart.

When done, remove to baking dish with a little liquid and keep in a warm oven.

Strain and de-grease broth.

Scrub potatoes and leave whole; peel carrots and cut into chunks.

Cook each separately in lightly salted water. Drain each, toss in butter, and keep warm.

Cut cabbage in 8 wedges and tie with butcher’s twine to keep their shape.

Cook cabbage in broth until crisp tender (approx. 10 minutes). Drain and remove twine.

Warm beets in their liquid, drain and keep warm.

While cabbage cooks, slice beef.


Arrange meat and vegetables on a large heated platter.

Sprinkle vegetables with parsley.

Serve with cornichons and two kinds of Dijon mustard, smooth and country style.

Red wine and cold beer are naturals.

Dessert possibilities are endless. But, like James Beard, I think a perfect choice is chocolate cake. If guilt sets in, cut thin slices.

I love to serve this meal on a weekend when we have guests. Make enough for leftovers, and the next day, chop meat and vegetables together. Any proportions are fine. In a heavy pan, sauté a small chopped onion in some butter, add everything else, and cook over medium heat until hot and crispy.

Make dents in the hash, drop in as many eggs as people waiting patiently, cover for about 4-5 minutes until whites are cooked through and yolks are still runny.

Serve with really good rye bread, cold butter and ketchup.

Bloody Mary’s (with or without the vodka) are a great accompaniment.