Boston Boiled Dinner for Evacuation Day

March 17, 2011

Boiled Dinner

There’s a contrarian streak in Bostonians that I find to be alternately endearing and infuriating, depending on whether I am merely observing or the recipient. Today is a day when I honor that stubbornness, taking great pleasure in referring to the observed holiday as Evacuation Day rather than Saint Patrick’s Day. You won’t find a more local holiday; it’s celebrated only in Suffolk County (which contains the City of Boston), and neighboring Cambridge and Somerville across the Charles River. The date commemorates the day the siege of Boston ended in 1776. When George Washington fortified Dorchester Heights with cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga, British general William Howe had no choice but to retreat to Nova Scotia.

I like to confuse newcomers to the area by explaining that the holiday is in remembrance of the day Saint Patrick drove the British out of Boston, just as he allegedly did with snakes in Ireland. If they don’t object to my explanation, I continue on, advising them that we don’t eat corned beef and cabbage, we eat Boston boiled dinner. Very few of my victims realize:

  1. Saint Patrick lived thirteen centuries before the American Revolution.
  2. Boston boiled dinner is corned beef and cabbage.

Due to unfortunate timing, the March Charcutepalooza challenge – brine beef and make corned beef – had to be completed on the 15th, the deadline date for each monthly challenge. This left me in the awkward position of having to prepare the traditional Evacuation Day dinner six days early. The Ruhls also specify that participants not post the full recipes, which is why my post was lacking the usual level of detail.

Rest assured I thoroughly documented the process. To paraphrase Penn Jillette, I spent days preparing this meal, you’re damned well going to spend a few minutes looking at some photos. I will remain true to the spirit of the original challenge and refer you to the posted recipes, beginning with the brine and pickling spice recipes.

I began with kosher salt, sugar, pickling spice, minced garlic, and pink salt (6.25 percent sodium nitrite).

I added everything to a pot with a gallon of hot tap water and stirred until the salts and sugar were dissolved. I had a five and a half pound slab of first-cut beef brisket ready.

It just fit it its new briny home, which was placed in the fridge.

Five days later it had turned an unappetizing shade of grayish brown.

Many of the challenge participants panicked at this stage, wondering why the beef wasn’t pink and assuming they had used to little pink salt. Pink salt is dyed pink to distinguish it from regular salt as a safety precaution; the coloring agent has no effect on the meat. The sodium nitrite, now fully incorporated into the beef, would turn pink when heat activated.

Which leads to the next step, cooking the brisket. I put it in a clean pot with enough water to cover, then added two sliced onions, two chopped carrots, nine cloves of garlic, three bay leaves, and a sachet of parsley, thyme, and another tablespoon of pickling spice. I simmered the beef for four hours.

When the pot cooled down to room temperature, I returned it to the fridge for an overnight rest. Every corned beef recipe emphasizes this step, which is standard procedure for braised meats. When boiled diner day arrived, I transferred the brisket to a slow cooker, strained the liquid, and added it to the pot, where I let it warm up for a few hours.

About half an hour before serving time I set a pot of baby red potatoes to simmer until they were tender.

I prepped the rest of my ingredients: a whole savoy cabbage cut into five wedges (usually four, but I had to feed five), and three ounces of slab bacon cut into lardons.

I rendered the bacon until it was crisp, then removed it from the pan, leaving all of the fat behind. I seared both sides of the cabbage wedges in the hot fat until they started to brown.

I added enough of the warm braising liquid to come up about a quarter of the height of the cabbage, brought the pan to a simmer, then covered it and let it cook for ten minutes. When the cabbage was tender but not soft I stirred in a tablespoon of Dijon mustard.

I drained the potatoes, cut them in half, and tossed them with two tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of chopped parsley. I removed the beef from the slow cooker and attempted to slice it neatly, but it was so tender it just fell apart. As I have previously noted, it’s easier to cut the beef while it’s cold and then heat it in the cooking liquid.

I plated everything, winding up with the dinner you have already read about, but now you know its proper name.

Sadly, as of this year Evacuation Day will no longer be an official county holiday. Giving employees a extra day off was seen as wasteful, so it was eliminated. But, in true contrarian Boston spirit, it will wind up costing the state more this year than last: since it was still an official holiday this year, union regulations require that employees get paid time and a half when they work on a holiday. Yet another example of the love/hate relationship we have with Boston.

At least the boiled dinner is here to stay.

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