The Tough Go Chopping

Humble Hash, the Quintessential Comfort Food

Like many hashes, this version combining sweet potatoes and andouille sausage ascends to a higher plane with the addition of an egg, either fried or poached.
Like many hashes, this version combining sweet potatoes and andouille sausage ascends to a higher plane with the addition of an egg, either fried or poached. (By Dominic Bracco Ii For The Washington Post)
By Scott Reitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 11, 2009; Page F01

One of my first run-ins with hash was a gastronomic awakening, literally. In fact, I was barely conscious -- ears still ringing, senses plastered over from the previous evening's excess -- when it called to me.

Heaped into a chafing dish in a drab basement bar, Chiclet-size cubes of potato were suspended in an emulsion of meat that looked as if it had been extruded from a toothpaste tube. Hardly appetizing. But when topped with an egg, brightened with a few shakes of hot sauce and paired with a bloody mary, this humble plate soothed my suffering head and renewed my morning. I'd found my hangover breakfast, and ever since I've turned to it again and again.

Hash is inelegant, frankly, with a less-than-eloquent name and a somewhat sketchy history. The name first shows up in English in the mid-17th century, derived from the French word "hacher," which means "to chop." But when I set out to track down the dish's true origins and a recipe to match, I found historic references popping up all over Europe and America.

In the 19th century, restaurants serving inexpensive meals became known as hash houses. Canned corned beef was a mainstay for British soldiers during both world wars. Eaten cold straight from the can and lacking potatoes, butter and other nice flavors, this "bully beef" probably would make a hangover worse. Not quite what I was looking for.

Mary Johnson Lincoln's 1884 "Boston Cook Book" includes a dish that resembles modern-day hash. Lincoln calls for equal parts meat and potatoes, or two parts potatoes to one part meat, all of it to be finely minced and cooked in a spider, a cast-iron skillet with legs that elevate it over a fire. She cites the importance of fat in the dish and warns against stirring, which would prevent the formation of a rich, brown crust. Now I was getting somewhere.

At the close of the 19th century, here in Washington hash was making headlines. Maggie Maloney, the cook for influential Ohio senator Mark A. Hanna, made a renowned corned beef hash for the regular breakfasts he hosted for friends, the president and political adversaries. Political dignitaries angled for breakfast invitations as Hanna added leaves to his morning table. On more than one occasion, the New York Times reported, Maloney's hash "brought the light of reason to recalcitrant legislators."

Imagine: corned beef hash so good it had become a tool of persuasion, so good it entitled Maloney to a $25,000 inheritance after Hanna's death. That's a pretty impressive sum considering Hanna's entire estate was valued at $150,000. That was the hash I had to have at home. Unfortunately, Maloney's recipe, though widely distributed at the time, never fully captured her masterpiece, which it was said could never be reduced to mathematical demonstration. But times have changed, and so, hopefully, has the ability to capture food wisdom on paper.

At Cafe du Parc downtown, just a few blocks but more than a century away from the Hanna breakfasts, chef Christophe Marque prepares a traditional hash that's requested by many overnight guests. His is a distant relative to the food-service canned varieties, and the extra attention produces notable results. When prepared with freshly cooked corned beef, fingerling potatoes, sweet peppers and mushrooms, this otherwise pedestrian dish approaches the sublime. [Recipe: Cafe du Parc Corned Beef Hash]

But hash isn't reserved for corned and roast beef alone. In fact, any combination of chopped ingredients cooked together in a single skillet could be worthy of the title.

Will Artley, executive chef of the Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria, explored many incarnations while tweaking a new brunch menu. Artley, 32, thinks of hash as cowboy cooking: a one-pot meal using what's on hand. Standing over a six-burner stove that belched more heat than a bonfire, Artley prepared a wild mushroom and asparagus hash bound in a cream sauce spiked with soft cow's milk cheese, making for a dish so rich you don't miss the meat. [Recipe: Mushroom and Asparagus Hash]

Andouille sausage with sweet potatoes; prosciutto, fingerling potatoes and fennel; tasso ham with black-eyed peas and blue cheese. Artley navigated his walk-in like a choose-your-own adventure, turning out hashes with flavors from around the globe. In between plating one version and prepping the next, he told of a breakfast hash his mother used to make regularly. Eggs, tortillas and tomatoes lent a decidedly Mexican flair to a dish that can use almost any mixture of proteins and starch, cooked to crisp perfection. [Recipe: Sweet Potato and Andouille Hash]

With so much left to interpretation, what elements are common to a transcendent hash? For me, anything that grabs the leftovers of a previous meal and spins them in a new direction is a good start. Chances are if last night's meal was well thought out, the flavors will get along together nicely the next day. After all, one reason hash is identified with Saint Patrick's Day is the Irish appreciation of corned beef and potatoes, brought together with cabbage and other vegetables in a boiled dinner or the next morning as hash.

For all of hash's flexibility, the standard remains corned beef: gently boiled, then shredded with whatever fat didn't render out in the cooking liquid. Onion and earthy mushrooms cooked in ample butter. Boiled or steamed potatoes cooked till soft but not mushy, the perfect state to absorb the surrounding flavors.

That's just the start. If it is to realize its full potential, a great corned beef hash must be enlivened with something bright. Whether you choose a simple shake of hot sauce for heat, a squeeze of lemon or a tangle of greens dressed in vinaigrette alongside, acid cuts through the richness of an otherwise heavy dish.

Much of that richness comes in the crowning touch: an egg. Fried or poached, it doesn't matter, so long as the center remains viscous when served. Early Phoenicians thought that a primeval egg had split open to form heaven and earth. Liberated with the tines of a fork, a runny yolk gushes to enrobe a down-to-earth dish in a heavenly sauce.

Food this good makes it easy to see how Hanna's adversaries found it difficult to oppose him. Come to think of it, I'm not really happy with my latest property tax assessment. Perhaps I'll have the City Council over for breakfast.

Scott Reitz is a freelance food writer who lives in Alexandria.

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