There used to be a kosher-style (i.e., non-kosher) delicatessen a block from our apartment. This meant that corned beef and pastrami were once a 45-second walk away from our front door. About ten or a dozen years ago it was replaced by a photocopying shop and now all we see through the window is ream after ream of paper made from grove after grove of trees. Mind you, these days the difference can sometimes be hard to detect: fat phobia too often renders these once-succulent meats sawdust-dry, made of excessively lean cuts to begin with and then, to add insult to injury, trimmed of virtually all the external fat that would at least have provided the illusion of lusciousness. It isn't clear to me what kind of phobia engenders the blandness that also afflicts a great deal of 21st-century corned beef, but somebody's obviously afraid of something, because a lot of this stuff barely tastes of the water it was cooked in.
Even in what passes for a great deli, ordering a corned beef on rye can be like spinning the wheel of fortune, though admittedly the odds of getting a good sandwich are slightly better than those of hitting the jackpot at the county fair. Still, like a compulsive gambler, I keep doing it (ordering corned beef sandwiches that is). Sometimes I win, and wolf down the entire sandwich, irrespective of its size -- they can weigh a pound in some delis. But more often the house's built-in advantage kicks in, and the best I can do is eat a few desiccated bites, chomp on a couple of pickles (still reliably good) and ask for the check -- and a doggie bag.
Why bother with a doggie bag when the corned beef isn't any good? Because even mediocre corned beef can be turned into a delicious corned beef hash, that's why. If the meat is dry, there'll be plenty of moisture and a bit of oil from the sauteed onions and peppers; if it's bland, you're in control of the salt and pepper -- plus, there are those tasty onions and peppers again. (On the other hand, it need hardly be said that excellent corned beef will make your hash even better.)
And what a wonderful thing hash is. I would occasionally have breakfast at that same defunct neighborhood deli, and most of the time that's what I'd order. The football-shaped mound of crisp hash would come centered on one of those inevitable deli plates: white, thick and also more or less football-shaped, its glaze crackled by years of -- well, years of hash-slinging. It would be topped with two poached eggs and sauced from the also inevitable ketchup bottle. A good hash -- and this was a good hash -- is simultaneously crisp and steamy-soft. It is a potato experience; it is a meat experience; it is an onion experience; it is a poached egg experience. It is an integrated dish, but at the same time you can pick out bites of whichever constituent part tickles your fancy. Yet it seems that no one has written a sonnet in praise of corned beef hash. Or even a limerick. Not until today, anyway:
There was a young man from Mount Ash
Who found himself lacking in cash.
He took yesterday's lunch,
Added peppers for crunch,
And fried it all up into hash.
Enough of that. Let's move right along to the recipe. Note that the proportions given below are by no means sacrosanct, though they represent my ideal. If you are using doggie-bag corned beef (or indeed a mixture of corned beef and pastrami), you will probably not have exactly one pound of meat. It doesn't matter; 3/4 pound is enough too, though 11/2 pounds would be too much. Half a potato more or less won't spoil the dish either.
Note also that another great dish -- roast beef hash -- can be put together on exactly the same principles. This is best made from the well-done meat around and between the bones of a rib roast, supplemented by trimmings from the deckle: the thin layer of meat that lies on top of the rib roast, which also tends to get well done even if you take care to roast your beef to medium-rare. Both of these are relatively fibrous, and ideally should be shredded rather than chopped when made into hash (this is true of the corned beef as well -- see recipe). Roast beef hash too can be served with a poached egg or two. It is surprisingly good with hollandaise sauce, though ketchup remains a viable option.
Corned Beef Hash
(3 to 5 main-course servings)
Depending on whether or not it is eaten with poached eggs, the hash can easily be stretched to serve 6 as a breakfast dish by topping each serving with 1 to 2 eggs.
Keep in mind that the best hash with the best texture is made with shredded, not chopped, beef. It's also served with warmed, not cold, ketchup.
11/2 pounds (about 4 medium) russet (Idaho) potatoes
2 medium onions (8 to 10 ounces total)
1 red bell pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional to taste
1 pound cooked corned beef (see instructions)
1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Warmed ketchup (optional)
Poached eggs (optional)
1. Wash but do not peel the potatoes.
Cook the potatoes until tender when pierced with a thin-bladed knife, either in a preheated 375-degree oven for about 1 hour or in the microwave on high power. Set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, cut the potato in half lengthwise and use a big spoon to scoop out the flesh, in odd-size chunks. Discard the peels; place the potato chunks in a large bowl.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, cut the onions and bell pepper into slices about 1/4 inch wide.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat in a 10-inch skillet, preferably nonstick. When the oil is hot, add the onions, bell pepper and about 1/2 teaspoon salt and toss to combine. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are fairly tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the potatoes; set aside to cool for a few minutes. Do not wash the skillet; you will need it to cook the hash.
3. If you are making your hash from leftover meat, cut it into strips about 1/2 inch wide. But the very best hash with the very best texture is made with shredded beef, so if you cook your own or buy it in a piece rather than sliced, cut it across the grain into slices about 1 inch wide, then use your fingers to pull the beef apart into shreds. (This is easier if the meat is not too cold.)
4. Add the corned beef and the parsley to the potato mixture along with some salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Use your hands to combine the ingredients, squeezing to mash some of the potatoes; there should be a variety of potato textures, ranging from a puree (which will help hold the hash together) to chunks of different sizes. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly.
5. Return the skillet to medium-low heat and warm the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. When the oil is hot, scoop the hash mixture into the skillet and, using the back of a wooden spoon or a spatula, tamp down the mixture to compact it and even the top. Cook for at least 20 minutes, until nice and brown.
6. Now, you must turn it. Wearing oven mitts, first take a rubber or flexible metal spatula and slide it between the hash and the skillet to make sure that none of the hash is sticking to the pan. Place a plate or an upside-down pan lid next to the edge of the skillet and, working quickly and deftly, slide the hash out of the skillet and onto the flat surface in a single movement. Invert the skillet over the hash and flip the hash over. The crusty side should now be on top. Return the skillet to medium-low heat and cook until crisp and brown on the second side, about 20 minutes.
Slide the hash onto a serving platter. (An alternative approach is, after the first 20 minutes of browning, to break up the hash and mix the crusty parts with the non-crusty parts, then to repeat this after 10 minutes, finally leaving it undisturbed until the bottom crust is brown again. This results in extra crispness with the bonus of not having to flip the hash.)
7. To serve, cut the hash into wedges. Note that the wedges will not necessarily hold together like perfect Wayne Thiebaud slices of cake. If you like, serve with warmed ketchup and top with one or two softly poached eggs per person.
Roast Beef Hash: Follow the corned beef hash recipe, using the shredded, well-done meat from around and between the bones of a rib roast, supplemented by trimmings from the deckle: the thin layer of meat that lies on top of the rib roast, which also tends to get well done even if you take care to roast your beef to medium-rare. Add 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or 1/2 teaspoon Hungarian paprika to the onions and peppers as they cook, and supplement the parsley with 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves.
Per serving (using corned beef): 424 calories, 20 gm protein, 35 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 89 mg cholesterol, 7 gm saturated fat, 1,318 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
When not hoarding corned beef or earning his living as an editor, Edward Schneider translates French books on food, cooking and music.