New England Boiled Dinner
2-4 pounds of corned beef
Rinse the brine off meat with cold water; put the corned beef in a deep pot and cover with boiling water; cover pot, bring water back to a boil, turn down low, simmer meat four hours or more, test for tenderness, meat will separate easily with a fork when done.
8 small to medium yellow onions, peeled, make cross-cut in bottom to prevent splitting apart
Vegetables can be cooked one of two ways:
Add: carrots, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, onions
Pickle (for 2 pounds of cooked beets, if 1 pound of beets is used split the recipe in half)
Heat to boiling, stirring constantly
To Corn Beef (Homemade Gray Colored Corned Beef)
4 pounds of brisket or other cut of lean beef
Put salt and sugar in bottom of pot, add spices, pour boiling water over mixture
Options on Corning Beef
Time to Corn: Wide range of timing
* Saltpeter is Sodium Nitrate which if substituted for regular salt produces a red (pink) colored meat. Sodium nitrate is found naturally in spinach, beets, and broccoli.
Sometimes the real story is better than the quaint – nostalgic story. In Secrets of New England Cooking originally published in 1947, the authors speculated as to how the New England Boiled Dinner came in to being.
“No one knows who cooked the first boiled dinner. No monuments have been raised or tablets engraved to the pioneering cook who first thought of the incomparable combination of meat and vegetables which ranks with baked beans, brown bread and Indian pudding as one of New England’s major contributions to American cookery. But we can imagine the first boiled dinner was as much of an accident as Charles Lamb’s roast pig. One day perhaps, an unknown New England housewife took a hunk of corned beef brisket from the barrel in the cellar, put it in the big dinner kettle, covered it with water, and hung it over the fire to simmer. She brought vegetables up at the same time, washed the beets, turnips, and carrots, peeled the potatoes, and sliced the cabbage ready to cook.
But the day was not far along, so she decided to finish her weaving on the loom. Since the children were at school and the menfolk busy, the day went quickly and quietly. Suddenly she realized the morning was almost gone and no dinner ready so she threw all the vegetables into the kettle with the corned beef. After all, she thought, I can’t take time now to heat water to boil them. And there was the pot of corned beef simmering gently just ready for the vegetables.
Neither of them had any idea that before many years, every Thursday noon, year in and year out, farm families in New England would have on their tables heaping platters of the meat and vegetables that became the traditional “bil’d dish.”
“Notwithstanding that this dish has fallen into ill-repute with many people, it may be prepared so as to be both palatable and nutritious for those who exercise freely. It is more suitable for cold seasons. The most healthful and economical way, though perhaps not the old-fashioned way, is to boil the beef the day before.” [Italics added for emphasis]
In the Appledore Cook Book from 1872, the author, a noted cook, has this to say. “Wash a piece of beef weighing ten pounds; put it into two gallons of cold water; when it comes to a boil, skim carefully and boil very slowly six hours. Some boil all kinds of vegetables in the same pot; but there is this objection to this method: you lose the distinctive flavor of each vegetable, and the beef is flavored with the vegetables, which is very unpleasant when it is cold.” [Italics added for emphasis]
Fannie Farmer in her Boston Cooking School Cook Book of 1912 had this to say. “Corned beef has but little nutritive value. It is used to give variety to our diet in summer, when fresh meats prove too stimulating. It is eaten by the workingman to give bulk to his food.”
Mrs. Lincoln and Fannie Farmer both advocated cooking the meat, removing it from the liquid, skimming off the fat and then cooking the vegetables all but the beets in the broth. Beets took too long so were cooked alone and then pickled and served as a side dish.
The top cooking authors of Boston and New Hampshire gave specific directions on how to cook the meat and the vegetables. The meat and vegetables were not thrown in the pot together. The meat was cooked and taken out. Then the vegetables were added and cooked in the meat broth.
New England’s Boiled Dinner may have been a staple in many a New England family as it used a cheap cut of beef which was easily “corned” and easily cooked by boiling. Corned meat is salted meat either through a dry or wet process. Most used two or more salts and brown sugar or molasses. Mrs. Gardiner’s 1763 recipe pickled her briscuit [brisket] of beef, then boiled it, afterwards packed it dry and stored for later use. Other beef, pork and mutton (old lamb) hams were salted and smoked, and later the meat was cooked. To her mutton-ham she added cabbage. The wording in her book is exactly the same as a London book in 1784 twenty years later. Where Mrs. Gardiner got her recipe is unknown, possibly from an earlier London cook book. This is the first mention of adding a vegetable to any salted meat.
Pickled, salted, and corned are all terms used to describe beef brisket that was treated with salt. The term “corned” shows up in an 1833 Boston published cook book “The American Frugal Housewife”. It caught on and became the common way to refer to a salted brisket of beef. By 1872 Appledore and 1884 Boston Cooking School cook books both used the term “corned beef.”
Pre-1870’s cook books call for cooking stew beef and salted beef without vegetables. By the1870’s the meat and vegetables were being cooked together as noted by the cook book authors. What is printed in cook books was not necessarily what cooks were cooking. In Good Maine Food (1939) there is an excerpt from a 1775 journal entry in which the author describes how the meal was prepared. “Point Aux Tremble … In the evening before bedtime, the females of the house prepare the dinner of the following day. It may be particularly described, as it was done in our view for a number of days together, and during the time was never varied. This was the manner: a piece of pork or beef, or a portion of each kind, together with a sufficiency of cabbage, potatoes, and turnips seasoned with salt, and an adequate quantity of water, were put into a neat tin kettle with a close lid. The kettle was placed on the stove in the room where we all slept, and there it simmered till the time of rising, when it was taken to a small fire in the kitchen where the stewing continued till near noon, when they dined. The contents were turned into a large basin. …. Our [soldiers] dinner followed in a few hours. The manner of our cookery excited astonishment in our hosts. As much beef was consumed in a single meal, as would have served this family for a week.” –John Joseph Henry, Campaign Against Quebec, entry for Nov. 18, 1775 (March to Quebec, p361). John Henry was as curious about his hosts eating habits as they were about his eating habits. The Canadian hosts were cooking with regular beef and pork in which they added vegetables in with the meat. The vegetables: cabbage, turnips and potatoes are a similar mix to the mix of vegetables used in New England’s boiled dinners: cabbage, turnips, carrots and potatoes. Did John Henry influence New England cooks? Or did some of our Canadian neighbors move south into New England and bring with them their Canadian Stew? The close match of ingredients seems to similar not to have had some connection. New England cooks use corned beef which required a long cooking time to which they added the same mix of vegetables plus, carrots. In changing to corned beef and adding carrots they created the New England Boiled Dinner.
In New England the boiled dinner was made in all seasons. The meat was generally corned brisket of beef but salt pork was sometimes added. The common vegetables cooked in the meat broth were cabbage, carrots, small white turnips, and potatoes. Crooked Neck squash and Summer Squash were sometimes listed in recipes. Parsnips were optional. Rutabaga was another uncommon vegetable. In summer when beets were young and tender they were sometimes added with the other vegetables. Most often beets were cooked separately and pickled, and served as a side dish even though they were listed along with all the other vegetables. Onions were not used. Boiled dinners were not seasoned.
The earliest use of the name New England Boiled Dinner is in 1936 in a regional cook book called New England Cook Book from the Culinary Arts Press in Reading, Pennsylvania who produced numerous regional cookbooks. It had obviously become known as a New England region dish.
The boiled dinner is a New England dish. But it was a working man’s dish. The upper class of the Victorian age looked down on the dish as expressed in “this dish has fallen into ill-repute”. Today, “Corned Beef n’ Cabbage”, New England’s Boiled Dinner is associated with St. Patrick’s Day.