Corned beef is one of those dishes that pops up on menus just before March 17, only to be forgotten shortly after, except in the form of a Reuben sandwich.
After writing my ode to pastrami sandwiches in January, I heard from readers throughout the region about corned beef, the brined and steamed brisket cousin to pastrami, which is brisket that has been rubbed and brined, then smoked.
While looking into recommendations from readers for where to find a great Reuben (see list of reader suggestions below), I found something worth noting: House-made corned beef. Not that pre-brined, pre-packaged stuff that you can find at your local supermarket, but the kind brined from scratch.
I found it at an unexpected place: the Rainier Room, a student-run restaurant at Clover Park Technical College. The Rainier Room is an extension of the schools culinary arts training program.
Dean Massey, who heads the program, said students learn all kinds of old-world meat preservation techniques. Right now, theyre learning to corn brisket and cure bacon. Soon, theyll be grinding their own sausages and going full-on charcuterie, joked Massey.
Were focusing on going back to the basics and teaching. Its not that hard to do those cured and ground meats. Its all about rediscovering what weve kind of lost to convenience, Massey said.
That is to say, weve gotten lazy. Where home cooks 40 years (or even 100 years) ago would preserve their own briskets, todays home cook is much more likely to pick up a pre-brined, bagged corned brisket at the supermarket. With modern refrigeration, brining and preservation no longer is technically necessary of course, but the process imparts that salty flavor and pink color we expect of preserved brisket.
What were trying to do is to make them understand its so easy to make so many things that our society treats as a convenience buy. We buy corned beef and dont think about it, but the process is so simple, Massey said.
Students trim up brisket, the large cut of beef typically used to make corned beef, and prep it for brining. The brisket is then submerged in a brine containing sodium nitrate. What (students) find is that (the nitrates) really help with the microorganisms. Its one of few chemicals that will kill botulism. It helps with those anaerobic bacteria that are difficult to kill. Its a nice process to preserve the (meat) and keep it safe, but also give us those nice salty flavors, he said.
Students flavor the brine with pickling spices to impart that fruity, complicated flavor for which the Rainier Room Reuben is known: coriander, ginger, allspice, mace and the tiniest hint of cinnamon.
A week in the brine and its done. After it is slow simmered until thoroughly cooked, the corned beef is sliced thin and served on grilled marble rye, glued together with a slice of Emmenthaler and a drizzle of Thousand Island dressing incorporated into the sauerkraut. Bargain priced at $7 and served with crunchy-creamy potato croquettes, the Reuben is available only from 11:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays.
And theres a catch: You need to make reservations to dine in the Rainier Room.
The Rainier Room is one of those dining experiences youve got to enjoy at least once if you call yourself a South Sound restaurant hound. Its staffed with earnest students about to embark on restaurant careers, so that student serving you tableside might one day be the owner of your favorite restaurant. Students oversee everything at the Rainier Room, from seating to serving, food prep to menu design.