I have a real love and genuine appreciation for classic diners. Nothing is more magnificent than watching a true hash slinger in their element during a breakfast (or late night) rush. Poetry in motion, my friends. I read somewhere that a famous chef once said he’d take a breakfast cook from a Waffle House over a new culinary grad any day and I believe it. I would too – those guys know their $*@%. When you’re in the weeds and the line is going down in flames, THAT is the guy you want to have your back, not some princess. It makes me a little sad that there are fewer and fewer true diners anymore. Trendy brunch places that serve dessert pancakes and sous vide eggs are on the uptick and that’s a shame. There is nothing better than classic buttermilk pancakes cooked on a well-seasoned flat top, slicked with sausage grease and the stray green pepper from someone’s Denver omelette. A happy sigh escapes at the mere thought.
My favorite, absolute favorite, diner dish of all times is an order of crispy corned beef hash, a runny egg (or two) and a few slices rye toast served with those hard little butter packets. I know, I know. Pass the Lipitor, but everything in moderation as Julia always said. This is no farm-raised, house brined, carefully cubed beef gently tossed with organic baby fingerling potatoes. Not in the least. This stuff most likely came out of a can and doesn’t look too pretty in its initial state (I’ll spare you additional descriptors.) But something magical happens on that flat top where it’s crisped to perfection next to the hash browns. I’ve tried to recreate this mystical affect at home, with homemade quality ingredients, and while very good it’s just not the same. I lack the high heat, grease-slicked grill and while I wear my apron slung low and my baseball cap backwards, it’s just not the same.
Saturday is St. Patrick’s Day, where every corner restaurant and home cook will be cranking out corned beef in one form or another. In my house, I will be making some corned beef & potato pancakes with the requisite runny egg rather early Saturday morning before I head out to watch the Coast Guard dye the Chicago River it’s traditional shade of bright green. It’s all about laying a good solid base you see, in preparation for a day that despite everyone’s best intentions involves a rather large amount of drinking. Or at least it does in my world. Because the blessed holiday falls on a Saturday this year, there will be an unusually high contingent of idiots meandering about so by eating something substantial prior to venturing out, I can pretty much guarantee that my mood will be much better and perhaps even more tolerant of random acts of stupidity.
The recipe is pretty easy if you have cooked corned beef on hand. If you don’t, it’s a very simple process in a slow cooker – put the beef, a few carrots and a quartered onion in a crockpot, cover with water and cook on low overnight. Let it go a little long and it will shred really easily. Add cabbage in the last hour or two if you like and you’ve got two meals ready to go. If you don’t have a crockpot, a few hours on the stove at a covered simmer is fine too but there’s something rather wonderful about waking up to that fantastic smell in the morning. I call that Irish aromatherapy.
Once I’ve laid my base with a hearty meal and watched the river spectacle, the next step will be to patronize a bar that does not insist on serving its Guinness in plastic cups. That is something by which I cannot abide and annoys me to no end. It is an affront to me as a drinker that someone would even consider serving such a wonderful elixir in anything other than a proper glass pint. Hell hath no fury like a discriminating beer drinker served plastic. And for the love of all that is holy, keep that bad green beer far far away from me. I shudder at the thought.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: GOOD SOLID BASE LAYING CONSTRUCTION. These are hearty and filling not to mention, rather delicious. Think of it as your philanthropic and civic duty to provide something nourishing to absorb the inevitable quantities of beer that will be consumed. Or if a drinking binge is not in your future but you’re heading to a more civilized function, make them small for an hors d’oeuvre, topped with a little chive sour cream. Now wouldn’t that be lovely? There’s a dearth of Irish-y appetizers so there you have it.
CORNED BEEF & POTATO PANCAKES
Makes about 16 small cakes
The first time I made these I wasn’t entirely happy with the results – I had used a whole egg to bind and it wasn’t right. A quick online search revealed a very similar recipe to the one I had cobbled together only it used egg whites and added a bit of baking powder to lighten the cakes. I liked the whites very much and didn’t necessarily notice any positive or negative effects from the baking powder but left it in anyway because I liked the idea in theory.
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¾ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon baking powder
2 medium Russet potatoes (about 10 ounces each) peeled & shredded
½ medium onion, very thinly sliced
2 cups cooked corned beef, shredded into ½” pieces (about 6 ½ ounces)
2 egg whites, whisked until frothy
vegetable oil for pan frying
- Peel and shred the potatoes using the large holes on a box grater or the shredding blade of your food processor.
- In batches, places a handful or two of the shredded potatoes in a clean kitchen towel and wring dry to remove excess moisture. Yes, this is tedious but it makes for a better textured potato cake so just do it..
- In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, pepper and baking powder to combine. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the squeezed shredded potatoes, sliced onion, shredded corned beef, egg whites and the flour mixture.
- Mix well to make a mixture that is loose, but holds together well when squeezed, adding a bit more flour if necessary.
- Preheat the oven to 300°F if desired to keep the cakes warm while cooking in batches.
- In a large skillet over medium-high, heat about ½” of oil until a piece of potato sizzles immediately upon contact.
- Working in batches and using about ¼ cup of batter per potato cake, compact the mixture in your hands, shaping into a round flat pancake-like shape, about ½” thick.
- Carefully ease the potato cake into the oil, leaving 1”-2” between the cakes (4 or 5 cakes in a 12” skillet is perfect.)
- Pan fry until golden brown on the bottom then carefully turn to brown the additional side, about 3-4 minutes per side. (Hint: a combination of spatula and fork works great for carefully flipping the potato cake.)
- Transfer browned potato cakes to a wire rack set over a sheet pan and place in the preheated oven to keep warm while you continue to cook the remaining batter.
- Serve with a runny egg for a perfect meal. The potato cakes also can be reheated on a baking sheet in a 400°F oven for 3-5 minutes – can be made ahead up to 1 day but are really best right out of the pan.