“I’ve always known inside that I’m Irish. Literally, I look like a leprechaun, there’s no denying it.”
Ben Hillis, who owns Puckers’ Gourmet Pickles with his wife Kelley, made this statement with a laugh. But Irish-ness runs deep through his veins, giving him a sense of identity that he associates with values of hard work, humility, taking care of family, and savoring lovingly home-cooked meals slowly at a common table.
“We’re the salt of the earth,” Hillis says. “No nobility here.”
That identity comes full force around St. Patrick’s Day as he prepares his corned beef and cabbage. The dish with which the holiday is often associated grew out of Irish and Jewish immigrants inter-mingling in Manhattan.
“Corned beef didn’t become a thing that was associated with Irish until the Irish came to America and found the beef brisket that was sold in delis,” Hillis said. “It was the closest thing to the salt pork they could find back home and afford.”
While cured corned beef can be purchased, Hillis prefers to prepare his own. He starts 11 days in advance by preparing a brine that he cooks over a low heat to meld its flavors together, and cools down overnight.
Then begins a 10-day curing, in which the brisket is placed in a giant brine-filled zip-locked bag, and cured for 10 days in the refrigerator.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Hillis begins cooking the meat “slow and low” on his stovetop, though he says using a slow cooker is acceptable. The beef simmers for several hours in the brine, additional liquid, and a puree of such vegetables as cabbage, carrots, celery, onion, and potatoes. Hillis gauges its readiness on texture and “how good the house smells.”
Toward the end, he adds more root vegetables and cabbage, cooking them through but not to mush. He then puts down a bed of Puckers’ sauerkraut, tops it with meat, and nests the vegetables around it.
The result is meat, deeply flavored by the initial puree, another layer of soft but still crunchy vegetables, and a crisp dash of brightness from the sauerkraut.
“Eating is such a visceral experience,” Hillis says. “When you slow down, tend to your food, you enjoy it even more.”
The Saratoga Farmers’ Market operates 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays at the Lincoln Baths building in the Saratoga Spa State Park through April. The market moves to High Rock Park in May.