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Inspiration from The Happiness Project

I just finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It’s not the typical book that I read, a sort of an upbeat self-improvement book. Ms Rubin tells the tale of her year-long quest to become happier. Her baseline was already pretty happy, but through a set of monthly resolutions, she becomes more mindful of habits and strategies for maximizing her daily happiness.

My own baseline is also pretty happy. Of course, I welcome extra happiness in my life. Yet, I’m not the kind of person who is remotely organized enough to set up, let alone follow through on, my own happiness project. Nevertheless, I found a lot of inspiration in this book.

Month by month, Ms Rubin found happiness in the little things. I embrace that wholeheartedly. I’ve always tried to fill my days with little things that make me happy. For example:

  • Reading in bed for 15 minutes when I first wake up
  • Starting the day with a cup of my favorite Earl Grey tea
  • Checking the garden for the tips of spring bulbs popping up (now that the snow melted!)
  • Taking my dog Bella for a walk in the woods
  • A steaming hot latte as an afternoon treat
  • Spotting a hawk soaring above
  • Falling asleep holding hands with my honey

Another thing the author mentions is being nicer. Since last week, I’ve been more conscious of trying to be nice to people, at home, at work, just out and around. It’s easier to do than I would have thought, and it’s a great mood lifter.

I am often overwhelmed by all the things I don’t have time to do. The author reminded me to try breaking things down into smaller tasks and attacking them as time allows. It’s only been a week, but five minutes spent here and there has yielded some progress.

If you want to check out more about The Happiness Project, you can check the website.

Lots of little food-related things make me happy. One is weekend breakfast. At our house, this is a weekly treat, sometimes on both Saturday and Sunday. With St Patrick’s Day last week and a 5-pound corned beef to work through, a natural choice for the weekend was some corned beef hash, topped with poached eggs. It’s not a fast breakfast, but we like weekend breakfast to be more leisurely. That includes the process of preparing the meal.

Corned Beef Hash
Serves 4
Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Russo & Sheila Lukins

2 boiling potatoes (about 1 lb), unpeeled, diced into ¼ inch pieces
4 Tbsp butter
½ green pepper, diced into ¼ inch pieces
½ red pepper, diced into ¼ inch pieces
1 onion, diced into ¼ inch pieces
¼ lb corned beef, diced into ¼ inch pieces
¼ cup + 1 Tbsp chopped Italian (flat) parsley, divided
1 tsp dried thyme
Salt & pepper to taste
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 scallions, thinly sliced

Place the potatoes in a saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside in a large bowl. (You can do this the night before.)

Melt 2 Tbsp butter in a large skillet. Add the onions and peppers. Cook over medium heat until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add to the potatoes in the bowl. Add the diced corned beef, ¼ cup parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. Stir gently to combine ingredients.

In the large skillet, heat 2 Tbsp butter with the olive oil. Add the hash and spread evenly in the skillet. Place a heavy lid or plate slightly smaller than the skillet on top of the hash, to weight it down. Cook over medium heat until it starts to brown, about 10 minutes. Remove the lid and turn it over as best you can (it will remain loose). Cook the other side until it is slightly browned, about 5 more minutes.

Divide the hash onto plates. Top each portion with one or two poached eggs. Sprinkle with scallions and the remaining chopped parsley.

If you want to serve with poached eggs, cook the eggs during the last 5 minutes that the hash is cooking.

March Charcutepalooza: Corned Beef

My husband Howard and I have joined forces to participate in Charcutepalooza. This group, organized by Cathy Barrow and Kim Foster, will spend the year playing with meat as we explore Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. This will be a joint effort. Howard will be “head meat guy” as we cure, brine, smoke, and otherwise preserve meat as the year passes by. I’ll be the sous chef, plus I’ll play scribe as I’m already blogging about what comes out of our kitchen.

Each month offers a new challenge. Experiences are summarized in a blog post on the 15th of the month. Duck prosciutto is one that can be done anytime this year. We missed the curing challenge in February, but we’ve joined up for March for brining as we corn a brisket for our annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner.

Having purchased a corned beef each March, sealed in its corning liquid and ready for a long cook with all the requisite vegetables, a home-corned beef is a revelation. There is no comparison. The process is quite easy. One of the biggest challenges was figuring out the right vessel for the brine process, one that was big enough for a 5-pound brisket, and would fit in the refrigerator. A 12-quart stockpot filled the bill. So, Howard prepared the brine, and the brisket spent five days submerged in the brine in the fridge. We like the Penzey’s pickling spice mix and are fortunate to live just one town away from an actual brick-and-mortar Penzey’s store.

Now comes the interesting part. For the past couple of years, Howard has been playing around with sous vide and LTLT (Low Temperature Long Time) cooking. Rather than several hours simmering on the stovetop, our corned beef was going to get the extra slow treatment. He had purchased a thermal immersion circulator on eBay and mounted it on plexiglass so it can sit over a large pot for cooking.

Thermal Immersion Circulator Rig

Howard vacuum-sealed the brined and rinsed corned beef into a FoodSaver bag. Based on timings recommended by Thomas Keller, he cooked the corned beef in the bag for 48 hours at 64C (147.2F). The gentle whir of the motor was background noise in the kitchen as it slowly cooked for two days.

Brisket In A Bag

After two days, it was exciting to cut open the bag and see the results: a firm corned beef, still a lovely pink color, that smelled just like the pickling spices. The taste? It was slightly salty and tasted just like a corned beef should taste, only better. The firm meat sliced nicely for a beautiful presentation.

The corned beef was the centerpiece for an early St. Patrick’s Day feast. I’ve been tweaking the menu for years to capture the spirit of a New England Boiled Dinner, but with more interest and flavor. With the sous vide method of cooking the meat, the option of boiling the vegetables in flavored water is eliminated. That’s sort of OK with me because the boiled vegetables are my least favorite part of the meal. Even though I like the vegetables themselves, I find the end result of boiling to be bland.

This year, I tried something new by roasting the carrots, parsnips, and beets. Over the weekend, at both Whole Foods and Wilson Farm, a local farmstand, we sampled colcannon, which was the perfect way to include the requisite potatoes and cabbage in the meal.

Betsy and Howard’s St. Patrick’s Day Menu

Sous Vide Corned Beef
With Horseradish Sauce & Mustard
Roasted Carrots, Parsnips, and Beets
Duet of Irish Soda Bread
(Scallion and the more traditional Raisin/Caraway)

The corned beef came out so well that a second one is simmering in its water bath for Howard’s office’s holiday potluck on Thursday.

This charcuterie book has been part of our library since it came out in 2005, but the only meat experiments we’ve tried were bacon, pancetta, and corned beef, so we’re excited to go further. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for April, and we still have to make the duck prosciutto.

Here are the recipes for the Horseradish Sauce and the Colcannon that accompanied our corned beef dinner.

Serves 4

2 lbs potatoes (russet or Yukon Gold), peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
½ small cabbage, cored and finely chopped, about 4 cups
2-3 scallions, sliced thin
¼ cup light cream
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Freshly ground pepper

Place the potatoes in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the cabbage and cook for 10 more minutes, or until potatoes are tender.

In the meantime, melt the butter in the cream. I did this in the microwave.

Place the sliced scallions in a colander, and drain the cooked potatoes and cabbage in the colander, wilting the scallions. Transfer all the vegetables to a large bowl or return to the pot. With a potato masher, mash the vegetables. Slowly add the cream and butter mixture to the vegetables, while stirring with a wooden spoon. Stir until incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Horseradish Sauce

½ cup plain yogurt
¼ cup sour cream
2 Tbsp grated horseradish
½ small onion, grated
Pinch cayenne
Fresh ground black pepper to taste

Whisk the yogurt and sour cream together until smooth. Stir in remaining ingredients. Taste for seasoning. Chill for at least 2 hours so flavors can mellow.