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Real Corned Beef: Worth The Effort

Every cook now and then is confronted by The Skeptical Heckler, that person who insists that all the time and effort you put into your latest kitchen masterpiece is wasted. All people really need to satisfy their hunger, the person reasons, is a drive-through.

Forget him. He doesn't know there's more at stake than just a full stomach.

Flavor matters, of course, but the epicurean knows that where you get your ingredients matters, too. How it was grown matters. How it was processed matters.

To wit, the staple of St. Patrick's Day meals across America — a hearty corned beef brisket and cabbage dinner. Yes, you can get the pink hunk of meat in a plastic bag, complete with "special spice packet." It'll fill you up. Guests will drop by and shovel it in.

But you're more than that. You care. You're no hash slinger — you're serious about food.

Considering that corned beef has been made since ye olden days, there's no reason you can't do it ye olde self. Have an experience, not just a meal.

The first time I brined my own brisket, I watched the butcher deftly trim a 14-pound slab of fat and meat down to 7 pounds of quality that fed my family and delighted co-workers.

The second time, I bought a brisket from the Ancilla Beef and Grain Farm, down the road from me, in Donaldson, Ind., and part of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ ministries, who want to teach people about their fragile relationship with the earth.

The cattle are pasture-raised, and any feed they do get has no animal protein, no hormones and no unnecessary antibiotics. Plus, the sisters bless the animals before they send them off to the (regional) butcher, perfect for St. Pat's Day.

In essence: immaculate beef. Of course, if you can't get such heavenly beef where you are, ask a butcher and don't be afraid to spend a bit. That's why cabbage is cheap.

The time and refrigerator space it took to brine the meat myself was worth it in the end. Yes, there was the smug self-satisfaction of buying local (made even more important in today's economy), but there was practical satisfaction as well. We live in farm country, after all.

By calling a local grocer, I received sage admonishment against Internet recipes that instruct the cook to spend up to a month soaking the beef. Said grocer shared a brine recipe that took just a week and was tastier than what comes from the chain-mart.

And the pasture-raised beef? Well, let me tell you. The first flavor that comes to mind with corned beef for most people is pickles. Makes sense — those are the spices used. But this cow ate grass, and solid, beefy flavor was the foundation of every bite and was way beyond anything I'd ever gotten from the store. Sure, there was the pickly flavor — but as the helpful sidekick to the strong and dependable beef.

And that's where The Skeptical Heckler will be defeated (and should admit it when he gets a bite of that dinner, should I deign to invite him). In the end, the food tastes better because it is better, and no one can argue with that. It's not that you're doing more than is necessary; it's just necessary to do more.

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Mike Petrucelli