Saturday, July 28, 2007


Corned beef hash and the closely related hash-browned potatoes are two of the most maligned great traditional foods in the land. These popular items can be seen on menus all over the country. Hash-browns are so ubiquitous as to be included even at the likes of McDonald's. At least nominally. Corned beef hash is sold in cans in most every supermarket. And served from cans in most every diner. There are exceptions of course - but they are just that. Exceptions.

I can think of some places I've had actual hash. Some more traditional than others.

Many years ago, one could get a terrific hash - either corned beef or (get this) roast beef - at the dining room of the Ritz Carlton in Boston. You'd have to wear a tie to breakfast to partake. But it was worth it. Every morning, they'd use up the corned beef and roast beef they had left from the previous evening's dinner service to perpare quite good hash. And they would poach your egg properly. Needless to say, being the Ritz, and being in Boston, they didn't have proper rye bread for toast - but that's just quibbling. The meat was fresh, and the food was prepared with earnest respect for a deservedly great tradition.

Today, at the Carnegie Deil in Manhattan, you can get corned beef or pastrami hash of a sort. I regard their offering as a food of interest, but do not find it satisfying of my expectations of a proper hash. I could go into what's amiss there, but I'd rather first recognize them for trying. It's an honest product - and if you like it, you'll be delighted with the portion. As with the fabled sandwiches there - it is huge.

About a year back, I had a really good, albeit non-traditional, corned beef hash at The Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington. The Davenport is a remarkable place for many reasons. Actually it's a sufficient reason to visit Spokane all on its own. The hash is a bonus.

Probably there are dozens of places doing creditable work in the hash department across the country. But how do we account for the tens of thousands of other places serving something barely distinguishable from canned dog-food as hash? How do we account for the continuing popularity of hash despite the abuse heaped upon this once great food and its fans.

And as for "hash-browns" - although the standard expected quality of product offered in this category is not so patently offensive as with the meat-containing ersatz hash preparations above -- Still, have people lost their minds?
How does a deep fried, processed, formed potato-food thing get to be "hash-browns"?
Perhaps this is modern day hash-brown haiku. It's the irreducible essence -
"There's potato and there's crunch. (sneeringly) What more do you want, Mr. Noshstalgia?"

Somebody has to set the record straight. And as it will soon be Sunday morning in America, the proper time and place for hash-browns and perhaps even hash - Here are the facts:

  • Hash was (as at the Ritz) originally a means to use up first-rate dinner service leftovers.

  • * So if you don't have first rate meat to work with, have something else for breakfast. A nice omelet maybe.

  • The potatoes also are best if left over. You can of course start from scratch, but it's a long, slow process.

  • * Boiled potatoes are used most frequently, but I love to use up baked potatoes in this way. Personal preference. The important point is that they have been cooked before and allowed to cool so the starch has rectified. You don't want to start in trying to work with still-hot just cooked potatoes.

  • Potatoes for hash-browns should be cut into large enough pieces to retain a distinct potato presence in the final dish.

  • * No riced potatoes here. No mashed potatoes here. You want distinct pieces of potato with planar sufaces and angular edges. When you're done making your hash-browns they should exhibit a broad variation of texture - from crunch, through integral but fluffy interiors to the soft, rich, griddle-grease infused mash that binds it all together.

  • There should (make that must) be onions in the mix.

  • * The onions should acually be the first thing onto the griddle. There's a lot of latitude about how these are to be cut, but one thing is essential. Whether in whole or in part, there must be fines - that is there must be at least some onions that are small enough to take on a deeply cooked, carmelized color and flavor and a properly softened consistency. This is essential. In the creative realm certainly one could pursue substitutions - but classically, it's onions.

    * Additional vegetables are welcome - especially peppers. These don't have to be pre-cooked, although if you have left-overs - hey, it's hash. I like them best if they're not overcooked in the final product. Best if they're well carmelized around the edges though.

  • Salt, pepper, paprika - and optionally herbs such as parsley, thyme or others are included

  • * Can't stress the paprika strongly enough here - it will both accelerate and materially contribute to quality results.

  • You need proper equipment. A griddle or heavy cast iron pan is best. NO NON-STICK!

  • * We're shooting for hash-browns. That means you need a cooking vessel that's good at browning things.
    * And actually, for those of you who don't already know this, a well-seasoned cast iron pan is a great non-stick a surface.

    Now if you adhere to those principles, you're in for some fine hash-browns. You can either go on to final prep (as discussed below) and serve, or reserve your hash-browns for later use. For example, it's great if you can mix the meat in and hold in refrigeration overnight for use in the morning. The flavors will only develop further if given such resting time.

    Now about the meat - Couldn't be simpler. Recalling that we're using up leftovers here, the meat is already cooked. All we're really trying to do at this point is to chop it up, heat it through and incorporate the meat with the potatoes and blend the flavors.

  • Do not grind the meat. Chop it by hand.

  • * As with the potatoes, a broad variation in texture assuring preservation of discernable meat-structure is what you're shooting for. The precise treatment appropriate to a given piece of meat will depend upon its texture, degree of doneness, intensity of spice, and so on. You'll have to feel your way here. All I can tell you is that you should be able to tell what you're eating.
    * If you make the right choices here, you will express the best this meat has to offer. If you're fortunate enough to have a really good piece of corned-beef, roast beef, or pastrami to work with, this hash can be among the world's great pleasures. I promise I'll get back to the topic of really good corned beef and other deli meats in subsequent posts.

  • Once you've prepared the meat for incorporation, fold it into the potato & onion mixture on the grill.

  • * Add oil or butter if necessary, heat, press into a patty and crisp as desired. I make the patty thick enough to go really crisp but retain softer textures in the interior.

    Food like this will not be found in most breakfast joints. The ingredients and time involved are prohibitively expensive for the average greasy spoon. Mostly, you'll have to make it yourself. No better fate for your left-over roast-beef and baked potatoes.

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