Watching "Good Eats" on the FoodNetwork right now... This is probably the best episode I've ever seen. Why, you might ask? Because it's all about brisket, quite possibly the single best reason not to be a vegetarian in the entire world (imho).
Although Alton Brown mentioned many ways of cooking brisket, including smoked, Texas bbq, and the Jewish pot-roast-like way, he has chosen to make corned beef and cabbage from scratch in this episode... That's right, he pickled the beef himself! He also talked about the origin of corned beef and cabbage, trying to figure out why it's so popular for a St. Patrick's Day meal and why it's popular in NYC. The Irish priest and the New York rabbi Alton consulted were unable to explain it. The food anthropologist said that corned beef and cabbage is not and never was an Irish dish. Both the beef and the salt necessary to pickle it were far too expensive in Ireland for it to become a national dish... No, it is an Irish-American thing. But why? Well, because the Irish immigrants upon reaching New York suddenly found themselves without their very popular, common "bacon joint", whatever the heck that is, and surrounded by Jews, who ate brisket because it's a kosher cut and really good (if cooked right). It was a cheap cut for them because it's hard to cook right, etc. so the Irish started substituting it in a lot of their dishes... This was the end of her explanation.
I might be able to shed further light, however (maybe - not sure, read on...)... My grandmother told me that her mother used to make corned beef and cabbage with potatoes. Her mother never went to NYC. She came into the US from the Ukraine through Canada and Detroit and settled in the mid-west in the 1890s. My grandmother said that her mother made it because her own mother made it back in Zvenigorodka (just like most of the dishes she made). What the dish is is boiled potatoes and green cabbage leaves (steamed) with butter and hot sliced or shredded corned beef. So *if* this was originally an Eastern European dish, it might be that Jewish families in New York were making what we would recognize as corned beef and cabbage because it was a dish they brought with them from the old country, which their Irish neighbors then picked up on... I'd guess that this would have had to have been no earlier than the last quarter of the 19th century, however, after both the Irish wave and Eastern European Jewish wave of immigrants came into the US. Because although there was a major influx of Irish into the US earlier in the century because of the Potato Famine and then again around the Civil War, before around 1875 or thereabouts, the majority of Jews in the US were originally from Western Europe, North Africa or the Middle East. So that's why I'm not totally sure... I'd have to know when it started to become popular in New York and the food anthropologist on "Good Eats" didn't cover that.
Now, while corned beef is good, Alton, I have to say that the way my Bubbe made brisket has to be by far the best (My brother, Josh, called it "Bubbe's Chicken" when he was very young. I'm not sure why...). Sure, some will say that nothing can beat smoked and bbq-ed brisket, but that's cause they haven't had this stuff. Somewhat similar in consistency to Cuban shredded pork, without the pork or the shredding, it is the best beef dish I have ever had, hands down.
I will now share the secrets for perfect brisket with the world... ::clears throat::
You take a 4 - 6 lb. flat cut of brisket (not a point cut!), any less than that and you're wasting your time, and put it in a large pan. Add water, I'd say til there's about an inch to an inch and a half in the pan. Add spices to taste... My grandmother used Lipton's Onion Soup mix (can you tell she learned most of her cooking skills in the 1940s-1960s?) and because of that, so do I. She would sprinkle at least one packet over the meat and in the water, sometimes both depending on the size of the brisket. You can also just add garlic, salt, onions, etc. which are fresh, but I can't predict how that would taste in the end. I don't recommend adding pepper or pepper corns because pepper will have a tendency to burn easily in the oven. Cover in aluminum foil or a pan lid and put in a hot 325-350 degree oven. Keep it there for at least 3 to as much as 4 hours, checking periodically (but quickly to not loose too much heat) to make sure that the water hasn't evaporated. Add more water if necessary so that the meat won't burn. When it's done, the outside of the meat will be browned and kinda crusty looking, but it has to stay in there for a long time to make it good. The meat will also shrink quite a bit as it cooks. (I'd say a 5 lb brisket will feed at least 6 - 8 adults with typical appetites with some left over for brisket sandwiches the next day. If fewer people are eating it, you just get to have dinner off of it for two nights in a row, as well as sandwiches... bonus!) Take the whole pan out, cool outside of the fridge until it's closer to room temperature and then loosely cover (to allow it to continue to cool) and put it in the refrigerator. The next day, take it out of the fridge. The fats will have re-solidified. Do not remove any of that, even if you're squeamish about fat, or you'll dry the meat out. Let it sit out for a little while (just a little while) to take the chill out and then cut the meat against the grain into thin slices with an electric knife (or if you like hard work, a regular knife). The meat will stay together and be very rigid. Arrange it back like it was before it was sliced, add a little more water to the pan, as well as sliced potatoes (my grandmother would also peel them, but the skins can probably be left on if you prefer), carrots and mushrooms (white or button is fine), sort of arranged around the meat and/or over it. Cover it and put the whole thing back into the oven at 350 until the potatoes are cooked through... usually this takes at least an hour, sometimes as much as 3, depending on how large or small the potatoes are cut. Take the pan out and enjoy the delicious goodness that is brisket. The meat should be so tender that it can be cut with a fork or even to the point where it falls apart of its own accord. If it's not doing that, try again 'cause something went wrong (probably didn't cook it long enough or at a low enough heat)... Total YUM!