So I went to the supermarket, studied the labels of the surprisingly large number of competing brands and picked the one that had the shortest ingredient list--beef and cooked corned beef, rehydrated potatoes, water, salt, flavorings, sugar, sodium nitrate--which also happened to be the store's own brand. All varieties were made with rehydrated potatoes and none contained onions (an important part of the dish, to my mind). In at least one, water was the first ingredient.
This morning I opened the can, inverted it and discovered that the contents slid easily out of it in a solid tube. The sides of the empty can were coated with congealed suet, some of which I scraped out and used to grease the frying pan. I turned on the heat, and when the fat was melted and bubbling I took half of the meat-and-potato cylinder and, using a spatula, flattened it into a thick patty, working in about a tablespoon of freeze-dried shallots and several shots of hot sauce. I started this cooking over medium-low heat but soon turned the flame up to medium because there was clearly a lot of moisture to be cooked off.
After about 10 minutes I tried to turn the patty over, but instead of cohering, it crumbled into bits. There had been a crust forming, but it wasn't strong enough to hold the patty together. I used the spatula to pat it back together and left this to cook for another 10 minutes. By now, of course, the coffee was ready, the plates hot, the bread waiting impatiently in the toaster oven. Matt sighed and went off to do some morning chores. I turned over a tiny portion of the hash and found that, again, there was a crust forming and, again, it was not strong enough to hold the patty together. I mashed this corner back into place and broke two eggs into the free space in the frying pan. To not make a long story any longer, I served up breakfast when these were done, sunny side up.
The results, while not great, were encouraging. This hash was equal to that in most diners: not totally mushy, as I had expected, but offering some real texture, and the flavor, though mild, had none of the taste of the can that you get with imported canned corned beef. I suspect that the trick to the crust is to slip out of bed a half-hour early and get the hash cooking; this batch mostly needed more time . . . and a bigger spatula.
Thorne and his wife, Matt Lewis Thorne, live in Northampton, Mass., where they publish the bimonthly newsletter Simple Cooking (P.O. Box 778, Northampton, Mass. 01061; $24 per year) and maintain their food-obsessed Web site at http://www.outlawcook.com. Thorne is the author of "Outlaw Cook," "Serious Pig" and other books.
Asparagus in a Bowl
Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 15 minutes * Vegetarian
1 bunch asparagus, about 1 pound
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup water
2 thick slices bread
* Peel bottom third of asparagus stalks. Break or cut off tough ends and discard. Cut trimmed stalks into bite-size pieces, leaving tips whole.
* Bring butter, salt and 3/4 cup water to simmer in large skillet. Add sliced asparagus stalks, reserving tips to add 1 minute into cooking time. Return liquid to simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until asparagus is crisp tender, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus.
* Trim bread to fit bottom of shallow soup bowl and toast. Place toast in bottom of bowl. Spoon asparagus and enough cooking liquid to thoroughly moisten over toast. Season generously with pepper. Serve immediately.
2 servings. Each serving: 202 calories; 856 mg sodium; 17 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.95 grams fiber.
Buttermilk Griddle Cakes
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes
This pancake batter is not as thin as many, but it pours well and spreads smoothly. The judicious use of three fats--peanut oil in the batter, a touch of bacon fat on the griddle and butter to melt on top--contributes a final note of special savory goodness. Thorne uses two griddles to get all the pancakes on the table at the same time, but they may be cooked in batches.
2 teaspoons bacon fat
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 egg, separated
3/4 cup buttermilk
* Dip end of finger in small amount of bacon fat and rub light film of fat in 4 (4-inch) circles on griddle.
* Combine all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt in mixing bowl and whisk couple of times to thoroughly mix and break up any lumps.
* Gently whisk oil and egg yolk in separate bowl. Add buttermilk and whisk to combine. Pour into dry ingredients and stir just to blend. Beat egg white until it forms soft peaks and fold into batter.