Hash: Fat-Laden Real Food, Fit For The Gods

Critics of this column - their names are Mr. and Mrs. Alexander J. Legion - are convinced that I sit up nights inventing dull subjects to write about. Nothing that follows here will change their opinion.

I have a fixation about corned beef hash. It is what President George would call ``the hash thing.''

Hash is food, real food. It is not a dilettante's dish; neither is it a dietitian's delight.

If your doctor or nutritionist has scared you witless over animal fat and cholesterol, this column comes with a warning label. ``Caution: Eating Hash May be Hazardous to Your Health.''

So light up a cigarette, lean back, and contemplate this truism: a good plate of steaming hot hash, topped by a poached egg, is worth risking a malfunctioning heart for.

Even canned hash is good and can be enhanced with some onion, perhaps a pinch or two of dry mustard, maybe some Tabasco sauce, or any seasoning that suits your personality. No less an authority than Julia Child recommends doctored canned hash.

But genuine, home-brewed hash is better, and most restaurants can't make a palatable plate of it.

I have tried perhaps a half-dozen recipes for the home-cooked stuff with varying success. Always I return to Pierre Berton, the Canadian author and chef, an historian of rank, a superb essayist, with a persuasive way of making you taste food right off the page.

Let us first dispel a myth. Even before falling under the spell of Mr. Berton, I learned that you can't make good hash out of fresh, leftover corned beef. Here is Berton on the subject:

``Why corned beef hash cannot be made of fresh corned beef, I cannot tell, but it is a fact that in this instance, the tinned stuff is far better.''

Corned beef, sometimes called ``bully beef,'' is said to have enabled American doughboys to win the first World War. The few remaining veterans of that war will tell you that their bully beef was far superior to Spam, the tasteless stuff that could well have lost us World War II.

A can of tinned corned beef, usually imported from Argentina, costs about $2.39 for 12 ounces. You haven't got much capital invested, so even in the unlikely event that you louse up your hash, not much is lost.

Like the corned beef itself, all the rest is plebeian - onion, potato, dry mustard, celery salt, red wine. You begin by crumbling the corned beef into small pieces in a bowl.

Now for Berton again: ``So you chop up a large potato and a large onion, dicing them into tiny, tiny pieces. Do not allow any large chunks to slip past the knife.

``These pieces must be small enough to hold together in a firm mass when they are fried.''

Next step: ``Mix the onion and potato with the corned beef, break a raw egg over the result, and mix again. Then add about two tablespoons of red wine - a good dry Canadian claret or a Chianti.

``Season gently with freshly ground black pepper, celery salt, chopped parsley and monosodium glutamate.''

Ready for a surprise? Into this mixture you sift a small amount of pancake flour. Not all-purpose flour, pancake flour. ``Not too much, just enough to hold it together. Mix again.''

All this goes into a heavy skillet, greased with a small amount of bacon fat or vegetable oil. Your choice. But since you've come this far on your road to a heart attack, you might as well go for it. Use bacon fat.

You can cook this hash in patties or whole in the pan. While one side is getting crisp and brown, you top it with a thin coat of dry English mustard, ``patted firmly into the meat.'' When you turn it, sprinkle on more mustard.

In a final touch, Berton breaks a raw egg and scatters it over his hash. He then slips a little more red wine into the crevices of the frying hash. (On a personal level, I feel aesthetically more at ease with a symmetrically poached egg.)

One more footnote: Berton's hash calls for finely diced raw potato and onion. I have found, however, that both potato and onion are sometimes underdone, so it is not sinful to parboil the diced potato and saute the onion a bit before joining them in holy union with the corned beef.

I checked with Berton on this. He said it's OK.

We can now expect the usual number of declamatory letters, accusing me of tampering with health problems. I say the hell with it.

The object here is not to extend your life span. It is to take the risk and reach as far as possible for the outer limits of your ecstasy.

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.