Aside

A tisket, a brisket…

All right, that reversion to a childhood nursery rhyme was silly, but it came to me in the middle of the night, as Miss Puppy was inching me closer to the edge of the bed. I’d been lulled into a stupor too early by whatever silliness was on the tube at the time. Now I was awake and thinking of  brisket.

We first had brisket at my dear friend Marionlee’s. Her late husband, Gerry, was a veritable brisket master. On the odd chance you’ve never had it, brisket can be a disaster if it isn’t done correctly. Gerry’s best advice on the matter was this: “Cook it till you think it’s done, then cook it three hours longer.” Gerry never shared a recipe—I’m pretty sure he didn’t have one—but his brisket was always perfect, surrounded with tender potatoes and carrots, totally without artifice, utterly comforting and delicious.

Eventually, I decided to try brisket on my own.

My first effort was definitely in a category I’ll call “Everything but the kitchen sink,” from a hugely entertaining cookbook, Lora Brody’s* Cooking with Memories. Brody’s brisket recipe is the only reason I keep  bottled chili sauce on the pantry shelf. Note that it also contains beer. This brisket has a sweet-and-sour tang and always turns out tender and tasty. Here it is:

5-6 pound brisket
1/4 C water
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
4 stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch slices
18-ounce bottle chili sauce
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 C brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 C Dijon mustard
1/4 C red wine vinegar
3 T molasses
1/4 C soy sauce
1 can beer
1/2 tsp. paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
4 potatoes, peeled and sliced

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with the rack in the lower third, but not bottom, position. Sear the meat, fat side down first, in the bottom of a heavy-duty ovenproof casserole. Turn the meat over and sear the other side. Add to the casserole the water, onions, celery, chili sauce, garlic, bay leaves, brown sugar, mustard, soy sauce, vinegar, and molasses. Cover and cook for 3 hours.

Add the beer, cover and cook 1 more hour, checking occasionally to make sure there is liquid in the pot. Add more water if necessary. Remove the meat from the pot and pour the sauce into a metal bowl. Discard the bay leaves. Cool broth. Slice the meat when cold. Skim the fat off the sauce, then return the sauce to the casserole or heat-proof serving dish, add the paprika and meat, and reheat on top of the stove, covered. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Parboil the potatoes, then add to the brisket dish to finish cooking. [Note: But you can skip this and make mashed or, better yet, latkes instead.]


Somewhere along the brisket continuum, I decided to branch out. Barbara Kafka’s Roasting: A Simple Art is an important cookbook. From its pages came the delicious dictum, “When in doubt, roast a chicken. ” Some of the recipes in Roasting are off-the-chart fabulous. “Wholesome Brisket with Roasted Vegetables”  is one of them. It will knock your socks off if, and only if, you are patient enough to wade through her copious directions, which I have always found murky and frustrating—15 minutes more here, 15 minutes more there, turn halfway this, turn halfway that. But if you do have the time and the patience, this brisket recipe is definitely worth the trouble. My recommendation: Follow it to a “T” and, like any brisket, make it the day before. You won’t be rushed, and it will taste better. For the sake of brevity—there are almost two full pages of single-spaced type—I’m not reproducing the recipe, but you can find it here, on the Food Network site. 


A good friend once said that she’s always used the same brisket recipe, that it contains Lipton onion soup mix, and that it never fails. I don’t doubt that, but I no longer use processed foods**.  The recipe that has now stolen my heart is definitely minimalist compared to the first two. Slow-Cooked Brisket and Onions comes from the Kitchn website. If you’re lucky enough to have an All-Clad Slow Cooker like mine, you can save yourself some trouble and sear the meat right in it. I’m providing the recipe below, with the author’s notes, but you will also find helpful visuals on the website.

1 T olive oil
1-1/2 pounds  yellow or red onions (about 2 large onions), sliced into half moons
3-1/2 pounds beef brisket
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 C beef broth [Note: I use Pacific low-sodium organic]
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T soy sauce (or tamari, if gluten-free)

Heat a deep sauté pan or cast iron skillet over medium heat with the olive oil. Add the onions and cook on medium-low to medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes or until the onions have caramelized lightly.

While the onions are cooking, take the brisket out of its packaging and pat it dry. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat and turn on your vent or fan, if you have one. Sear the brisket until a golden brown crust appears on both sides of the meat. Remove and place in a slow-cooker insert, fatty side up.

Sprinkle the minced garlic over the meat. When the onions are lightly browned, pile them on top and around the meat. Mix the broth, Worcestershire sauce, and soy sauce, and pour into the slow-cooker insert.

Cover and cook in the slow cooker on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or until the brisket is very tender. Let rest for at least 20 minutes before serving in the slow cooker set on WARM. (If your slow cooker doesn’t have a WARM setting, transfer to a baking dish and cover tightly with foil while resting.)

The brisket can be sliced or shredded immediately and served with the onions and juices. Or let the meat cool then refrigerate overnight. Before reheating, scrape away and discard the layer of fat that has formed around the meat.

To reheat: Heat the oven to 300°F. Transfer the brisket and all its juices to a baking dish and cover tightly with a lid or two layers of foil. Warm in the oven for 1 hour or until warmed through (time will depend greatly on the size and shape of the brisket; cut into smaller pieces for faster reheating).

Recipe Notes

  • Cooking time: Personally I like brisket very tender and shredded, almost like pulled beef. But if you prefer to slice the meat for a more formal presentation, aim for the shorter end of the recommended cooking time. Final cooking time will depend on the size and shape of the meat.
  • Oven instructions: No slow cooker? Cook in the oven instead, in a baking dish covered tightly with foil or in a Dutch oven, covered with a lid. Cook at 325°F for 3 to 4 hours or until very tender

*I love Lora Brody. You might recall her name from a post I did last winter on the blueberry muffins in her Cape Cod Table cookbook. I also recommend Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet, which, like Cooking with Memories, is filled not only with recipes, but also with stories guaranteed to make you laugh.

**Yes, you can make your own “onion soup” mix, and it will be pretty decent. I will help you with that another time.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas in black and white

You’ve heard my prattle about Hallmark Christmas movies. Except for mentioning that The Christmas Train is head and shoulders above all the rest and my absolute favorite so far this season, I’ll leave you to chat about Hallmark movies amongst yourselves. This post, instead, is about their worthy ancestor of an entirely different ilk, our favorite black-and-white movies from the 1940s.

Most of us know and love It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s certainly on our list. But there are some lesser known gems that you might really enjoy if you give them a chance. I’ve heard many folks say they can’t watch anything past the opening and closing scenes of The Wizard of Oz in black and white. That’s their loss, as far as I’m concerned. I will say, however, that to enjoy these movies, you must  1) stop wishing for color*; 2) understand and appreciate that most of these films have a point of view that is clearly traditional and religious, 3) accept that they reflect the social conventions, among them misconceptions and narrowness, of their time, and 4) of course, suspend your disbelief.

Just as an aside, note that many of the holiday flicks we consider “classic” today are funny, and centered largely on Santa Claus and family shenanigans. Don’t misconstrue—we love the lot:  A Christmas Story, Elf, Tim Allen’s reluctant Santa Claus, Fred Claus and his highly dysfunctional family , and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, of course, as much as anyone. Belly laughs are good medicine for holiday frenzy.  But the ones on our list, even the funny ones, are far more subtle. We watch them every year, sometimes more than once. (And just to squash any ideas to the contrary, most of these were released before I was born.)

It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, Clarence, and the rest of the entourage do not need a plug from me. Director Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece about a man lifted out of despair by an unlikely angel.

The Bishop’s Wife. David Niven as a depressed bishop, Loretta Young as the wife who struggles to cheer him, and Cary Grant as the angel who fixes it all. Directed by Henry Koster and released in 1947.

The Shop Around the Corner,  Director Ernst Lubitsch’s utterly charming Christmas-in-Budapest tale, released in 1940, that was Nora Ephron’s inspiration for You’ve Got Mail. Jimmy Stewart strikes gold again, this time with Margaret Sullivan. Fun hint: You’ll remember “Mr. Matuschek” from “behind the curtain” in another classic film.

The Man Who Came to Dinner. The token crazy farce on the list, featuring the pedantic, obnoxious Sheridan Whiteside and his band of nutcase friends, admirers, artifacts, and penguins. A fabulous cast including Monty Woolley, Betty Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante., directed by William Keighley and released in 1942.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue. English majors may remember James M. Barrie’s play, The Admirable Crighton, in which the servants reverse roles with their masters after a shipwreck. This movie always reminds me of that play, except that it’s the homeless, and particularly homeless veterans returning from the war, who are taking over the estate. Released in 1947 and directed by Roy del Ruth.

Christmas in Connecticut. Barbara Stanwyck as a Martha Stewart type, except that… well, I won’t give it away. Enjoy. Directed by Peter Godfrey and released in 1945. (Just make sure you don’t get the 1990s remake by mistake, with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, which surely falls into my “worst of all time” collection.)

Miracle on 34th Street. Is he or isn’t he? This is a marvelous movie, even though I always end up hating the mother for being so hide-bound. Maureen O’Hara at her loveliest, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and then child star Natalie Wood. Directed by George Seaton and released in 1947.

Note that these films were all made between 1940 and 1947, and imagine them in that context. Imagine yourself being given respite from keeping a “stiff upper lip” through the constant fear and worry of war on two fronts, or the life-altering changes the war brought to so many.  I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons we love them so much.

*Don’t succumb to colorized versions if you download any of these movies or buy the DVDs. They are so much better in their original form.

Photo: Vieux Québec—the old city—during the carnaval d’hiver.

 

 

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Cook with what you have

I read cookbooks the way most people read travel magazines, far more for the narrative than the recipes themselves. It’s a near addiction (thankfully, a harmless one) that I’ve had for years, since Aunt Florence gave me the 12-volume The Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery in 1969. I’m fairly certain that the collection was one of those supermarket premiums we no longer see—a nominal price for each volume based on how much you spend on groceries. Rich with articles and essays by notables like James Beard, these volumes opened up a world of fascination for me; the stained, tattered pages—some complete with little doodles the children made—mark the “go-to” goodies I’ve made over and over again. While many of my cookbooks have come and gone—passed on to a family or friends or the library auction—these have remained a staple on my shelf.

Like any new cook, I started out following recipes in those volumes by the letter. Eventually, though, I took to experimenting, often substituting what I had on hand for a specified ingredient. Younger readers may not realize that the 24/7 supermarket is a relatively recent invention. If you ran out of or were lacking an ingredient 30 years ago, you were out of luck; you either had to substitute, leave it out entirely, or declare failure and move on*.

I love the German expression Übung macht den Meister… practice makes the master. Our equivalent is “practice makes perfect,” yet the difference is subtle but profound. As a nun  for whom I had great affection told me years ago, “We can’t have perfection. Perfection is in heaven.” It’s not about perfection. It’s about the courage to try and to persist. Mastery in the kitchen, as in anything else, is the reward of practice and persistence; the more you do, the more confident and competent you’ll feel.

One day last week, I bought a lovely organic roasting chicken for dinner. A number of years ago, I saw Martha Stewart roast a chicken on a bed of onion halves. It’s a great trick that flavors the chicken nicely and produces a delicious au jus. Unwilling to give up my last local sweet onion, I retrieved from the fridge the last of the celery I’d prepped for Thanksgiving and covered the bottom of the roasting pan first with the celery, then with four or five rosemary stems from the garden. I placed the chicken on the bed, seasoned it with olive oil, coarse salt, and herbes de Provence, and into the oven it went, with a tray of similarly seasoned vegetables to roast beneath.**

IMG_2840

Roasting vegetables,*** by the way, may be the greatest example ever of versatility with what you have on hand. Almost any combination works. We had Brussels sprouts, beets, sweet potatoes, a bit of that sweet onion, three baby turnips, and two small white potatoes—a lovely mix of the last of the harvest at the farm market. My daughter does the same with her garden bounty.

In the end, it’s all about having  the chutzpah to go off-page, just as our mothers and grandmothers, and generations of cooks before them, did.

*Full disclosure: Baking is another story entirely —it’s chemistry and demands precision. While you can freely substitute the fruits in a pie, you can’t simply exchange butter for oil in a chocolate cake, or baking soda for baking powder, or all-purpose for cake flour. 

**By the way, I don’t truss small chickens. Sometimes, however, I will stuff the cavity with sliced carrots, celery, and whatever suitable herbs  I have (a trick I learned from Chef Carlo Middione in the early days of FoodTV), a whole lemon, or an onion, or both. This time I just left it open. One other thing: Save the carcass and any vegetables left in the pan for stock. If you don’t have time, toss everything, including some of the jellied pan drippings, into a bag or container and freeze for future use. Because it’s already been roasted, the stock will be much more flavorful than anything you can buy in a store. Plus, it’s free. Slow cookers are ideal for this purpose. 

***Once, at Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill, NC, I had macaroni and cheese infused with roasted vegetables—undoubtedly left over from the prior day’s special. I realize this sounds shocking to mac-and-cheese purists, but it was off the charts. I need to try it one of these days.