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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.**

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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.

Let the frenzy begin

As I write this, I’m preparing psychologically to clean and straighten out my baking pantry before the Christmas endurance contest begins.

Baking Christmas cookies with my mother the first two weekends in December remains one of my favorite childhood memories. Mom gave cookies away in droves, never forgot a generous box for the rectory, and saved the rest for trays to serve when family came to visit between Christmas and New Year’s.  She made the prerequisite Italian cookies but also became very adept at paper-thin German sand tarts, and every year she tried a new cookie from the current Pillsbury Bake-Off collection. Whether the new winning recipe became part of the permanent repertoire depended about equally on how much she enjoyed making the cookies and how much we enjoyed eating them. There were no Toll House or plain sugar cookies (like the ones mentioned in my last post) in her holiday mix—they were far too ordinary for Christmas.

My guess is that every daughter reaches a moment of truth when she realizes that she isn’t compelled to do everything exactly as her mother did. I enjoyed baking for the holidays, but I longed to develop my own Christmas cookie repertoire. One of my dear friends was the food editor of the local paper, and when her daughter was about three, she published a full-page spread on the joys of establishing a holiday baking tradition that children can carry forward. The article was irresistible, and I ended I “adopting” several of her recipes, which my daughter and I still rely on Christmas after Christmas. The clipping is yellow and tattered now. I always intend to replace it with neatly typewritten “receipts”; but truthfully, like Mom’s recipe cards, there’s something so precious about leaving that clipping just the way it is.

With time at a premium, I have tended in recent years not to make cookies, or at least not many, but instead to surprise friends and neighbors with apple pie or homemade bread. I’m not sure what I’ll do this year. Hubby’s mother, whom I was never lucky enough to know, made cinnamon buns for the neighbors. They were memorable enough to be mentioned by more than one of his classmates  with great fondness at his recent high school reunion. I would rather like to try reviving that tradition.

We’ll see how things go. I am happy to ponder, day dream, and anticipate; but I’m wary of over-committing. We all know where that primrose path leads.

If you appreciate a bit of humor as you work through the pre-Christmas frenzy, please allow yourself the time to enjoy this story from a gone-but-not-forgotten CBC radio series called “The Vinyl Café” on the Canadian Living magazine website.  After you’ve read it, drop me a line and let me know if you’ve picked your Christmas colour yet.

*I may have mentioned in a prior post that years ago,  “wish book” was the popular name for the Sears Roebuck catalogue.

It’s been a while

I’ve been “out of pocket,” as they used to say in the ’90s, for the last few weeks, recovering from a surgery that, while not extensive, pretty much knocked the wind out of me. Just to let you know how “zonked” I was (how’s that for a high-class word?), during the first ten days, I barely even opened a book, much less tried to blog.

I am happy to report and reaffirm, however, that the curative powers of the human  body are indeed miraculous. In the last week, I’ve perked up considerably and  can report with confidence that I am definitely on the mend. I can also say with confidence that healing is far more than physical. Being surrounded by people who care about you, who dispense dose after dose of love with every well-intended (but not always graciously received) direction—that makes the difference. That is what it means to feel truly blessed. Hubby and the kids were loving, patient, attentive, and comforting. I couldn’t have asked for better care. But they weren’t the only ones to be there when I needed them.*

Kindness counts. 

I’ve gotten good wishes and cards and flowers and phone calls and texts from so many—family, friends, neighbors—and I am grateful to every one of them, near and far, for wishing me well. I also received wonderfully nurturing gifts of pudding and soup to get me through the first and toughest patch.

So do cookies.

After days of soft food, though, I began positively yearning for texture. Watching one cooking show after another was probably not helpful, but one has to pass the time somehow. In a moment as delightful as the turning point in any of Shakespeare’s comedies, a grocery store rotisserie chicken finally set me back on the road to “normal” everyday life.

At about the same time I savored that tender white meat, I began fantasizing about old-fashioned soft sugar cookies. The only thing I can compare this fantasy with, from an intensity standpoint, is the wild craving of pregnancy—you know, the kind that would send your spouse out in the middle of an August night for a hot turkey sandwich.** Before long, my BFF and I were texting back and forth about each other’s sugar cookie recipes. My mother’s recipe had come from a Pennsylvania Dutch neighbor; we’ve referred to the big, luscious treats  as “Mrs. George’s Cookies”  since 1970. My BFF’s recipe came from her cousin’s Pennsylvania Dutch in-law. When we compared notes, the recipes were very similar, except that Mrs. George’s called for buttermilk and were dusted with a bit of cinnamon, while my BFF’s recipe called for sour cream and cream cheese icing.

A few days after the texting marathon, my BFF showed up at the door with a plateful of those pillowy cookies, freshly baked and iced.

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How did they taste?

Like a little bit of heaven on a plate, that’s how.

*What’s good for the gander is good for the goose. I tried to be a good, compliant patient and to practice what I preached in an earlier blog post on the idiosyncrasies of the male patient\. My lineage is Calabrese. That’s pretty much all I need to say about that.

**That particular craving was actually not my own, but my dear friend’s, who, on reporting it to me afterward, said with a sigh, “You can’t get a good hot turkey sandwich in this town.” Forty+ years ago, and the story still makes me smile.

 

The jars on the shelf

Update. Yet another Bonne Maman jar has been welcomed into the family. If you read my previous post from months ago, you’ll recall my homage to these marvelous little jars and the preserves they hold—the “gift that keeps on giving,” just as Cousin Eddie observed in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. By the way, Bonne Maman products are made only with good stuff, as the website attests.

I’ve been transitioning gradually to glass food storage containers over the last five years. The plastic ones I still have, while advertised as “BPA free,” will eventually go, too. My plan is to follow my daughter’s lead and use space-saving canning jars for everything I freeze . That will happen in good time.

Meanwhile, as I use up each little taste of France that Bonne Maman preserves provide, I add another perfectly sized glass storage container to my collection. This year, I’ve used them for the herbs I’ve dried from the garden  They find their way to the pantry shelf, too—for the last small quantities of rice, pasta, or dried beans. And with just the two of us, they are exactly “right-sized” for leftovers and for storing prepped ingredients till it’s time to put the dish together. Mirepoix and other basic flavor bases at the ready when you need them? That’s convenience! With the ready-cut veggies at the grocery store so expensive, it’s economical, too.

By the way, as long as we’re talking economy, bell peppers are always inexpensive at our farm markets this time of year. Yesterday, I bought a bunch, cut them into strips, cooked them till almost soft in olive oil, added some balsamic for zest, and popped them into the freezer to enjoy when peppers are $4 a pound. Today, I’ll be heading back to the market for another batch—this time to roast, peel, and freeze. By the way, fresh sliced peppers, gently sautéed with or without garlic and seasoned with a bit of sea salt, are wonderful (and colorful!) tossed with spaghetti. The oil they exude on their own is just delicious. And you can store the leftovers in your Bonne Maman jars.

Wishing you all a bon weekend!

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Apple season

Oh, the apples of fall! Pies, sauce, dumplings, cake, Waldorf salad*…  or, to keep it simple, an unadulterated apple, all by itself.

Last year at this time, we were in Maine at beautiful Cayford Orchard, outside of Skowhegan, picking Northern Spys under a gorgeous October sky. Four years ago, Facebook recently reminded me, Hubby found Northern Spys in northwestern Pennsylvania and surprised me a week or two later with a generous shipment that lasted right through the winter.

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This year, I’ve been fretting about Northern Spy deprivation. I even emailed the folks at Cayford to see if they would ship some to me. They were gracious but not anxious; if shipping isn’t your normal routine, it’s a lot of bother just to satisfy one frustrated Pennsylvania pie-baker. While I would have spared almost no expense to have my favorite pie apples in time for Thanksgiving, I agreed and gave up.

Try, now, to imagine my delight when, while wandering yesterday through a local farm market—one that is not my usual haunt— I saw this:

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“Where are these from?” I called out to the woman at the register. “They’re from a local orchard,” she said. “But they’re not supposed to grow this far south,” I replied. She smiled and shrugged. They were big and healthy looking. We loaded up. I’ll be baking pies very soon.

Truthfully, while I personally prefer apples from New York State and points north, Pennsylvania does grow some pretty great ones. Our friends had just brought us a bag of eating apples from Hollabaugh’s in Biglerville, PA, near Gettysburg—every one a crunchy, delicious treat. Miss Pup particularly enjoys her visits there, too, as you can see in this priceless photo with one of her two Aunt Sues:

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* Just in case you’re too young to remember, or Waldorf Salad is outside your experience, here is the recipe that I favor, from my much loved, highly tattered copy of  The Joy of Cooking, 1967  printing:

Prepare:
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced apples
(1 cup Tokay grapes, halved and seeded)
Combine with:
1/2 cup walnut or pecan meats
3/4 cup mayonnaise or Boiled Salad Dressing

The parentheses indicate an optional ingredient. I add them if I have them on hand. I use mayo rather than take the time to make a boiled dressing, and I add about 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla. You can add diced or shredded cooked chicken, too, and serve in a cream puff shell for an authentic “vintage” presentation.

 

 

Back in the [bread-baking] groove

Summer is looking a bit care-worn by now, even though this year, for the first in many, the grass has stayed a bright Irish-green throughout, and our little patch of herbs is so abundant that it looks downright provençal. I can see a few leaves starting to turn here and there, and, although I will keep the sun-loving geraniums to their last bloom, I know it’s soon time to trade them for mums.

Heat-averse, I stayed away from the oven most of the summer. In the last week, I realized how much I’ve missed making bread. Time to get my groove back. Partly to use up what I had on hand, I started with a no-knead semolina. I mixed the dough in my bread bucket, using my trusty dough whisk (there’s the King, back in my kitchen again!), on Friday morning and refrigerated the dough. Earlier today—Sunday—I formed the loaves, brushed them with a slurry of corn starch and water, slashed, sprinkled them with sesame seeds, and set them to rise while the oven heated up.

I’m accustomed to letting loaves rise on a parchment-coated peel, then sliding them, parchment and all, onto the pre-heated stone. Alas, I remembered too late that I was out of the pre-cut parchment that comes in so handy for making bread and baking cookies. I coated the peel with corn meal, but because some bread dough is wetter than others, and this one was, I still had a hard time maneuvering the loaves onto the pre-heated stone.

However, as Shakespeare so wisely advised, “All’s well that ends well.” Is there anything more luscious than the scent of baking bread? The crust browned and crisped nicely. I could hardly wait to try it. Five minutes after taking the loaves out of the oven—a bit too soon, I concede—I sliced off the heel. The crumb was decent. Slathered with butter, it was good, as only fresh-baked bread can be. Not my best effort, but not bad for a three-month lapse. We’ll enjoy it toasted for breakfast, with cheese for lunch, and with soup tonight. I’ll stash the second and third loaves in the freezer for another day.

Three loaves to the good, and I’m back in the groove.

Routines like this are as comforting, and comfortable, as a pair of mukluks in a November chill. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m gearing up.