Tuesday, August 7, 2007

It will be cold again someday - so Brisket

Hard to believe at this time of year - but I'm thinking about brisket. This is one of those comfort foods for which many families have their own cherished heirloom recipe. The basic technique is usually similar, but the sauces and flavors vary broadly. Sadly, this once regular feature of home cooking has become a special occasion item in many families and virtually disappeared for many others. It's too good and too easy to let it slip away. And the leftovers make amazing sandwiches. Here's one version based on my Mom's instructions:

Brisket, onions, salt, pepper, garlic, paprika (and many optional additions)

Buy a good "first cut" brisket she says.
Make a rub of kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, minced fresh garlic, and paprika and rub the brisket all over. (a little oil in the rub makes this easier. And many other spices or herbs can be included if desired.)

Slice a lot of yellow onions fairly thin. How much is a lot? More than you think - enough to completely surround and heavily cover the entire piece of meat once you get things going. Generally this puts your weight of onions on the way to that of the meat.

Find a heavy bottomed pan (one for which you have a tight-fitting lid) big enough to lay the brisket down in with some room around the edges, put in a little oil, and set over a medium-high burner.

Once the pan is up to temp, brown the meat well on all sides. (some would argue that this procedure can be improved by omitting the garlic from the rub so as to avoid any burned garlic. This is a reasonable point although it varies from Mom's approach. Come to think of it, in the good old days, she was probably using garlic powder rather than fresh so maybe that's why she put the garlic on early. Anyway, if you omit the garlic at this point, add crushed cloves to taste in with the onions later.)

Once browned, add the whole pile of onions to the pot. Surround and cover the meat completely with onions. Cover the pot and reduce heat to simmer.

The time required will vary with the size of your brisket and so on - but in any case it will take quite a while to cook - certainly 90 minutes and likely more. I suggest carefully flipping the brisket after about an hour. As the brisket and onions cook, the onions will create moisture and your brisket will braise. Eventually the onions will become very soft. Eventually your brisket will be done. There's a fairly broad window between done enough and really too far gone. Better to give it a bit more time if you're not sure. If you pull it too soon, it won't be tender.

That's about all there is to it if you want to leave things basic. Taste and correct seasoning in gravy along the way and again close to the end. When done and briefly rested, slice thin to medium across the grain and serve with gravy (and something to soak up gravy like rice or good bread).

Add some diced carrots along with onions - or later on if you prefer them to retain their identity.

Additional spices or aromatics in rub or later - use your imagination.

Wine in the pot at any time after browning - a good dry, but not too dry, white with some "bottom" to it. What's bottom? The point here is you don't want something too squeaky clean, steely, edgy, showing fruit only. You want some wood, or some malolactic, or some lees or something.

Puree the onion gravy just prior to the end. If necessary, correct color (as the resulting slurry can be unappealing in tone) with e.g. some added paprika.

Braise in the oven instead of on the stove-top.

Mushrooms? Sweet peppers? Shallots? Hots? Sour cream? You name it. Brisket is a great platform for playing around - brown, braise, and binge.

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