Meat meets lemon — brisket gone wild!

One day last month, my husband returned from Trader Joe’s carrying a large slab of brisket.

“I invited our neighbors for dinner,” he announced, “and they’re kosher.” I can cook, but my only attempt at a nice bubbie-style brisket took two days and was a memorable disaster. I’m sure it was digestible, it just wasn’t chewable. I have suffered brisket-phobia ever since.

I had about five hours to get something suitably special on the table. So, I abandoned all my brisket preconceptions, took a deep breath and thought, “Do what you love, do what you know.”

The result was extraordinary.

What I know is how to combine the cooking techniques of my family–Swedish (non-Jewish) Americans given to light but hearty flavors — with all the Mediterranean flavors that have become part of any serious California cook’s repertoire: olives, olive oil, fennel and preserved lemons.

Preserved lemons and brisket? Yes, those salty tart gems are crucial to this dish. I use homemade, but you’ll need three to four weeks advanced preparation for my recipe (Paula Wolfert offers a one-week version in her book, “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco”). You can also buy preserved lemons at specialty Middle Eastern markets and at Surfas in Culver City.

Couscous and a little green salad with oranges are all you’ll need to complete the meal. For our dessert, I stuffed halved nectarines with a mixture of crumbled store-bought amaretti cookies, chopped almonds and honey.

The honey makes this an ideal Rosh Hashanah meal. And the amaretti cookies were, of course, kosher and pareve. Amazing how fast a Swedish American can catch on to these things.

Brisket with Fennel and Olives

1 3-pound brisket (I use a point cut)
2 large fennel bulbs, cored, trimmed and very thinly sliced. Include any nice fronds.
1 very large Vidalia, Walla Walla or other sweet onion, sliced into 1/4-inch rings
1 cup mixed green and black olives (Greek, kalamata, etc.)
3 preserved lemons, diced, and a couple tablespoons of their juice
1/2 cup water or a mixture of water and dry white wine
Extra virgin olive oil
Chopped Italian parsley

Choose your heaviest dutch oven, or use enameled cast iron. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. On the stovetop, bring the pan to a medium high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, and brown the brisket on both sides, not more than five to seven minutes in total. Remove the meat, and toss the fennel and onions in the pan, adding a little olive oil if necessary. Put the lid on and let them sweat a little. When the vegetables soften, stir in half the olives and one of the diced lemons. Nestle the meat in the mixture and add the 1/2 cup of liquid. Cover tightly, and bake for three to three and a half hours. Add the rest of the lemons, their juice and the olives, return to oven 30 minutes or so.

When ready to serve, remove meat and slice across the grain. Serve on a pla
tter surrounded with the vegetables and drizzle the pan juices over all. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Preserved Lemons
Kosher salt
Lemons to preserve, as thin skinned as possible
Additional lemons for juice

Cut the lemons in quarters from the tip to the stem end without cutting all the way through. Pack the quarters with salt, rubbing it in and close them back up. Place tightly together in a crock or wide mouthed glass jar. Cover with fresh lemon juice and seal tightly, leaving it in a cool dry place for 3-4 weeks. Check every few days to be sure the lemon juice still covers the lemons completely, and top it off if you need to. When ready, remove anything objectionable from the top of the lemon juice and refrigerate.

Stuffed Nectarines a la Chez Panisse
4 ripe nectarines
1 cup pareve amaretti cookies, crumbled
1/2 cup chopped almonds
3 tablespoon (approx.) honey.
Kosher dessert wine (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking pan with cooking parchment or lightly oil.

Halve nectarines and remove pits. Mix almonds and amaretti cookies together, add honey to moisten mixture. Stuff into cavity of each nectarine, place in pan and drizzle with a little dessert wine, if desired.

Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or so, then slip the fruits out of their skins before serving. These are good warm or cold.

The Book on Olives

‘Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit,’

by Mort Rosenblum (North Point Press, $25)

In his endlessly fascinating book, “Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit,” Mort Rosenblum reminds us that domesticated olives were around before the Bible, “was a first draft scribbled on papyrus.” Olives are so caught up in the history of Western civilization, in fact, that it is hard to imagine the latter without the former. Olive oil, which has, in our time, become no more than another affectation of the Upscales, has determined the course of empires from ancient Palestine to the modern-day Mafia.

To see our world in a grain of sand might take a poet. But to see it in an olive takes a reporter of Rosenblum’s insight and doggedness. In “Olives,” he takes us everywhere olives are king or, more often, deity: the presses of Tuscany, the orchards of Spain, the warehouses of Greece, the groves of California, France and Croatia. In Israel and in the West Bank, he talks to Palestinian growers who see their entire conflict with the Jews in terms of its impact on their beloved trees. He reports on the findings of the Ekron excavation, near Ashdod, where Iron Age jugs and olive presses reveal a remarkably advanced Philistine culture, whose wealth was built primarily on the oil trade — olive oil. “In ancient Israel,” writes Rosenblum, “if a prophet wanted to utter a curse, he would say, ‘Let God ruin your olive trees.'”

Rosenblum, who writes for The Associated Press and Vanity Fair, has his own olive grove in Provence, France. He is passionate about olives, but open-minded. He can be concise and fair-minded in examining the health benefits of olive oil, and refreshingly unsentimental — Peter Mayle take note — in dismissing some peasant oils as one step below Valvoline.

There are recipes, but too few, and there’s some advice on olive curing, but too vague. This is not a cookbook, but a cook’s book. Turn off the stove, get out the wine, the bread and the oil, and read all about how an elemental foodstuff shapes the lives of the people who grow it, and cook with it.

Some Like Fish Hot

This recipe, adapted from Paula Wolfert’s “Mediterranean Cooking,” appears along with several other olive-heavy dishes in Rosenblum’s “Olives.” It is similar to many fish dishes in books on North African Jewish cooking.

Tunisian fish Fillets with Harissa and Black Olives

1 1/2 pounds firm white fish fillets

salt and freshly ground pepper


1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup tomato sauce

1/2 teaspoon harissa (a North African chili paste available at most fine supermarkets)

1 bay leaf

1 cup pitted black Tunisian or Greek olives

Juice of 1/2 lemon or more

Chopped parsley

1) Season the fish with salt and pepper; dust with flour.

2) Heat the oil in a large skillet and fry the fish until golden brown on both sides.

3) Transfer the fish to a warm dish. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of oil.

4) Add the onion and garlic to the skillet and cook, covered, 2 to 3 minutes.

5) Add the tomato sauce, 1/2 cup of water, the harissa and the bay leaf. Cook 10 minutes.

6) Add the olives and fish fillets and continue cooking, uncovered, until the fish is tender and the sauce is thick.

7) Add lemon juice to taste.

8) Serve with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.

Serves 4-6

Restaurant Review

A Nice Piece of Fish…and More

The Fish Grill

Where: 7226 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles (3 blocks west of La Brea)

Phone: (213) 937-7162

Hours: Sun.-Thurs., &’009;11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Fri., &’009;11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.

Major credit cards accepted

The Jewish men I knew growing up — guys named Murray and Harvey and Marv — would like The Fish Grill. These were men who, in their 30s or 40s, made a lot of money in real estate or merchandising and spent it lavishly. They dined at the continental restaurants that once lined the parvenu blocks of Ventura Boulevard, or drove over the hill to binge on rare meats in done-up cream sauces at Le Restaurant or The Bistro.

Then they got older. Maybe it was the hit they took in the recession, maybe it was the cardiologist’s hand-stitched zipper down their sternum, but these men’s tastes suddenly got simple. Ask them what they wanted for dinner, and the answer rarely varied: “A nice piece of fish and a baked potato.”

And that, in a sentence, is The Fish Grill.

It’s a small, spare and kosher place in the part of La Brea colonized by equal numbers of hipsters and Orthodox. Both line up to order from the counter, choosing from a menu so short that you can read it in a glance. There are nine choices of mesquite-grilled fish — trout, salmon, ahi, the usual suspects — two spicy Cajun preparations, some fish sandwiches, fish and chips, a fish taco and chowder — fish chowder. You place your order, which comes with a choice of baked or fried potatoes and coleslaw or Israeli salad. Pay your money — no item costs more than $8.95 — and then watch as the grill cooks lay your piece of bright, fresh fish on the grill.

The portions hover around the 6-ounce mark — that’s a nice piece of fish. They arrive charred at the edges, gently cooked toward the center.

The ahi tuna — my favorite — spreads over the plate like a French hangar steak. I order it with the thin, fresh-cut fries, which are boiled in oil until crackly and spilled in a heap across the fillets. As for the baked potatos, they’re tonged out of the oven to order, flaky as the sea bass. If you have less than $10 to spend, it’s hard to leave The Fish Grill hungry.

The same fries accompany the Fish-n-Chips ($5.50), but the fillets are coated in a dense crumb crust and fried until they twist into brittle, briny crackers. I love them.

But I wouldn’t order the Blackened Redfish ($7.95) again. It’s not real redfish, for one, and charred Cajun-style spices taste just like — surprise! — burned spices.

In the small sawdust-strewn seating area — decorated with old fishing nets and a broken-down soft-serve ice cream machine — you’ll find an only-in-Los Angeles bunch of patrons. Last Friday, at lunch, an ardent yeshiva bocher was trying to push copies of his rebbe’s video on the ultra-efficient Latina cashier. An Israeli businessman was trying to schmooze an American buyer, or vice versa, and both argued God with the yeshiva student. Meanwhile, a stunning interracial couple straight out of a Benetton ad nuzzled over their grilled salmon and butterflied trout.

Murray, Harvey and Marv weren’t there, but they should have been. They’d have loved it. — Robert Eshman, Associate Editor