Of meat and metaphor: An almost-vegetarian makes brisket


I’m not a vegetarian, but since I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, I’ve been eating less and less meat. Many of my friends are vegetarian or vegan, and cooking in either of those styles avoids a lot of food issues for people. 

But around holidays, the expectation around meat intensifies. As soon as the faintest waft of Passover or Rosh Hashanah is in the air, brisket photos invade Facebook and Instagram: sumptuous, steaming dishes accompanied by, “I did it! My first brisket!” — these humblebrags validated by endless comments of “mmm” and “nom nom nom” (mimicking the sounds of chomping on something delicious). 

I have friends who make brisket latkes; I remember the Takosher truck’s brisket taco fondly; and when friends visit me from New York, I often take them to Got Kosher? for sweet or spicy brisket sandwiches.

But why brisket? How did this piece of meat become the legend of holiday tables in non-vegetarian homes and, simultaneously, a darling of the non-Jewish barbecue circuit? As is often the case, the answer draws from the practical and the traditional.

“Brisket is made from the pectoral muscle: it’s tough, and actually not a desirable cut, compared to, say, a filet,” said Anna Hanau, director of communications and outreach at Grow & Behold Kosher Pastured Meats, in an email. “Jews ate it because it was cheap. They then got really good at cooking it, and it became this traditional food, evoking all kinds of memories of Bubbe’s kitchen, etc., etc. It’s expensive now because there is huge demand for it, but it is actually a less-desirable cut, historically.”

Hanau said brisket is “definitely our most popular item,” a best-seller for Passover and year-round. But beyond the seder table, brisket is moonlighting as a star in the non-Jewish food scene — Hanau said it’s “not uncommon to find people standing in hourslong lines for smoked shredded meat.” 

Why is brisket so hot right now, especially as barbecue? Hanau explained graphically (admittedly, I asked) that as brisket smokes for eight to 10 hours or more, “the connective tissues that make it tough break down into these really delicious, unctuous ribbons that marinate the meat. So the popularity of barbecue, and brisket as a meat that can be cooked this way, definitely contributes to brisket’s popularity.” 

Ilya Welfeld, a friend, considers making brisket to be a “bit of a badge of honor.” 

“As a full-time working mother of a brood, we don’t slide smoothly into Shabbos or chag,” she said, referring to holidays meals, in an email. Brisket “seems so legit, so ‘balabusta’ and so big that when I serve it I feel legit as a Jewish woman, mother and caregiver. … Having brisket on the table makes me feel less like an imposter whose cover is ready to be blown any minute.”

“Brisket is Jewish soul food,” said Leah Koenig, author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen” (2015) and a frequent writer about Jewish food, history and culture. “I like to call it the Proustian madeleine of Jewish cooking,” she said in an email that sent me to Google and the discovery that writer Marcel Proust referred to the small French cakes as a symbol of involuntary memory (a memory evoked unexpectedly by a certain taste or experience). 

“Making one’s own brisket, successfully, is like earning a Jewish domestic goddess badge and then prancing proudly around with your newly decorated sash,” said Shannon Sarna, editor of the popular Jewish food blog The Nosher. “It’s a rite of passage for the Jewish cook, male and female alike.” 

Koenig added that the secret to brisket’s appeal is the long cooking time. 

“While the brisket is in the oven, the kitchen — and really the whole house — starts to fill with the heady scent of braised meat, and it brings on this flood of memories,” she said. “Hours, literally hours, before you even get to the table, you’re already swooning.”

Although brisket might seem like a big deal for mostly vegetarians, for regular meat cookers, it is a “kind of ‘set-it-and-forget-it’ foolproof option rather than a great cooking oeuvre,” Hanau said. 

According to Sarna, “it’s really the easiest cut to make because you just need to cook it low and slow with some veggies and liquid. Yet it’s one of the most requested topics on our site at Passover and Rosh Hashanah: How much do I make? Which cut do I buy (second cut!)? How long do I cook it? Brisket continues to befuddle many cooks.”

“Brisket is pretty hard to mess up, which makes it perfect for the busy mom who is running a household and a job and cooking in advance to feed all the various picky kids and their friends,” Hanau continued. 

I don’t have a household to run and kids to herd, but I do have chosen family — my friends who enjoy food, wine and company. So when the East Coast-based Grow & Behold, antibiotics- and hormone-free kosher meat farmers and distributors, offered to send me a brisket, how could I say no? (They have a “Los Angeles Buying Club” through which customers can pick up at Beth Jacob Congregation — growandbehold.com/la — to save on shipping costs, but my box of meat was shipped directly to my house packed in dry ice.)

When I saw the 7.21 pounds of brisket (and various other meats) they’d sent me, I realized there were challenges ahead. An almost vegetarian doesn’t generally have pots big enough in which to cook a brisket, nor does she have a go-to brisket recipe. Ketchup and Coke featured prominently in many online “EASY BRISKET!!!” recipes. But I wanted something more sophisticated than all that processed sugar.

I bought a disposable roast pan and contacted my experts — Hanau, Welfeld, Koenig and Sarna, meat-torneys-at-brisket — to collect their recipes before Frankensteining together my own: salt and pepper, garlic, balsamic vinegar and red wine. I added a bunch of cut potatoes and onions, and cooked it for about nine hours. 

The resulting sauce had a tang that recalled the alcohol that had long since cooked away, with a sweetness that ignited the taste buds. My brisket was a success, yielding dinner for eight, leftovers for guests and a week’s worth of meals for me thereafter. (I still have some in my freezer, for the next time I feel my iron levels drop.)

I found myself thinking about the role of tradition in determining our palate’s proclivities, and of an old joke my mother used to tell me about the Jewish mother who would prepare a roast by slicing off the ends of the meat before putting it in the pan. One day her daughter asked why, and she said, “That is our family tradition — my mother always did it.” During the next holiday, the grandmother came to visit. “Grandma,” the girl asked, “why is it our tradition to cut off the ends of the roast?” And Grandma said, “Because the roast didn’t fit in the pan.” 

I love this story — not just because the brisket didn’t fit in my pan, either — but also because it speaks lovingly to our tendency to create value around the things that, often randomly, happen to us in our lives. We assign meaning to things because of their emotional weight, their connection to the people we care about. 

Those of us who make brisket — whether once or on every holiday — do so because members of previous generations did. It probably started as pragmatism, an affordable way to feed children; but brisket evolved into a shout-out to the past and a nod to the opulent and luxurious present, in which a huge cut of kosher meat is expensive but provides great nostalgic flavor. Today, we do it for our families, born and chosen, as our parents did it for the people they loved. And each of us provides her or his own interpretation of “why.” 

Recipes to please the crowd and de-stress the chef


Passover may be the mother of all kitchen yontifs — but stay cool, and don’t stress. Here are some of my favorite recipes from last Passover that you will love this Passover and all year.

Last year, 99 percent of what I made for Passover wasn’t actually Passover recipes. Of course they were kosher for Passover, but they didn’t require any major Passover ingredient tweaks. These recipes were developed with Passover in mind and have become staples in my year-round repertoire because they were super easy and got the most oohs and aahs.

SALMON CAKES WITH TROPICAL FRUIT SALSA

Croquettes are cute and elegant for your starter course. They’re also wonderfully light and refreshing. The tropical salsa is a combination of fresh pineapple, mango, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice — the perfect complement to the richness of the salmon. The balance of sweet and savory flavors instantly pleases the palate. This is a starter with zing!

SALMON CAKES:

1 (2-pound) side of salmon, skin on
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup diced red onion
2 tablespoons matzah meal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil


SALSA:

1 cup diced pineapple
1/2 cup diced mango
1/2 cup diced red onion
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped Juice of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

To prepare salmon cakes, preheat oven to 350 F.

On a lightly greased large baking sheet, bake salmon skin side down for 25 to 30 minutes or until cooked all the way through. Let cool completely.

Once salmon is cooled, gently flake away from the skin and break into large chunks. Place in a large bowl. Combine with eggs, red onion, matzah meal, salt and pepper. Stir to mix well.

Scoop about 1/3 cup at a time into your hands and form into a round patty about 1/4 inch thick. Place on a large plate or cookie sheet pan and repeat with remaining mixture until you have formed 10 cakes. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, for salsa, in a medium bowl combine pineapple, mango, red onion, cilantro, jalapeno, lime juice and salt. Mix well and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry a few cakes at a time for about 5 to 8 minutes per side or until golden brown and crispy. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate while frying remaining cakes.

To serve, top each cake with a few tablespoons of salsa.

Makes 10 salmon cakes.

ZUCCHINI AND RED BELL PEPPER SAUTE

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 medium zucchini, sliced into ribbons using a vegetable peeler
4 cloves garlic, minced

4 roasted red bell peppers, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add zucchini ribbons and saute a few minutes until slightly softened. Add garlic and saute 3 minutes more. Add roasted bell peppers and saute a few minutes more, until heated through.

Stir in paprika and salt.

Makes 8 servings.

POMEGRANATE BRAISED BRISKET

1 (4-pound) first cut beef brisket
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onions, peeled and cut into eighths

6 cloves garlic, smashed
2 cups pomegranate juice
2 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons honey
3 bay leaves

1 small bunch fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Season brisket with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large roasting pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sear brisket about 4 minutes per side or until browned. Remove and set aside.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to roasting pan; saute onions and garlic for 5 minutes over medium-low heat until softened. Return brisket to pan and add pomegranate juice, chicken broth, honey, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Transfer to preheated oven and roast for 2 hours.

Turn brisket over and continue roasting for 1 to 1  1/2 more hours or until tender. Let brisket rest for 10 minutes before thinly slicing against the grain. Strain liquid and serve on the side.

Makes 8 servings.

‘Power’ Brisket: Adding Barbecue Flavor for Pesach


For the recipe, click here.

My friend called from New York the other day. He wanted to get my recipe for smoked barbecue brisket so that he could make it for Passover.

“I’m really tired of bad brisket,” he said wearily.

I think he really meant dry brisket. Face it, brisket is among the toughest cuts of beef, but one that, if properly prepared, pays off mightily.

The barbecue brisket I usually make is one that cooks for more than 12 hours, usually 16. That’s the low-and-slow method. I know my buddy has neither the patience nor the experience to tackle this. So, I gave him a shortcut: The “power method.”

The power method is to raise the temperature from the traditional 220 F to 325 F (and no higher, please) during the entire cooking time. The brisket comes out tender and full of flavor. There is, however, one trade-off: little to no bark — the crunchy exterior on the meat.

The reason, as you’ll see when you study the recipe, is that for a good portion of the cooking time, you’re actually steaming the meat. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but that’s what is happening. (I have a method for getting bark on this recipe. You can e-mail me for it at barbqubano@gmail.com.)

The final product more closely resembles the traditional Passover brisket than it does, say, a brisket done for a party at my house. The value you add by smoking the meat for a couple of hours is a distinctive flavor that does not depend wholly on seasoning or marinating.

To be clear, while the cooking involves as little as four hours, the process can take up to six or seven. Still, it’s a lot less than the 12 to 16 hours you could spend and might not have on any given day.

The person who shared this with me is a barbecue champion, Myron Mixon of Jack’s Old South in Georgia. Mixon basically makes a living competing across the country. He applies “power” to his championship brisket and ribs.

I give Mixon credit for everything here if it comes out right, and I take all the blame if it doesn’t, because I have adjusted his recipe to my taste and the notion that your smoker/cooker is not a professional version.

I’m going to give you the basics here and you can find the entire recipe online at jewishjournal.com.

First, buy a brisket of about 15 to 20 pounds. However, it can be any size and you can adjust accordingly. You’ll also need an injector, the kind that has the plunger.

Your heat source and cooker — grill or smoker — and the wood you use is completely up to you, but I encourage you not to use mesquite to smoke. I like a mix of oak and a little apple or just hickory.

I have used many different smokers, and they all work if they’re large enough. I would not recommend smoking the brisket on a wok, because the heat and smoke easily escape. A stove-top smoker can work well, but make sure it’s one with a dome lid. (I like the one from Nordicware that resembles a Weber kettle.) Beware, however, that smoking indoors can result in a lot of smoke — indoors.

No matter what cooker you select, you are going to use an indirect heat method. This means putting the meat in a place that is not directly over heat. Usually, this means the meat goes on one side of the grill, while on the other side is the fire.

If you have a gas grill, follow the instructions it has for using a smoker box and wood chips. If you like barbecue sauce, serve it on the side. I’m not big on it with brisket, but this recipe will produce enough jus to use as a dipping sauce.

You don’t have to be a barbecue master to make this work, but you do have to pay attention to each step and be careful with the temperature. The recipe is easier to execute if you do it over two days.

Day 1 will involve about a half hour of preparation injecting the brisket with a bouillon concoction, and then you put it in a giant brining bag and into the refrigerator for at least four hours. Day 2, you cook. Preparation time is about an hour, cooking is about four and the time to let the brisket rest is about two hours.

So, if you think you’re up to the challenge, click here for the recipe.  Let me know how it turns out.

Alejandro Benes is a barbecue aficionado and a partner in Southern California’s Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill restaurant group. Benes recently prepared his brisket for 80 of his “closest” friends at an East Coast party.

+