March 30, 2020

Classic Brisket: A Teaching Moment

The Engelmans were the first family I knew that took food really seriously. They owned the three Nibblers restaurants in Los Angeles. When Carol Engelman and I had play dates, her parents, Sam and Doris, tried out new recipes on us, and Carol, her sister Barbie and I got the cooking bug. We baked strudels, cakes and cookies, and we cooked whatever we wanted. We had great guidance, equipment and ingredients. Each afternoon at the Engelmans’ was a learning moment for me.

A couple of decades later, it became pretty evident I was going to need a brisket recipe for my family. I bought cookbooks and leafed through Sunset and Better Homes & Gardens magazines. I tried lots of recipes, but I couldn’t find a brisket that matched the brisket of my childhood — the one that I ate after school at Carol’s house. Nothing could compare with that brisket. 

So I called my mother and she told me to call Sam and Doris. “But it’s been more than 20 years,” I said. “Who wouldn’t want to hear that in more than 20 years, you still remember their brisket?” my mother said. “Just call.” So I did, and I renewed my friendship with the Engelmans.

Sam and Doris taught me how to pick a brisket and trim it just so; how to never over-season it. They taught me the value of starting with good ingredients, preparing them properly and being consistent in my cooking. 

As for that brisket? It’s your classic, traditional Jewish brisket. It’s part of all those holiday and Sabbath meals, and how much they meant and still mean to us. As my friend Leona says, when her kids and grandkids come into her house, she wants them to simply smell the aroma of the food coming from her kitchen and know it’s Shabbat. 

I buy a whole brisket because you get the second cut —  the fattier part — right on top of the first cut — the leaner part — and that way one bastes the other. Once fully cooked and cooled, you can refrigerate your brisket for two days before reheating and serving it. If you prefer, you can freeze it, double-wrapped in foil and in a plastic bag. It will keep for three to four weeks. Defrost before reheating.  

If you want to make brisket, there’s no better time than Rosh Hashanah. Shanah tovah and Anyada buena, a year of goodness.

Brisket à La Nibblers

Nibblers Restaurant recipe

12- to 14-pound whole beef brisket*
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
4 tablespoons or more ground paprika
Olive oil
4 brown onions, firm and fresh, peeled and quartered
6 cloves garlic, peeled
6 stalks celery, cut into quarters
Celery leaves (optional)
1 bell pepper, trimmed, cut into eighths (optional)
1  2-ounce envelope dried onion soup mix
6 carrots, trimmed, peeled, cut into 1-inch lengths
8 potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges**

Preheat oven to 400 F and place a rack about 10 inches from top of oven.

Wash brisket and trim as described below.

Sprinkle entire brisket with white pepper and paprika. Use a little olive oil and rub the spices into the meat.

Distribute the onion quarters, garlic cloves, celery and bell pepper (optional) in a 19 1 /2-by-11 1/ 2-inch disposable aluminum pan.

Place that pan inside another pan of the same size because the dish will get heavy. Sprinkle vegetables with onion soup mix. Place seasoned brisket on top of vegetables.

Add water to the pan until it just touches the underside of the meat.

Place brisket in the preheated oven. Baste the brisket by ladling pan juices over it every 20 minutes, for one hour.

Lower the oven temperature to 325 F.

Remove the pan from oven and place potatoes and carrots under brisket.

Wrap entire pan with wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil. Return pan to oven and continue cooking for additional 2 hours or until tender. Remove from oven.

Cool completely. Carve. Place carved brisket back in pan juices and cover tightly with aluminum foil.

Refrigerate overnight and then remove fat that has accumulated on surface of pan juices.

At this point, brisket can be served immediately or refrigerated for up 2 days and then reheated (at 300 F for 1-1 1 /2 hours).

If you want to freeze it, cooked, carved brisket can be frozen for up to a month, defrosted, vegetables added, and then reheated (at 300 F for 1-1 1/2 hours).

Makes 16 servings.

*I prefer grain-fed if I can find it. Buy one that doesn’t look too fatty and carefully trim all excess fat. Leave the fat between the top and bottom pieces intact or the two layers of the brisket will fall apart.

**Potatoes can be added if you don’t intend to freeze the brisket. If you intend to freeze the brisket, wait until the day before you’re serving it. Thaw the pan of brisket, pan juices and vegetables. Before reheating it, parboil new potatoes or fingerling potatoes and add them to the pan juices. Place the brisket on top of the potatoes and reheat as directed.

Debby Segura lives in Los Angeles. She designs dinnerware and textiles, and teaches cooking classes.