Everybody and their grandmother (particularly their Jewish grandmother) has a recipe for brisket. A rub of lipton's onion soup mix . . . a beer . . . chili sauce . . . But I'm not going to talk about my grandmother's recipe. She may have one, I should have asked her on the phone today when she called to celebrate our shared birthday (love that!) But brisket actually doesn't appear that often in my childhood memories—my father is suspicious of meat that's wet, so we didn't eat it often. I never thought much about brisket until I started dating Matt four years ago and found myself at his folks' place for holidays.
I was amazed how little rushing around the Virginia house there was before holiday meals, no matter how many friends and relatives were about to descend. Unlike the frantic last-minute kitchen craziness to which I am prone, (and may possibly have inherited from my mother, who also shares my knack for using every single dish in the kitchen to prepare and serve a meal) holiday meal preparation with Matt's mother is a calm, well organized affair. She has a system.
Under the brisket part of this system, brisket is cooked well in advance, and most likely frozen. (There is also a turkey part of the system, which I will explain at some later date.) Brisket actually improves with a little storage, as long as it is reheated with plenty of liquid. You can serve a ton of people, and you have to do that day is pop the casserole in the oven—brilliant! And Karla's recipe is truly delicious, really moist, and perfectly accented by the pile of carrots that cook with it. Her secret ingredient (I'm not actually sure how secret it is) is a can of Coke. Perfect caramel flavor without caramelizing onions forever. I think the other secret is that it cooks a LONG time. On a weekend. Far ahead of the holiday.
Of course, what fun would it be to just stick with the classics? Rebel that I am, I decided to try a new recipe. The new December issue of Food and Wine featured Gail Simmons's family method for brisket, which added a rub of prepared horseradish. (I bet it would be good with fresh horseradish too.) Since I didn't have beef stock, but did have leftover turkey broth from our Week of Sickness, I added about a quarter of a can of Coke to the broth to deepen the flavor. (It's not sweet, I promise.) I also put all the veggies in at once, because I don't mind a truly mushed potato drowning in briskety gravy. In fact, I like that sort of thing. I substituted leeks for the celery, since I hate buying a huge head of celery just for two ribs. Threw it in the oven and waited three hours while watching Gossip Girl and drinking wine with our neighbor.
The recipe instructs you to remove the lid and cook uncovered to reduce the liquid. Perhaps my dutch oven doesn't seal perfectly, but by the time this was over, there wasn't a ton of liquid left. If I were doing this again, I actually might skip this step and just continue cooking covered, since browning the finished product probably only dries it out, and the liquid was just fine without it. Brisket isn't supposed to be able to win any beauty pageants.
So, did the RADICAL addition of horseradish change things drastically? Did we even recognize that it was brisket? Was our world turned upside down?
It was brisket. Brisket is really good. Delicious and rich and soothing. You might get a touch of horseradish flavor, and you could add more to the gravy if you wanted. Otherwise, standard, in a delicious way. When I make this again, though, I might try a lower-and-slower weekend method. I don't think this was quite as fall-apart tender well-cooked as it could have been, but I still ate the leftovers at work with only a plastic fork.
adapted from Gail Simmons
Food and Wine
One 5 1/2-pound first-cut brisket
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 carrots, cut crosswise 1 inch thick
2 medium parsnips, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise 1-inch thick
2 celery ribs, cut into 1 inch pieces (I subbed in leeks)
1/2 cup prepared white horseradish, drained
2 cups dry red wine
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
3 cups beef stock (I subbed in 3 cups total turkey broth and Coke (not diet))
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces (I only used two)
- Preheat the oven to 325°. Season the brisket generously with salt and pepper. In a very large enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 3 tablespoons of the vegetable oil. Add the brisket and cook over moderately high heat, turning, until browned all over, about 12 minutes. Using tongs, carefully transfer the brisket to a rimmed baking sheet, fat side up.
- Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the fat from the casserole. Add the onions and half of the garlic and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots, parsnips and celery and cook over moderate heat until browned in spots, about 6 minutes. I added potatoes at this point too.
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the prepared horseradish with the remaining garlic and 1/2 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Spread the garlic-horseradish paste on the fat side of the brisket.
- Pour the red wine into the casserole. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the casserole, 1 minute. Push the vegetables to the side of the casserole and add the bay leaves. Set the brisket, horseradish side up, in the center of the casserole. Pour the beef stock around the brisket and bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Cover the casserole, transfer to the oven and cook for 1 hour.
- If you didn't add potatoes at the beginning, scatter the potatoes around the brisket, cover and cook for about 2 hours longer, until the meat is very tender. Increase the oven temperature to 350°. Uncover the casserole and roast for about 30 minutes, until the brisket is browned on top and the gravy has thickened. Do not do this if the liquid is already reduced enough, just continue cooking a 325, covered.
- Carefully transfer the brisket to a carving board and let rest for 30 minutes. Discard the bay leaves. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
- Pour the brisket cooking liquid into a fat separator and let stand until the fat rises to the surface. Pour the cooking liquid into a gravy boat and discard the fat. Whisk the remaining 1/4 cup of prepared horseradish into the gravy and season with salt and pepper.
- Thinly slice the brisket across the grain and transfer to the platter with the vegetables. Spoon some of the gravy over the brisket and vegetables and serve, passing the remaining gravy at the table.
The recipe can be prepared through Step 5 and refrigerated for up to 3 days. To reheat, skim the fat from the surface of the liquid. Slice the cold brisket, return it to the casserole and reheat gently in a 350° oven. Transfer the brisket and vegetables to a platter and serve.
We drank an affordable Carignan, which really brought out the herbal flavor of the horseradish. I'm not sure I'd ever seen this unblended before, but it was really tasty. Quite full-bodied for an unoaked wine.