borrowing amply from mr. capote, who in his delicious and utterly memorizable 1956 treasure, “a christmas memory,” tells us of his eccentric sixty-something-year-old cousin who presses her nose to the kitchen window, gauges the novemberness of the outside tableau, and exclaims, “oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!…it’s fruitcake weather! fetch our buggy. help me find my hat.”
and at our house this weekend, i woke up, sniffed my nose in the air, and proclaimed, “it’s brisket weather.” with that i trotted off to the butcher who had cleaved and wrapped seven and a half pounds of pure red steer, laced heavily with adipose. he marked it, mahany, and as he handed over the white-paper-wrapped log, he raised one eyebrow and quizzed, “that jewish?” well, no, mister meat man. but my husband is, my boys are half and half, and we do hanukkah.
the thing about being an irish catholic mother in a jewish-catholic family is that you have no long lineage of recipes you call your own. you have, forgive me for braggin’, something far better than that: an amalgam of adopted jewish mothers and the best of their best. i’ve got ina’s matzo balls, aunt joni’s tips on storing, freezing and reheating latkes, liat’s hamantashcen, audrey’s “tzimmes with potato kugel topping,” that one cut from the los angeles times, now yellowed and long ago scribbled with audrey’s thoughts on how to improve it.
brisket i’ve got in triplicate: susan’s famed brisket, one boasts; sandra’s working-woman’s brisket; and the one i now call my own, brisket from harlene ellin’s mom. now, mind you, i have met harlene ellin’s mom once–at the side of a pool at a 7-year-old’s birthday long long ago, where the meeting was doused liberally in chlorinated pool water. but harlene’s mama and i, once or twice a year, we make brisket together. listening closely as she insists it must be heinz chili sauce, nobody’s else’s. following carefully as she guides me through the rinsing and patting dry of the beef slab.
last night, i leaned heavily on mama ellin. she swears you need 50 to 55 minutes per pound in a 325-degree oven. do the math: that was 6 and a quarter hours. being a good catholic girl, i did what i was told. even though after a while i started doubting the wisdom of all this baking and baking. was i en route to the leatheriest brisket ever served at a hanukkah dinner? as i unearthed said brisket from the oven, well past bedtime, and noted the bayleaves had started to blacken, my knees how they trembled, my calm how it shattered.
quick, i grabbed mark bittman. he tells me how to cook everything. he said nothing about brisket being cooked for a full quarter of a day. i googled brisket. the longest stretch there was five hours, for a five-pound brisket. but i had the motherlode of all briskets. my meat man set me up with 7.5 pounds, for cryin’ out loud. i had no option last night but to stay the course with mama ellin. i did as i was told, vaulted it from roasting pan to refrigerator pan, tucked it in under a taut aluminum blanket, turned out the kitchen lights and hoped for the best.
frankly, my brisket dreams did little to soothe me.
called the butcher first thing this morn. he swears i did the right thing; only he cautions a low long oven is the best route to brisket heaven. he goes overnight at 200 degrees. has brisket by the mound for breakfast, he does. maybe i should have turned down the heat.
all i know now is it smelled a bit like heaven around here for six-plus hours on sunday, all chili sauce, red wine, cloves and those bay leaves. i wasn’t about to lower the burn on that celestial scent.
we had 12 coming for brisket tonight, but little tedd has a fever of 103. so, for now, me and my brisket we are on hold. we are whispering prayers, jewish and catholic, for fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth, mind-if-i-help-myself-to-more. dinner is rescheduled for wednesday. we’ll let you know if our brisket prayers they are answered.
here’s how harlene ellin’s mama and i go at it, year after year:
3 pounds first-cut brisket (these things a Catholic girl must learn, who knew from first-, second- or even third-cut?)
1 C. Heinz chili sauce
½ C. brown sugar
¼ C. dry red wine
¼ C. water
1 small or medium onion, sliced
3 cloves, whole
6 black peppercorns, whole
3 bay leaves
Rinse brisket and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl combine chili sauce, brown sugar, wine and water. Mix well. Pour ¼ of chili sauce mixture into a roasting pan. Place brisket on sauce, fat side up. Place onions, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaves evenly over brisket. Top with remaining chili sauce mixture.
Cover roasting pan tightly. Bake brisket in preheated 325 degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes per pound, or until meat is fork tender. Remove meat from pan and place it in a container. Remove bay leaves, peppercorns and cloves from gravy, and put gravy in a container. Refrigerate meat and gravy for several hours or overnight.
To reheat brisket, slice against grain to desired thickness and place in covered casserole dish sprayed with cooking oil spray. Remove and discard any congealed fat from gravy. Pour the gravy over meat. Cover and reheat in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes or until heated through. (Brisket can be reheated in microwave.)
feel free to add your brisket thoughts to this melt-in-your-mouth conversation….