By Larry Levine –
You don’t have to be Jewish to like brisket and it doesn’t have to be Passover for you to eat brisket. But it wouldn’t hurt.
It goes by many names: brisket, brisket of beef, baked brisket, and in barbecue joints everywhere it’s called Q. If prepared properly brisket can be good anytime of the year. If mishandled it can be tough, dry, or both.
Of all the memories from the 45-plus years Jennifer and I have been married, the big family holiday dinners are among the fondest. We talk frequently of how we miss those gatherings at our home or my sister Elisa’s home.
We were not a religious family. The holidays were a reason to get together to acknowledge our cultural heritage, pass that awareness on to our children, and to just to laugh, sing and eat. The biggest gathering I can recall was 21 family and friends. We moved the living room couches out of the way to clear space for the folding tables that extended our dining table. It was tight, but everyone squeezed in and I was in culinary heaven.
Passover and Rosh Hashanah were the brisket holidays. Thanksgiving brought the largest turkey I could fit in the oven. July 4, Mothers’ Day, and Fathers’ Day also provided excuses for a family party. And if there was no holiday, the excuse might have been “I feel like cooking,” or “let’s have a barbecue.”
Cooking meant me or Elisa, or the two of us together once the years robbed our mother of the energy to host the family.
My earliest memory of a family holiday dinner reaches back to our downstairs rear apartment in a Brooklyn, NY brownstone, long before our California days redefined Thanksgiving as a day to spend in the swimming pool at Elisa’s house. I bundled myself in a blue pea coat, galoshes and gloves to help my father shovel snow from the front walk so our relatives could get to the building without slipping on the ice and snow.
There were about 14 or 15 of us at that Brooklyn Thanksgiving dinner. Everything was going well. The adults were in the dining room, talking a drinking. We kids were in my bedroom, playing some long-forgotten game. It all came crashing down when Mom took the turkey from the oven. As she turned to put it on the counter for Dad to carve, he walked by, didn’t see her, bumped into her and sent the hapless turkey plummeting to the floor. They stood their looking down at the beautifully browned but grounded bird. Then Mom started to laugh. Dad just stood there with a grin on his face, saying nothing, not moving. After an appropriate pause, Dad hoisted the wasted, basted bird to the carving board. Dinner that night was turkey with all the fixings but without the turkey. One of my uncles shot the whole scene with his hand-held Keystone 8 mm movie camera.
Of all the people in the room that night, I’m the only one left to keep the memory alive. That’s the way things are in the cycle called life. Time is uncaring and unfeeling. It steals things and people we hold dear and then dulls the memories, hopefully to make way for new memories. My parents have died, as have my two sisters. Our sons have moved away to get on with their own lives with their own families. There’s no concentration of family left to populate a big dinner. We visit our sons and their families on alternating years for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. That means six for dinner, not sixteen. Those are important moments that give our grandchildren a different variety of what we were able to give our children in earlier times. They know grandpa loves to cooks, just as their fathers do. And they know grandma and grandpa love them and love to be with them. As for the rest, we’ll see what time brings.
Below is my recipe for baked brisket. It borrows from recipes used by at least half a dozen friends and family members. I’ve prepared my brisket this way dozens of times and it’s been a hit every time. I’ll leave the Passover Seder Table and holiday services for our Jewish readers to arrange to their own needs and preferences.
BAKED BRISKET OF BEEF
brisket of beef, about 1/2 lb per person, at least 4 lb total
2 Tbls Olive oil
2 brown onions, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
2 celery stalks, with leafs, diced
2 bay leafs
1 cup water
1 cup red wine
Trim the surface fat from meat, leaving a thin layer. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan. Sear the brisket on all sides in the hot oil. Remove the brisket to a roasting pan with a cover. Slightly brown the onion slices in the brisket juices left in the pan. (Add more olive oil if needed.) Sprinkle the brisket generously with paprika. Cover the brisket with the sliced onions. Surround the brisket with the carrots, celery and bay leafs. Add the water and wine without washing the paprika from the meat. Cover the roasting pan and bake in pre-heated 325-degree oven for three hours. Check every hour and add equal amounts of additional water and wine to assure the vegetables don’t burn.
Remove the brisket to carving platter and let stand 10 to 15 minutes so juices can set. Do not remove the onions.
You can either carve the brisket across the grain with a very sharp knife to serve it immediately. I prefer to wrap it in tin foil and put it in the refrigerator until the next day. Then I slice it while it’s still cold, re-wrap it in the tin foil and put it in a 325 degree oven to reheat. This way it slices easier and you won’t be rushed at serving time.
Serve with mashed or roasted potatoes, and green beans with mushroom and onions.