When holidays happen and I can’t be with my family in the way I’m used to, I used to get lonely. I still get pangs of that loneliness, but ever since starting this here blog business, I realized that I can mitigate that longing for family and community by starting my own traditions and invoking them by making and sharing all of the dishes at the gatherings I love so much. I also have been lucky enough to have a mother-in-law who has seen me moping in years past and who decided to adopt my traditions and make gefilte fish from scratch, gluten free noodle kugels and chocolate covered matzoh so I don’t feel so lonely if I can’t go all the way upstate to visit family.
In my last year’s post on Passover, I made my favorite dish that my grandma makes. This year I decided to assume the mantle of all those who came before me and attempt a brisket. But, I also had to pack for another work trip to Mexico City and attend a friend’s birthday party that I simply refused to miss. I didn’t have the courage to leave the stove on, unattended, for hours. This called for a slow braise in the slow cooker–a cooking technique in which you first sear meat at a high temperature on the stove top, creating a nice brown crust then placing the food in a covered pot or slow cooker with a braising liquid for a couple hours. When it’s done, I reduce the sauce and make a fragrant, thick gravy out of it.
Don’t skip the browning part. It’s a luxury of life, a fundamental desire, like seeking out beauty and our natural pull toward water. It’s one of life’s great luxuries. To get a good sear, dry your meat. The drier the better. Use a very hot pan (my new pan arrived!!) and a little bit of oil with a high smoking point, like canola oil. For this braise I used a dry red wine (as always, one cup for me, one for the braise, rinse and repeat) and a fragrant rosemary, garlic, olive oil paste. You can braise meat in just about anything. The process softens the toughest cuts of meat because it breaks down the tough connective tissue and renders meat tender and flavorful. The kind of succulent meat that melts off the bones. A brisket really won’t taste good any other way.
Last year at this time I talked about how when you’re a kid the world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that you don’t realize that you are both separate from it and part of it. Even with stories in the news and rituals like Passover seders, we as kids only know the reality that is ours. The only world that exists is the world as we know it. The world at large, with heartbreak, plague and loss is–if we’re lucky–an abstract idea. This year I’m thinking all of this as I watch my new niece change with every day.
As we grow up we learn our histories and life’s bitter lessons by heart. I came to the conclusion that we are all tending our gardens in the shade of the giant trees that were there before us and in due time we will be those trees too. Life leaves its mark and embracing that is the key to the transition between loneliness and satisfaction. I’ve found my power in accepting my stage in life with grace rather than resignation, even if nostalgia creeps in. My mother-in-law’s gesture of gathering is a precious addition to my brisket rather than the saving grace from loneliness that it used to be. Family gatherings are joyous because I realize now that they are not a given. Slow cooking this brisket is a step toward ownership of my place in this life cycle. And having my second work life in Mexico is a way of being foisted out of my routine and following a unique and unexpected path. Not a bad gig all in all.
Happy Passover, Easter, Spring, Semana Santa and/or rest of the week!
SLOW COOKED BRISKET W/ ROSEMARY GARLIC PASTE
- 3 large garlic cloves, smashed
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
- 4 sprigs fresh rosemary, needles striped from the stem and chopped
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 (2 pound) beef brisket
- Coarsely ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/4 tsp cayenne
- 3 large carrots, cut in 3-inch chunks
- 2 celery stalks, cut in 3-inch chunks
- 1 large red onion, cut into chunks
- 1 large yellow onion, cut into chunks
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 1 (8-ounce) can whole tomatoes, hand-crushed
- 1 handful fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves or cilantro
- 2 bay leaves
Mash the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt together with the flat-side of a knife into a paste. Add the rosemary and continue to mash until incorporated. Put the garlic-rosemary paste in a small bowl and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil; stir to combine.
Season both sides of the brisket with a fair amount of kosher salt and ground black pepper. Place a large skillet or over medium-high flame and coat with the remaining olive oil. Put the brisket in the pan and sear to form a nice brown crust on both sides.
Lay half the vegetables in the slow cooker. Add the brisket and cover with remaining vegetables. Pour the rosemary paste over the whole thing. Add the wine and tomatoes; toss in the parsley/cilantro, spices and bay leaves. Cover the slow cooker tightly and simmer on low for 10 hours or high for 6 hours, until the beef is fork tender.
I recommend making this brisket ahead; allowing it to sit in the refrigerator for 1-2 nights will improve the flavor.
Remove brisket from the pan and let it rest on the cutting board fat-side up for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, skim fat from the surface of the cooking sauce. I like to reduce the cooking sauce by first removing the bay leaves, pouring it into a pan then using an immersion blender to blend the sauce with the garlic and onions. Leave it over medium to high heat until the sauce is reduced by half.
Once your sauce is ready, cut fat cap off the brisket. Pour the hot sauce over the brisket and serve. Slice the brisket across the grain (the muscle lines) at a slight diagonal. If you can make it ahead of time and let it marinate in the sauce for a day or two it’s infinitely softer and much more flavorful, but it’s wonderful served immediately as well. This can also be made in a roasting pan in the oven at 350F covered with foil for 3-4 hours or in a dutch oven over low heat for 3-4 hours. Enjoy!
SCENES FROM MEXICO:
They’re filming the new James Bond film here at the Zocalo, the main square in the historic district and the huge skeletons they built are awesome. I’m working like a dog this week, but I managed to finally get a reservation at Pujol!