Today: The straight-shooting brisket to get you through the winter (with a clever technique that makes every slice the best slice).
Like biscuits and gravy or baked ziti, brisket is a way of life, imprinted on us from the moment we learn to eat -- I don't expect that we will all agree on what makes it genius.
Having grown up not in the tradition of Brisket, but in the kindred one of Pot Roast; having never been served the pale, tasteless slivers, nor the ethereal ones -- I can only hope to understand as a brisket-eater newly born. But I can still appreciate a damn good brisket when I taste one.
So you'll see why I was so happy to discover Nach Waxman's Brisket of Beef: it comes from a man who knows recipes (his store Kitchen Arts & Letters on Lexington and East 93rd is one of the finest cookbook shops anywhere) -- and who really knows brisket.
His recipe was first published in Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso's The New Basics in 1989 and, according to The Brisket Book's Stephanie Pierson, might be the most googled brisket recipe ever. (By some accounts, it was even served in the White House, at the Obamas' first Passover Seder.)
Other recipes hide brisket among prunes or lemon or dozens of garlic cloves, ketchup or Coca-Cola. This one does nothing of the sort. It has precious few ingredients, applied deliberately and memorably.
Waxman took the best parts of two versions passed down in his family, weaving them into one simple treatment. (Because isn't that how these things always work?)
From his mother, he learned to skip adding liquids and instead spearhead the seasoning with what he calls a "spectacular quantity of onions" -- for their subtle, supportive (and moisture-delivering) flavor.
From his mother-in-law, he borrowed the genius trick of slicing the hunk of beef thinly halfway through cooking, then leaning it back on itself like a heap of fallen dominos. At this point, it's fully cooked but still firm, so the slices don't fall to shreds.
And this way, all the surrounding goodness has more avenues to seep in, making each slice a little like an end piece. (The best part? Discuss.)
Aside from one other delightful step, in which you paint the top of the seared brisket with tomato paste "as if you were icing a cake", that's about it. Then you just cook it, next to one lucky carrot, rather slowly, and for a rather long time.
It bastes itself from all sides, under a protective blanket of tomato paste and its own modest layer of fat, with a bed of simmering onions below. First it steam-roasts in onion juices, then those slices slowly stew and melt together with the onions.
Waxman says he will "absolutely" be serving this recipe for Hanukkah, with latkes, pickled green tomatoes, and sauerkraut warmed in a little olive oil and beer. Another friend said that this would be akin to serving roast turkey on Halloween.
Whatever your tradition tells you is right -- and whether you're a brisket newbie or an old hand -- this recipe will make this winter better than the last.
Serves 10 to 12
1 (6-pound) first-cut (a.k.a. flat cut) beef brisket, trimmed so that a thin layer of fat remains
1 to 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour (or matzoh meal)
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons corn oil
8 medium onions, peeled and thickly sliced
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
1 carrot, peeled
Photo of Nach Waxman from the Post-Gazette; all others by James Ransom