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Jewish-Style Pot-Roasted Brisket

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    I decided to test my brisket theory one more time. The theory is that a whole brisket, preferably with some, if not a lot, of its fat still intact is vastly superior to a piece of so-called "first cut" brisket that is, as most butchers sell it today, very well trimmed; I think over-trimmed. The meat comes out significantly more succulent if it cooks with its fat than if it cooks lean. The fat can always be skimmed and trimmed afterward.

    A whole brisket consists of two distinct muscles: The first cut is the larger, leaner piece. The second cut, which is also called "breast deckle," is on top of the first cut and has more much more integral fat (marbling). The interior fat alone makes the second cut more tender and juicy, but, in addition, it is attached to the first cut by a large layer of fat.

    The butcher trimmed almost all the fat from the outside of both cuts, but had to leave the layer of fat between the two muscles because it is the fat that links them together. Trimmed, the whole brisket weighed 10 pounds.

    I also got a whole piece of first cut brisket weighing 7 pounds. Butchers tell me that no one wants second cut brisket -- attached or not -- and so most butchers put it into their ground meat mixture. What a waste! It's one of the most flavorful cuts of meat on the entire animal.

    Now, before I get to the actual pot roast recipe and the experiment, here's a little history:

    I, of course, learned to make pot roast from my mother, who went through various stages with her pot roast over her lifetime. The recipe below is the one she started with because her mother, and her mother's Russian immigrant mother made it this way -- more or less. It's also the one she ended up making after the family suffered through years of pot roast made with Sauce Arturo, pot roast made with ketchup, pot roast made with Lipton's onion soup mix, and, the worst, pot roast made with Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry. I have no idea where she came up with that one. During diet-conscious times, we also suffered through "first cut" brisket trimmed, as it is today, so closely that it always turned out stringy and dry, mealy or hard. Near the end of her life, however, my mother finally realized (with a little encouragement from her son) that the essentials for a melt-in-the-mouth, juicy pot roast are the tried and true and number only two: The whole brisket, fat and all, no browning necessary. And a lot, alot of onions; about half the meat's weight is a good rule of thumb.

    I made the whole brisket exactly that way. I cut in half the piece of first cut and cooked half of it that way, too. The other half of the lean "first cut" I first browned in a little vegetable oil on top of the stove in a very large skillet, and instead of putting the onions in raw, I wilted them in the browning skillet, which, at the same time, de-glazed the skillet.

    The best of the three was unquestionably the whole brisket. The browned first cut was juicier than the unbrowned first cut.

    The big surprise of the experiment, however, was that the whole brisket was absolute heaven the day it was made. I had expected it to be even better, or at least just as good, when reheated the next day. It wasn't. It's optimum moment was when it came out of the oven after 4 hours at 350 degrees. Still, it was excellent (and better than the others) on the second day, and easy to slice neatly. Follow my slicing and reheating directions below.

    Browning vs. not browning: If you insist on very lean first cut only, or if you are cooking for such a small number of people that a larger piece of meat becomes ridiculous or unaffordable, by all means brown the meat first -- over medium heat. A whole brisket is, for one thing, too large to brown in home-sized pots on a home range.

    On liquid: There is no need to add any liquid, especially if you do not brown the meat first. The vegetables and meat will produce an enormous amount of moisture as they cook. Even the browned meat and onions produce enough moisture to create some concentrated sauce. However, if you want a lot of sauce, add about a half-cup of beef broth or red wine to the pan with the browned piece of brisket.

    For the 10-pound piece of whole brisket, I followed these directions exactly. (Such a sizable piece of meat should make at least 20 servings.)

2   very large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1   8 to 10-pound brisket
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1/2   teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4   pounds onions, halved and sliced
3   medium carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds
2 large, outside ribs celery, sliced 1/4-inch thick
4   small bay leaves

    1. Rub 1 chopped clove of garlic into each side of the meat.

    2. Salt and pepper the meat on both sides.

    3. Spread the onions, carrots and celery on the bottom of the pan. Put the meat over the vegetables. Put 2 bay leaves under the meat, 2 on top of the meat.

    4. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and cook in a preheated 350-degree oven for 4 hours, until meat is just tender.

    5. Let meat rest 20 minutes, then slice: Cut the second cut off of the first cut and trim off and discard the layer of fat between them. Slice both cuts across the grain, either straight down or at a slight diagonal angle. Skim any fat off the juices left in the pan, and serve the onions and vegetables with the juices as a sauce for both the meat and any starch accompaniment. If desired, you can puree some of the vegetables to make a thicker sauce.

    6. If preparing ahead for serving another day, refrigerate until several hours before serving time. Skim hardened fat off the surface of the liquid that has collected around the meat, and off the surface of the meat. Allow the meat to come to room temperature before final heating.

    7. About an hour before serving, using a long-bladed, preferably serrated knife (I use a bread knife), slice the meat about 1/4-inch thick. It will require a sawing motion and a strong arm. Do not disturb the conformation of the meat. Return the meat to the roasting pan as if it was still a whole brisket.

    8. Baste with pan juices and heat, uncovered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, basting a few times during that period. The surface of the meat should have browned nicely, and the slices of meat should be heated through and fork tender. Trim excess fat off the meat on the plate, as it is eaten.

    9. Serving suggestion: Serve with kasha (buckwheat groats): Follow the directions on the back of the box, and top each helping with onions and juices from the pot roast. Or prepare kasha varnishkes: cooked buckwheat groats tossed with bow-tie macaroni and flavored with sauteed onions. Or serve with mashed potatoes flavored with schmaltz (chicken fat) and, if available, gribenes (the cracklings and blackened onions left from rendering the chicken fat), also topped with pan juices and onions. A green vegetable is up to you.

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