Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cooking my Feelings

I've had a remarkably frustrating week.

I think it's telling that all I was looking forward to on my (long anticipated) day off was nesting, visiting the butcher and the market and spending some time in the kitchen cooking.

In previous iterations of what I thought I wanted to be when I grew up, I never unwound from stressful days by philosophizing or thinking deep thoughts. What I do now, and plan to continue to do is, evidently, what I crave doing, and what makes me happiest. I feel pretty lucky to have hit on that thing.

I've got a fabulous oldies station blaring, dulce de leche on the go in the oven, heirloom beets and potatoes blanching on the stove, lamb shanks getting ready for a braise and duck breasts marinating. These things will come together in two elaborate dinners (tonight and tomorrow) that will leave me relaxed, refreshed and ready to face the world again. Until then, I may not leave the kitchen.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Showdown at the Brisket Corral

My mother has always made a darn good brisket, and she has always made it the same way- brown the meat under the broiler, season it (with black pepper and garlic powder, never salt. Kosher meat is generally plenty salty), rest it on a bed of carrots, celery and potatoes (a few years back, mom started putting mushrooms into the brisket mirepoix, which knocked my world off its axis a bit, but I recovered and they're delicious), cover it and throw it in the oven at 350F for 20 minutes and then at 425F until it is fork tender. Once done, slice, cutting across the muscle fibers, and reserving the lean tip for Dad. Serve alongside the vegetable mirepoix that is so reich and delicious from sitting under the meat that it hardly resembles vegetable matter anymore.

Which takes forever- brisket is a tough cut of meat from the front of the cow, below the chuck. If you cook it forever, the collagen melts and the tough, stringy muscle fibres become soft and heavenly. Because of the length of preparation time (not the complexity; it's pretty easy), brisket, in my mama's house, is usually part of a festive meal- the festive Rosh HaShanna brisket, the festive Passover brisket, etc. Mom never adds any liquid to the roasting pan- the meat lets out a ton of its own that doesn't evaporate thanks to the covered pan, and the rich resulting brisket juice is used to reheat leftovers, never to make gravy.

Allow me to digress on the subject of gravy. I LOVE gravy (please take the caps as an indication of sincerity and enthusiasm). I generally can't get enough of it. I love all manner of pan-jus, thick gravies enriched with wine and butter, red-eye gravy (a strange and delicious pork fat and coffee sauce), and I won't even turn my nose up at even the vilest canned or powdered gravy mixes. I always make pan gravy with roasted chicken or turkey. A guilty secret: for leftover sandwiches, I spread congealed gravy on the bread in place of mayo. I'm not that ashamed. I wasn't raised in a gravy-eating family- my mom, who did most of the home cooking, never made any, and I'm not sure why. It could be that it seemed like too much extra work, or too fattening, but most likely (in my humble opinion) that my mother always felt that her meats were perfectly seasoned and juicy as they were. There were never salt and pepper shakers on the table, either.
I'm done now.

Anyway, we've had a couple of briskets at work in the last month. One, a smoked brisket to celebrate the local blues festival, and the other, just this week, was braised with thyme, hot peppers and red wine. Plus, I was just in Montreal for Rosh HaShanna (the Jewish New Year), and so was treated to easily the most exceptional brisket my family has ever produced. I restrained myself when selecting my leftovers to take back to Kingston with me; my pregnant sister-in-law, a notoriously picky eater had declared a liking for the brisket (who could blame her?), and I didn't want to deprive my unborn niece of a solid, festive meal. Big mistake. I have an unsatisfied hankering for brisket, which I am soothing with a 6 1/2 lb brisket purchased from my local butcher on my way home.

I am following my mother's cooking method, with a few alterations: I salted the meat liberally (incidentally, Mike loves salty food {oversalted, really}, and there is always a dramatic variety of salt on the table, over here), I didn't use any garlic powder (I don't have any, and plus, think its weird), and in addition to the traditional Rudner vegetable accomaniments, I threw the following under the meat: a handful of fresh shiitake mushrooms, an ounce or so of dried porcini mushrooms (the Asian Market has them for ultra-cheap), 2 tomatoes cut into wedges, a jalapeno pepper cut into long slices, and 4 really potent new crop onions, cut into wedges. And also, the dregs of a bottle of Italian red wine we had been enjoying a couple of nights ago.

The plan: eat brisket tonight (should it ever finish cooking) my mom's way, and tomorrow, the way we do at the restaurant, in which the meat is served not sliced, but rather in a large chunk, and reheated in the braising juice (we use quite a bit of liquid in the braise at work), which, as it simmers to heat the meat, reduces into a gorgeous, thick gravy, which dribbles into the accompanying mashed potatoes.

A brisket showdown, that's what this is. Stay tuned for the results.