Last week, Tom came to dinner with a head cold. Two days later, Kitty complained that she'd come down with a head cold. By Saturday morning, it became clear that I hadn't escaped unscathed, either.
Admittedly, it cleared up by Monday morning, but it was enough for me to soundly blame them both, and declare that we'd be eating matzo ball soup this Tuesday. And once I decided on soup, I thought I'd stick to a theme and serve beef brisket and potato kugel, too.
You might be thinking, given the story I told in my last entry, that this might be a menu I could whip up in my sleep. You'd be wrong. Ironically, I never once made matzo ball soup or brisket during my tenure as Hillel head chef during college. Kosher chicken stock and kosher beef were a little too pricey for our budget, and even if the cost hadn't been prohibitive, I knew my audience: there was no way I could measure up to expectations fuelled by all those Jewish grandmothers. Instead, I stuck to dishes like teriyaki salmon and mushroom quiche.*
In fact, the only other occasion on which I ever prepared matzo ball soup and beef brisket was a pseudo-Seder at the mad hippie engineer house. Of course, I only need one chance to start tinkering with a recipe. I behaved myself when it came to the recipe for matzo ball soup (after all, there is no sense in messing with perfection), but I couldn't resist putting my own spin on the beef brisket. It's got prunes and carrots, but it's spiced with coriander seeds and green peppercorns. The result is hardly traditional, but it is, I dare say, quite tasty.
Not Very Traditional Braised Beef Brisket
Beef brisket takes a long time to cook. It doesn't need much attention, but don't start this recipe unless you can stay at home for several hours.
(Makes a lot. Better to round up three or four people to join you, unless you really want to eat brisket sandwiches for a week.)
Take two to three pounds of beef brisket, trimmed of any excess fat, and brown briefly on each side in a heavy pan. Transfer the brisket to a large pot with lid.
Add one teaspoon of salt, one tablespoon of ground coriander seeds (or crushed whole seeds, but you'll need to strain them out later), one teaspoon of crushed green peppercorns, a quarter-cup of brown sugar, and a generous glug of balsamic vinegar to the pan. Add enough water to fully cover the meat.
Bring the mixture to a boil. Skim off any grey scum that rises to the surface, then turn the heat down very, very low, and put the lid on the pot. You'll want the mixture at a bare simmer, with just a few bubbles breaking the surface. You'll want it to stay this way for the next three to four hours. Now go do something else - laundry, reading,
Check on the brisket once every hour, skimming off any scum. Once you've passed the three hour mark, stick a fork in the brisket and lift it up. If it starts to tear apart, let it cook at a bare simmer for another half an hour or so with the lid off. If it doesn't, put the lid back on and try again in another hour.
When the brisket has really started to lose structural integrity, lift it out of the pot carefully, and set it in a casserole dish. Use two forks to shred the meat into small chunks. Cover the dish and set it aside.
Bring the liquid remaining in the pot to a boil, and drop in four or five peeled, chopped carrots. Cook the carrots until you can just pierce them with a fork - they shouldn't be too soft. Lift them out of the pot, and add them to the casserole dish with the brisket.
(If you used whole crushed coriander seeds rather than ground, you'll want to strain the mixture at this point. Depending on how much you like peppercorns, you may want to strain the mixture anyway.)
Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil again. Add up to two cups of prunes, depending on how much you like prunes. (I like prunes a lot.) Cook the prunes until they swell up and turn soft but not mushy. Lift them out of the pot and add them to the casserole dish.
Bring the liquid in the pot to a steady simmer, and reduce until you have a thin, sticky sauce. Salt to taste. Pour the sauce over the brisket. Cover the casserole dish and put it in a warm oven for fifteen or twenty minutes. Serve with potato kugel, or something similarly starchy.
Note: Brisket can be made the day before serving and reheated.
*Teriyaki salmon with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach was a crowd favorite. Go figure.