Some things are just better when you let them sit awhile.
Take brisket. Brisket's never made it big in the way of, say, T-bones or tenderloin. Somewhere along the way, it got typecast as a sultry character with a Texas drawl and a smokey disposition. Fair enough: barbecue doesn't get much better than brisket. But in our homes, on our tables, it rarely takes center stage. If we're lucky, brisket may make a cameo at Passover, or in March, incognito, as the St. Paddy's day sidekick to cabbage and mash. Which is too bad, because dinner doesn't get much better than a tender slump of braised beef, supple as silk and dripping flavor.
Maybe it's a PR problem. Brisket's one of those tough, lovely cuts that always seems to be spoken of in slightly slanderous terms, like economical and fatty and slow. Not exactly come-hither copy, I guess. Even if it is just shorthand for bliss, cheap and easy.
Or maybe it's the "let it sit" bit that puts people off. If you don't want to spend the night stoking smoldering hickory (me, I prefer teething toddlers with my all-nighters), brisket's best braised. Which is to say, tucked snug into your heaviest pot, with plenty of onions and salt and benign neglect.
Actually, you could probably skip the seasonings entirely, so long as you tuck yourself into Ordinary Boy and identifying false click beetles and sorting through those scary-high stacks of old homework and new junk mail and half-finished to-do lists that conspire like rabid dust bunnies on your counters. Anything but the brisket, really. After a lifetime's hard work, all this well-worn muscle needs is a long, lazy afternoon to plip and plop at a barely-there simmer until it finally, finally relaxes. You'll know done when you see it. Looks exactly like a fifteen year old boy just asked to take out the trash. When it's all droop and slouch, it's ready. To put in the fridge.
Because like any braise (and all good people), brisket only improves with age. Strictly speaking, it can be eaten immediately, but indulge it a slumber party, and it settles into itself something wonderful. I suppose this is the bit that sounds suspiciously like planning ahead. But it's where I just fall in love all over again. Brisket's not food for fixing after work, to eat twenty minutes after landing. Brisket's food for when you want to eat in two minutes, with no fixing whatsoever. It's food that happens days earlier during a spot of downtime, like folding the towels, then waits quietly in the wings. Sustenance on demand. Supper for wastrels.
Not that I'm name-calling. I'd hardly slam two friends I've known, together, some 45 years. Especially after they stopped by the other weekend. From Seattle. Which, by my rough estimate, translates as "traveled 4,822 miles through 3 time zones (and back) to spend 41 hours with you and yours". Though I might let the memory sit awhile, lest I say something slanderous. Like sunrises suck. Which, of course, I don't believe at all. Except when I have to say goodbye before dawn.
But two weeks out? The tough bits are long gone, and all that's left is the lovely. Like the particular pleasures of people who play late-night catch with Henry as ball and who don't complain when you hog the popcorn over 3-D meatballs and who, after you get hopelessly lost five minutes from home, deftly navigate the last 98% of the route to the ancient eroded landscape scattered up and down this page.
Or the casual magic of friends who've known your children since they were days old. Minutes, even. How even now, these two can walk off a red-eye and into your living room and pick up with your three little peeps right where they left off. As though that were a few days ago, and not a few seasons. How even your most quiet and cautious child will wander down a ravine and up an overhang with someone he hasn't seen in over half a year. Maybe because she taught him baby tae bo before he could sit solo.
How they work together like a crackerjack team of 20-year UN veterans to defuse Ye Olde Dutch Restaurant Crisis. How in a matter of minutes, they take an offending meatball that was entirely too 3-D and the ensuing Spaghetti Standoff, and somehow turn the whole hideous cross-contamination incident on its hysterical head.
How no one else in Ohio or Washington or, I'm pretty sure, anywhere in between, can get Max to flash his special sweet smile like these two can.
Maybe I was the wastrel for slipping that brisket in the oven before they arrived. I was planning ahead, sort of. I was planning on preferring games and hikes and ennui-among-friends to prep work and cooking and washing up after. On still wanting to eat well, whenever. On applying whatever time and energy we'd saved on dinner to sampling lots and lots of ice cream. Lazy, maybe, but lovely all the same.
Adapted from Gourmet, November 2005
This began life as a five ingredient recipe, and could easily remain one. I brown the beef if I've got time for the lovely caramelized layer it adds, and de-glaze the pan with a little red wine for added oomph. Skip these steps and you'll still have something pretty sublime. A dutch oven is excellent here. Oh, and all those onions? They soften and turn translucent and then mostly disappear, leaving their sweet savory fragrance behind.
5-6 pounds beef brisket
3 pounds onions, halved lenthwise, then thinly sliced
2 tsp. allspice
10-12 garlic cloves, chopped
3 Tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1-2 cups red wine
Place oven rack in lower-middle position and preheat oven to 300°.
Pat meat dry, and season well with salt and pepper. Slice into a few pieces, if needed, to sit flat in pot. Beginning on the fatty side, brown beef over medium-high heat, 5-8 minutes on each side (no additional oil will be needed). Continue until all are browned on both sides. Set beef aside.
Pour wine into now-empty pan, and scrape up crusty bits. Reduce by half.
Lay half of onions and garlic in pan. Set brisket on top, then season with allspice, salt and pepper. Cover with remaining onions and garlic. Place in 300° oven for 3-6 hours, turning meat over every 1-2 hours if you remember, until onions have all but melted, broth is a deep savory brown, and beef is spoon-tender. (This can be accomplished in 2-3 hours at a higher heat, say 350°-375°, but I usually find the longer stretch easier for me. Do what suits.)
Cool brisket in broth, uncovered, overnight. When ready to eat, pull apart brisket into generous chunks, then reheat in broth*, covered, on medium, 10-20 minutes.
*The quantity of broth generated by any given braise varies significantly. Once brisket is ready, taste the broth for flavor and salt. If it's thin, put the broth (brisket removed) back on the stove, and reduce (boil) until the flavor suits you. Sometimes I'll reduce by half, sometimes not at all. 4 cups is a nice goal, but taste is your first and last measure.
If you like your broth with a little more body, try this: mix 1-2 Tbs. of fat from chilled broth with 1-2 Tbs. flour (1:1 ratio) in a small bowl. Stir your "bouef manier" back into the bubbling broth, until dissolved and slightly thickened.