I’m becoming reacquainted with inexpensive cuts of meat. Oxtail, which I made a few weeks ago for the first time, is delicious and rich, and was a dish my mother used to make during the colder months. Last week’s chill factor called for something similar: the days demanded comfort food and red wine. I had a large piece of rolled brisket that needed to be used up and I had been mulling over what to do with it. I’ve seen it made with ketchup, or served in a broth, and perhaps could have tried my hand at salt beef, but all of these seemed not quite right for the weather and really, not quite British enough.
I first tried brisket when I was 17. I had heard of the cut, of course, but I considered it quite different and almost exotic in my ignorance. It was a dish with romantic connotations associated with New York and the cultural stereotypes more widely associated with the Jewish culture. Growing up in Oregon, where the Jewish population is of the minority (approximately 1%), I thought if I ever did try it, a severe woman with greying hair and an overarching desire to feed me would be the first to do so, should I ever make it as far as that glittering City in the East. As it turned out, it would be a kindly greying woman in a city thirty minutes north of my hometown who would be first to make the introduction.
In school, I was a member of Youth and Government, a sort of a mock political club in which high schoolers met to “debate” issues. Every year, teenagers from all across Oregon would descend on our state capital in Salem, for four days to play grown-up politicians, complete with mock-lobbyists, mock-representatives and mock-senators. It was great, wholesome fun and I’m quite sure in reality it wasn’t too far off from what the real politicians were up to. Local Salem residents would offer to house students from out of town and my friend, Heidi, and I were set up with an elderly Jewish couple who lived not too far away from the centre of town. I wish I could remember their names. They reminded me of our Jewish family friends from California, Max and Goldie Chirlin, whom I adored and were the first to acquaint me as a child to the glories of bagels, lox and cream cheese. To my 17-year-old self, this new couple seemed so familiar to the Chirlin’s, yet so very different. I was nervous to stay with them; an unfounded notion as there was nothing to set them apart from any other elderly couple. Perhaps it was the glaring difference of youth set against age that caused such apprehension.
We arrived to their house quite late in the evening. They showed us to our room, a small spare bedroom with two single beds. Their house was filled with knick-knacks, 70s furniture, and many family photos of children and grandchildren. The eager wife asked us if we were hungry, which of course we were. She smiled at our response and went to prepare something. I was terrified. As a teenager, I loved food, but anything out of the ordinary I feared. I had hoped she’d make us something safe like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, but it was not to be. Set before us was a sinuous and tender hunk of beef, with a flavourful sauce, which to this day I am sure was comprised of a derivation of ketchup and stock, and served with a bit of mashed potato. I didn’t even know that it was brisket. It wasn’t until she told us what it was that I realised that the brisket in my mind was nothing compared to the real thing. As a 17-year-old meat and potato obsessive, I had hit the motherload. It was rich, sweet and salty and utterly beefy. The rest of the week debating issues passed unremarkably, but that first taste has stayed with me for 15 years.
From that point onwards, I reconsidered my relationship with brisket (if one can say one has a relationship with a particular cut of meat). From then on I knew what I was dealing with and this delightful woman had set the bar. As I grew older and delved further into a borderline obsession with food, I discovered there was more to brisket than its association with Jewish culture. Koreans boil it, compress it, then serve it thinly sliced. It is used in Vietnamese pho and in Thailand, the dish Suea Rong Hai (Crying Tiger) looks spectacularly good, with bits of grilled meat served with an atomic chilli sauce for dipping (although this recipe suggests using a rib eye or similar). All these adoptions are quite distinct from the slow-cooked version, soused in ketchup. I suppose many of the Asian climates do not require such Westernised notions of comfort food.
In the end, I simply unrolled and braised the kilo of brisket for two and a half hours in beef stock and lots of red wine, with carrots, celery, onions, garlic and some herbs. The final result was tender and moreish, the beef and vegetables cushioned in a sticky reduction. Served with toasts with melted Comté, it certainly hit the spot. A far cry from the terrified tomato-soup craving 17-year-old, brisket now holds for me associations of comfort and warmth. The weather this week seems to be toying with warming up but I am sure the cold is not far from returning. In the mean time, what are your winter comfort foods? Do you have a traditional recipe for brisket?