Battle of the Briskets

April 18, 2008

By Nina Barrett

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Any tremors heard this weekend may be rumblings from the many full bellies resulting from this year's Passover celebrations. Among the traditions of this holy time is the brisket. But as the platters of beef make their way into ovens across the land, will the meat emerge tender and tempting, or dry and flavorless? For any cook who's ever experienced “brisket anxiety,” Nina Barrett has this report.

Last Sunday, I posed a difficult question to Peter Knobel. He's one of the rabbis at Beth Emet the Free synagogue in Evanston, and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I asked him to taste two briskets, and choose the better one.

KNOBEL: So, I assume that one of the briskets is yours?
BARRETT: Yes, but you won't know which one, because it's a blind taste-test.
KNOBEL: I understand that, but that puts a lot of pressure on me, you realize, because if I don't like your brisket, this might create a trauma for you, might create a problem for Passover in your home, and I would hate to be responsible for something like that.

To be honest, I was already traumatized about brisket. Twenty-three years after marrying into a Passover-celebrating family, I have come to love everything about the seder meal—except the brisket.  Now that I'm finally going to have to cook the meal myself this year, I feel like the Scornful Child in the Haggadah who demands an explanation for the annual ritual. Unfortunately, the Haggadah doesn't address our brisket questions. But maybe it should. For example, the First Question: At the time of the Exodus, all the cattle in Egypt had been smitten by one of the Ten Plagues. Why on this night, when so much of our dinner is symbolic of the Jews' flight to freedom, are we eating a cut of beef?

CHERNOFF: I can say with certainty that brisket was not consumed at the first Passover. As you said, all the cows were dead.

That's chef Julie Chernoff, of Evanston. She's cooked for celebrities including Peter Jennings and Boz Scaggs, and managed restaurants for Wolfgang Puck and Rick Bayless. But what she's most famous for on the North Shore is a particular brisket she serves to about 100 guests at an annual Brisket-and-Latke Festival around Hannukah.

She says it was the Bubbes and Zaydes of so many American Jews who brought the custom of eating beef with them from the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

But, the Second Question: Other cuts of beef are naturally juicy and tender.  Why on this night do we eat a cut that's so dry and stringy?

CHERNOFF: When you talk about kashrut, which are the Jewish dietary laws, kosher means legitimate or permissible, and brisket is a permissible cut. Like with most Jewish food, it's all about tradition, and I think most people have a real sense-memory about what they like. 

SONG: “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof  

Okay, I get it. The brisket is going to be on my table because, unlike Elijah, it's been showing up for the seder for generations.  So, onto the third question:  What, on this night, can we do to this difficult cut of meat that will bring out the best in it?

Chernoff decided to answer this question by actually preparing her famous brisket.  The recipe comes from The Jewish Children's Holiday Kitchen, by Joan Nathan. 

CHERNOFF: People love it. They love all the schmutz that's on the top, with the carrots and onions and everything gets all delicious.

Chernoff says the secret is to let the meat marinate in the sauce for at least six hours. Because the marinade contains salt, sugar, and vinegar, as well as a generous amount of Bennett's barbecue sauce, this effectively brines and tenderizes the meat. Her brisket wouldn't come out of the oven for another 24 hours, so I went home to start my own, from a recipe by Molly O'Neil I found in The New York Times Jewish Cookbook. The sauce called for, among other things, five cups of coffee. How could five cups of coffee not perk up a brisket?

And so Rabbi Knobel found himself with two briskets before him.  Because the Fourth Question, obviously, was one upon which only a rabbi could pronounce: Which brisket most deserved a place on the Passover table? 

KNOBEL: So let me first start by taking a little piece of the meat by itself, and then I'm going to take some of the vegetables along with it. Now, this is delicious, slightly sweet, with a little bit of spice. The brisket itself is tender, but chewy in a very positive way.

That was Chernoff's brisket.  It came out bathed in tangy sauce, and buried under a mound of bright, festive-looking carrots, celery, and onions. 

KNOBEL: Ah, this is a totally different brisket, instead of having all of the red color, it has a nice brown gravy.

Once again, the meat is extremely tender, has not lost, though, the texture of brisket that I like. This one is sliced much thinner than the other one, and it again has a nice, spicy flavor. Both of these briskets are really terrific.  Whoever made this one certainly will make their family very very happy.  And I don't think either chef needs Brisket Anxiety.

A dash of Solomon's wisdom, it turns out, is all it takes to banish Brisket Anxiety once and for all. And if that's not enough, Rabbi Knobel suggests a pairing with a spicy granache.