One day last month, my husband returned from Trader Joe's carrying a large slab of brisket.
"I invited our neighbors for dinner," he announced, "and they're kosher." I can cook, but my only attempt at a nice bubbie-style brisket took two days and was a memorable disaster. I'm sure it was digestible, it just wasn't chewable. I have suffered brisket-phobia ever since.
I had about five hours to get something suitably special on the table. So, I abandoned all my brisket preconceptions, took a deep breath and thought, "Do what you love, do what you know."
The result was extraordinary.
What I know is how to combine the cooking techniques of my family--Swedish (non-Jewish) Americans given to light but hearty flavors -- with all the Mediterranean flavors that have become part of any serious California cook's repertoire: olives, olive oil, fennel and preserved lemons.
Preserved lemons and brisket? Yes, those salty tart gems are crucial to this dish. I use homemade, but you'll need three to four weeks advanced preparation for my recipe (Paula Wolfert offers a one-week version in her book, "Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco"). You can also buy preserved lemons at specialty Middle Eastern markets and at Surfas in Culver City.
Couscous and a little green salad with oranges are all you'll need to complete the meal. For our dessert, I stuffed halved nectarines with a mixture of crumbled store-bought amaretti cookies, chopped almonds and honey.
The honey makes this an ideal Rosh Hashanah meal. And the amaretti cookies were, of course, kosher and pareve. Amazing how fast a Swedish American can catch on to these things.
Brisket with Fennel and Olives
1 3-pound brisket (I use a point cut)
2 large fennel bulbs, cored, trimmed and very thinly sliced. Include any nice fronds.
1 very large Vidalia, Walla Walla or other sweet onion, sliced into 1/4-inch rings
1 cup mixed green and black olives (Greek, kalamata, etc.)
3 preserved lemons, diced, and a couple tablespoons of their juice
1/2 cup water or a mixture of water and dry white wine
Extra virgin olive oil
Chopped Italian parsley
Choose your heaviest dutch oven, or use enameled cast iron. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. On the stovetop, bring the pan to a medium high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, and brown the brisket on both sides, not more than five to seven minutes in total. Remove the meat, and toss the fennel and onions in the pan, adding a little olive oil if necessary. Put the lid on and let them sweat a little. When the vegetables soften, stir in half the olives and one of the diced lemons. Nestle the meat in the mixture and add the 1/2 cup of liquid. Cover tightly, and bake for three to three and a half hours. Add the rest of the lemons, their juice and the olives, return to oven 30 minutes or so.
When ready to serve, remove meat and slice across the grain. Serve on a pla
tter surrounded with the vegetables and drizzle the pan juices over all. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Lemons to preserve, as thin skinned as possible
Additional lemons for juice
Cut the lemons in quarters from the tip to the stem end without cutting all the way through. Pack the quarters with salt, rubbing it in and close them back up. Place tightly together in a crock or wide mouthed glass jar. Cover with fresh lemon juice and seal tightly, leaving it in a cool dry place for 3-4 weeks. Check every few days to be sure the lemon juice still covers the lemons completely, and top it off if you need to. When ready, remove anything objectionable from the top of the lemon juice and refrigerate.
Stuffed Nectarines a la Chez Panisse
4 ripe nectarines
1 cup pareve amaretti cookies, crumbled
1/2 cup chopped almonds
3 tablespoon (approx.) honey.
Kosher dessert wine (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking pan with cooking parchment or lightly oil.
Halve nectarines and remove pits. Mix almonds and amaretti cookies together, add honey to moisten mixture. Stuff into cavity of each nectarine, place in pan and drizzle with a little dessert wine, if desired.
Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or so, then slip the fruits out of their skins before serving. These are good warm or cold.