Thursday, February 11, 2010

Coddle Me with Brisket

Warning: this post is only sort of about Southern food. I'll try to talk you into believing it is a little later, but really, it's not. It might be more about the urge to mother by braising.

Last Friday I cooked a 3-lb. brisket. It was an irrational act--my husband doesn't eat red meat and both of my kids together can hardly polish off a burger. But it was taking up space in my freezer, and--as the weather's been by turns blizzardy and slushy--calling my name. There are times when a brisket whispers more seductively to me than even a lamb chop.

Once you take any meat out of the freezer, there's no turning back without sacrificing texture and probably flavor. Sometimes I back myself into a corner--I stare into that frosty chaos, grab a hunk of something, and realize a few days later that I have no plan for this flesh and fat time-bomb.  This almost happened with the brisket. I ended up cooking it for no meal in particular.

But that's the beauty of a brisket. You don't really want to eat it the day you make it. If you braise it, which you probably should, it'll taste better a couple days after it's been cooked, rested and sliced, then bathed in its liquid. Then you have lovely, rich, deep flavor and what I can only call falling-aparty texture.  And you have food security for days of snowy, blowy, sniffly winter.

The flavor can be ascribed in part to the beef's origin--and here I don't have to cheat on Southern-ness.  Jackson, Tennessee's Donnell Century Farm has been selling its beef down at the MFM for a couple years now, but it took me a while to try it.  As a Yankee, I don't pull the "slap your mama" cliche out casually--in fact, I think I've never used it--but this intensity of flavor is what that expression was coined for.  (Thank God none of my kids slapped me after eating it.)

There's the question of seasoning and moisture, which I'll get to in a moment, but for texture, the most important factor is heat. Slow and low, as the Beastie Boys once crooned, and Harold McGee will back me up. The most important thing I've learned from his magisterial (yes! I get to use that word! from Latin for teacher, magister) On Food and Cooking is that I can braise a piece of pork butt or lamb shoulder or brisket or any other tough cut all day long if I keep the oven temperature down around 200 degrees, raising the temp only in the last hour or so to bring the meat's temperature up to 180, at which where the collagen and gelatin dissolve. Meat cooked this way retains some attractive myoglobin redness (and its flavor), but is not technically "rare" at all.

As for seasoning, here's where I'll make a pathetic claim to some kind of Southern-ness.  My younger son was born in Ethiopia, and I've become a big fan of the food of East Africa and especially of Marccus Samuelsson's cookbooks. I now keep on hand a little jar of spiced butter and another of berbere, the spice blend whose aroma permeated my clothing while we were in Addis Ababa picking Solly up. Samuelsson is the guy who catered the now-infamous but indisputably glamorous state dinner for PM Singh of India, serving a thrilling menu that dared to merge the cuisine of the African-American South with that of the Indian subcontinent.  I say "dared" because that was the reaction--"no one cooks Indian for Indian visitors!"--but in fact, Samuelsson was doing what he does best.  Ethiopian food reflects the influences of the near East and Mediterranean as much as its continental neighbors.

So maybe it is Southern to rub berbere on my brisket (that my Syrian-Jewish husband can't eat but maybe should), braise the daylights out of it, then serve the leftovers a few days later over egg noodles to my Ethiopian son.  After all, even Memphis now has the feel of a culinary crossroads.  Whatever it was, it sure was comforting. Solly, sick with a cold, needed a little cozy food.

Even Mom needs a little coddling sometimes, too.  For tomorrow's lunch, I'm scheming a Southern twist on the latest Bon Appetit cover to use up the last couple of slices: a brisket and mustard greens grilled cheese sandwich.

So here's the dish on the brisket.  Basing my plan partially on the technique for Oven Brisket in Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking, I cut a 3 lb. slab off the big piece I bought at the market (saving the rest for special ground beef a la Thomas Keller, but that's another post).  This was basically what would fit in my Dutch oven.  I rubbed kosher salt, pepper, and berbere (here's a recipe that'll work, though mine's from The Soul of a New Cuisine) and let it sit for an hour while I sliced a couple of onions and messed around with my kids.  I cooked the onions in a covered pan till they were really soft in nit'r qibe, basically spiced ghee.  When they were good and shloopy, I scooped them out and wiped the pot, then browned the brisket in more spiced butter.  Or maybe I did it the other way 'round.  And I think I added some chopped garlic and parsley toward the end.

Anyway, after you've got some soft onions and browned beef, put it all in the Dutch oven with beef broth about halfway up the beef.  Put it in the oven with the lid on ajar, then turn it to 200 and walk away.  Go out, walk the dog.  Check it a couple hours later, and raise the temp to 250.  McGee suggests checking it for fork-tenderness every half-hour or so after that.  I'm pretty sure that's what I did, but really, it's hard to mess this up.  When it seems good and done, let it cool, uncovered, in the braising liquid.  (I left it out overnight.  Don't tell.)  Skim off the fat, then take it out and slice it.  Puree the cooking liquid and put it all back together, maybe in a smaller pan.  Cover and don't even look at it till a day or two later.  Then warm it up and serve it with mashed potatoes and broccolini or whatever seems good to you.

It'll be good for several days, so you can have your way with it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Velvet Revelation

I don't usually recommend preparing foods that require an entire fluid ounce of red dye to achieve their ideal expression, but there's got to be a first time for everything. The confluence of my younger son's 2nd birthday, a looming deadline for a Valentine's-Day themed column, and ownership of several pounds of cream cheese from Costco got me thinking--not always a good thing--and I thought my way right into Red Velvet Cake.

On the way, my friends, I paused to produce either a masterpiece or an abomination, depending on your point of view. Under pressure from 6-year-old Gus and my editor at Memphis Parent, I made a heart-shaped "Strawberry Cheesecake". This fluffy confection derived its structure from the colloidal action of Strawberry Jell-O and the lifting power of whipped cream. A bit of cream cheese provided tang to counterbalance the intense sweetness of the Jell-O powder, and--thank God--the recipe called for real strawberries so I didn't have to visit a therapist or confessional after serving it.

However, the Valentine Cake was just a diversion. Once I got it in my head to make Red Velvet Cake, I would not be denied. Forget that everyone else wanted a super fudgy-wudgy chocolate cake. I felt that my authenticity as a writer on foods Southern was at stake.  I'd never heard of Red Velvet before coming to live in Memphis. Down here, every restaurant seems to have a version. So it's a Southern thing, right?

Wrong. Or right. Or both? The dessert first became famous on the menu at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1920s, but it's likely that its origins were Southern. The story of its spread into American cookery is confused by an urban myth involving the costly purchase of its recipe and its subsequent dispersal by an angry lady-who-lunched.

Though most contemporary recipes call for red dye (up to 2 oz. per cake!) or beets, the cake's deep blush is akin to the ruddy brown of a Devil's Food Cake.  Both get their hue from anthocyanin, a pigment in cocoa that reddens on reacting with the acid in buttermilk.  Red Velvet Cake may have been invented by economizing bakers or chefs disappointed by the pallid results produced by Dutch-process cocoa. Or maybe someone just loved the look of blood-red cake under cream cheese-white icing.

There's lots to love.  The flavor is chocolatesque, with just enough of cocoa's warmth to be comforting.  The version I made, from my beloved Lee Brothers, includes plenty of vanilla and some grated orange peel, yielding an elusive complexity that's simultaneously grown-up and coddling. (I was skeptical about the orange peel, fearing bitterness and oversophistication. I needn't have worried.)  Some recipes suggest buttercream or even white roux frosting for this cake, but I think you'd be crackers to use anything but cream cheese. Maybe that's not authentically Southern--the U.S.'s first cream cheese was produced in New York--but I don't care.

I had to sacrifice the glamor of a layer cake, with its sexy reveal of flesh-crimson upon the breach of pristine icing, since I was baking for a toddler's birthday.  Not that I feared the cake's sensuality (what kind of 2-year-old do you think I'm raising?).  But cupcakes are so much easier for kids to handle than giant slices of cake, and they result in a slightly lower level of post-dessert mania. (They're also just right with a cup of coffee.)

As a responsible parent and food writer, I should disclose at this point that artificial food coloring has been linked to hyperactive behavior in children. This is a treat, not a staple.  So maybe next time I'll make it with the beets.  Between the cheez-cake and the Red Velvet, I've now taken in several drams of red dye and I can hear my DNA reshuffling like a deck of cards.  No matter.  I'm open to the onward march of evolution.