Sunday, September 26, 2010

Channeling the past.

This post is my second-round entry for FoodBuzz's Project Food Blog. To cast a vote for me in this round, clickety on over using this link, or click on the widget to the left! Thank you so much for all of your support, my lovelies!

I've known for weeks now that - if I made it to round two - the second week of Project Foodblog would be a tricky one for me. The assignment this week is to make a classic ethnic dish with which we are not familiar, and to blog about the making of it - and the inspiration for it.

That got me thinking about the fact that even though half my heritage is Jewish (the paternal half), I've never made matzoh balls, kugel - or brisket. I mean, BRISKET! Is that crazy, or what? Mostly, I think, it's because my paternal grandmother, Marcia, passed away when I was a little girl, before she had a chance to show me the tricks of the trade. My mother has told me that the real cook in the family was my great-grandmother, Etta Blocker, who apparently worked magic with tough beef and matzoh meal. (That photo is of me with my grandfather, Irv, Marcia's husband. Sadly, I couldn't find any snaps of Marcia amongst my collection.)

And so, when I was brainstorming ideas for an ethnic dish for this challenge, I passed over my usual favorites (Vietnamese - though you should definitely check out my homemade banh mi over here - Thai, Chinese) and turned instead to the cooking of my ancestors.

A bit of research - including conversations with some fellow descendants of Eastern European Jewish folks - led me to the conclusion that every family has their own special version of brisket. My colleague Liz's family, for example, adds cranberries to their braise. Another friend's mom adds a full bottle of red wine to hers. Since I didn't have a family recipe to work from, I decided to turn to a source I trust implicitly - Gourmet - to find a version that suited me: namely, one with lots and lots of vegetables.

And find one I did. The version I settled on includes not only loads of vegetables - chopped onions, chunked carrots and celery, whole cloves of garlic and a hefty supply of crushed tomatoes - but also a bit of cider vinegar. And I love cider vinegar. I also love the thriftiness of the ingredient list, which seems very true to the dish's heritage. Gussying the stew up with a bottle of red would, no doubt, make for a delicious meal, but using tasty, cheap ingredients pays tribute to the frugality from which braises are born.

In a twist of fate, my mom was here this weekend and came along to the Greenmarket to help me find the ingredients for the brisket. We found the most perfect little onions and carrots in every color of the rainbow, not to mention the celery-iest celery known to humankind. We visited the German butcher down the block for the brisket itself, and grabbed a can of San Marzanos at the grocery store.

Like most braises, this one begins with browning. I browned the brisket on both sides, then moved to to a plate to rest. In went the onions, then the rest of the vegetables, followed by a cider vinegar deglazing that produced an aroma fit for a king. Next came the tomatoes, some chicken stock and the meat itself, which I tucked into its bed of vegetables. The whole thing went into a low oven for three hours and emerged, well... a sweet tangle of fork-tender meat and rich vegetable goodness. It is - in a word - delicious. We'll be eating it tonight atop a mound of buttery mashed potatoes tinged with turnip, and topped with a gravy made from brisket trimmings, scallions and - yes, more - butter.

I think Marcia and Etta would be proud.


Eddie Howard said...

Looks like you made the right decision to go with the brisket for the second challenge. Well done!

Meg Blocker said...

Thanks, Eddie! It really was a delicious dinner. I just sent my family home with leftovers for tomorrow, too. :)

Anonymous said...

mmmm brisket! Being Jewish, i've had my share of brisket and there is nothing worse than an over-done brisket and yours definitely passes the test!
Nicely done:)
p.s. you should tackle matzah balls next!

Julie @ Willow Bird Baking said...

Love that sweet photo!! And your brisket looks mouthwatering. My entry was the Indian dessert Gulab Jamun!

stephchows said...

this looks delicious! and fork tender sounds perfect :) I went jewish too and made bagels for my challenge :D

KELLY said...

What a nice post! I vote for you.

I made Pho for my post! ;-)

Sounding My Barbaric Gulp!

Home Cooking Memories said...

I love your story...well done.

Meg Blocker said...

You guys, thank you so much for all of your kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

@tastesbetter...: Matzoh balls are totally up next! I've already mastered latkes, schmaltz and all. :-)

@Julie: Excellent work on the dessert!

@stephchows: Bagels? Amazeballs! I am truly not worthy.

@Kelly: I looooove pho.

FOODalogue said...

Nice entry. Good luck!

Ed said...

Brisket sounds wonderful and I enjoyed your pictures. You have my vote! If you get a chance, please check out my entry at

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