Every time I pass perfectly flat triangular brisket slabs in a store, my inner Jew wakes up from a deep sleep and starts with the questions. “When are you gonna start cooking like a good Jewish girl?” “Where are the Gefilte Fish and Latkes?” “Why aren’t you making Mandlech for your chicken soup any more, and whatever happened to the Matzo Babka that you used to like so much for Sunday breakfast?” I usually sigh and move on. Who has time to make these things?
Of my entire family, only a few ladies knew how to cook traditional Jewish meals; fewer still did so regularly. Naturally, large family gatherings, weddings, and occasional Jewish holiday celebrations called for some old-school favorites, and the hardworking hostess would be happy to oblige.
My aunt Anya made divine Gefilte fish. She got it down to science, her recipe was a formula, a potion, a witch’s spell. Everything had to be done just right, just so, to get that fish to insane levels of tasty – you had to have several kinds of fish for best flavor, onions had to be purple, bread had to be only a specific kind, of course everything in correct proportions. She saved the prettiest onion peels and all the fish bones, put them down on the bottom of the pot and covered with a saucer to separate from the fish – for added flavor and color. Fish pieces were wrapped in rectangles of the fish skin and fried on both sides and then laid in a pot in a special way with potatoes, beet slices, and chunks of fresh fish roe. They simmered for hours in aunt’s tiny, poorly ventilated kitchen.
The aroma was dizzying, the output was enormous. The fish was eaten for days, hot and cold, slathered with beet horse radish relish and put on a slice of crusty bread, given to friends and relations to-go, sliced in half crosswise and brown-bagged as school lunch, and when it was finally gone, the juice, youshka, was used to boil quartered yellow potatoes in it, or just for bread-dipping, which wasn’t bad either.
Once, when I was fifteen, I was tasked with helping aunt Anya cook the fish for a wedding, and that’s how I learned some of the secrets.
My mom’s Jewish repertoire consisted of Mandlech which were intended to be eaten with chicken broth. Mandlech were tiny almond size dumplings, deep fried. They were crunchy and hollow. You would only grab a few at a time and drop in your soup, else they’d become saggy. Growing up, we loved them, and I made them many times myself. Mom also used to make Matzoh Babka (Matzoh Brei), which was basically a very simple crumbled Matzoh and egg bake made in a skillet, with some goat or feta cheese on top. Served by a slice, much like a pie, it was a great breakfast fill. Then there were stew with prunes, chicken soup, and Sheika, a heroic feat of stuffing an entire chicken skin with gizzards, livers, corn meal, onions and other tasty bits. Sheika was a poorman’s version of French Ballotine, and a mandatory part of the cooking event I like to call Stretching the Chicken. Someday, I’ll write about that, it’s fascinating.
But I digress. Since I don’t observe Jewish tradition and there are no large family celebrations in our neck of the woods, I don’t have any need to impress the family with my Jewish cookery (thank goodness, I say!). I made Gefilte fish a couple of times in an attempt to impress my husband, but his goyish heart just wasn’t set on it, so I gave it up. My culinary repertoire is now almost completely devoid of Jewish tradition, except I still like insane amounts of onion in everything. Once in a while I do have a hankering for something traditional, but the possibility of doing all that hard work to only eat it all by myself doesn’t inspire me. And so my inner Jew is resting peacefully, and only starts nagging when I see something ultimately Jewish, like brisket, laying around in a store.
I only cooked brisket once before. I tried a regular roast and wasn’t impressed – the meat was tough and stringy – I am sure my cooking skills were to blame for that. We acquired a three pound chunk of brisket a few days ago (I am sure the inner Jew was somehow involved in this quite spur of the moment buy) and as usual, I started scouting the recipes. Most of the recipes with a claim to be “the best ever”, and “amazing” linked themselves to Jewish tradition somehow, so I figured I had some research to do. Scores of sweet and sour beef stew recipes started popping up like mushrooms.
The story behind the sweet and sour stew, or Esik-Fleisch in Yiddish is simple like everything else in Jewish cookery – large family, tight budget, and the need to satisfy both. Brisket is tough and only moderately fatty. Best way to deal with it is to cook the heck out of it slowly to prevent stringy mess. Creative Jewish mommas would enhance the flavor with liberal amounts of onion, garlic, and some basic spices. The rest is variations on the theme, based on one’s particular taste and budget. You’ll see here plum preserves or dried fruit, brown sugar or honey, water or stock, bay leaves or cloves, etc.
The basic sweet and sour stew, calls for a little bit of fatty meat, lots of onion, and a whole loaf of bread to thicken the gravy in the end. I decided to forgo the bread part, as my waist line isn’t getting any thinner, and keep the rest, just reduce the amount of liquid. What you see below is a compilation of several recipes (some are Russian), with many adjustments I had to make on the fly.
The results were very tasty. While I photographed the prettier pieces, I must say that the pieces that were less photogenic tasted the best. We enjoyed our stew with brown rice.
Here is What and How, for this particular batch:
Sweet & Sour Brisket
- 2 tbsp cooking fat (I used goose fat which I only had a little bit of, but any oil would do)
- 3 lbs of beef brisket, keep the fat
- 4 large onions (I used 2 red and 2 white, as you can see on the pictures)
- 5-6 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 cup red wine (optional)
- 1 cup tomato sauce or ketchup
- 1 cup brown beef stock
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 stick of cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 2-3 whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 3-4 allspice berries
- 1/3 cup of dried fruit of your choice. I used dried cherries and raisins. The preferred fruit is prunes.
- garnish of your choice, I used parsley
Cut onions in half and slice quite thinly. Set aside.
Heat the oil in the large Dutch oven until smoky. Pat the brisket dry, liberally pepper it, and sear on all sides (including the narrow ones) until nicely brown. Remove from the pot and set aside.
Reduce heat to medium-low. Toss onions into the pot and saute for at least 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until very soft and translucent. Try not to brown them, as they cook down. As they are almost done, add minced or finely chopped garlic, and saute for a few more minutes.
Add wine at this time. If not using wine, add 1/2 cup of stock. Stir well a few times, add remaining stock, sugar, salt, fresh ground pepper, vinegar, tomato sauce, allspice, paprika, cloves and cinnamon. Stir well, heat through and boil for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 325°F.
Remove the pot from heat, and immerse brisket pieces into the sauce.
Put the pot in the oven and cook for about 3 hours. Half way through, open the pot and turn the meat once. Cover and cook until done.
When finished cooking, open the pot, remove the meat from the sauce, put on a board for about 10-15 minutes to rest. Slice the meat 1/4″ or thicker cross-grain. Arrange the slices in a deep serving dish or glass casserole pan, and ladle the sauce over the meat slices.
Serve hot with crusty bread, over mashed potatoes, noodles, or rice.