I was home alone on a Sunday afternoon. I took it as an opportunity to clean the basement, watch sports on TV, and cook a brisket. All at the same time.
I had some trouble. The basement was in such chaos that I had to confine my cleaning efforts to one corner.
Usually I enjoy watching sports on TV. But in this case my team was getting clobbered, so I coped with that course of events by shouting at the television.
As for the brisket, I had a conceptual problem with it. I couldn't decide whose method of cooking should I use, Mom's or Julia Child's.
I am one of those boys who believes that nobody cooks a brisket like Mom. Especially on Sunday. It was ideal family fare, it was cheap and there was a lot of it. As a kid growing up, my family had brisket so often that if my brothers and I walked in the house early on a Sunday afternoon and the house didn't smell like brisket, we got worried.
If not brisket, what, we wondered, were we gonna have for Sunday dinner? Immediately we imagined the terrible possibilities of menu substitutes, among them the dreaded liver and Brussels sprouts. Usually though, if the house wasn't filled with the aroma of brisket, it meant we were having chicken.
My brothers and I weren't able to sniff out our dinner in that case only because the chicken wasn't in the oven yet. Chicken doesn't take as long to cook as brisket. It is my belief that few things on this planet, with the possible exception of volcanoes, spend as much time cooking as a brisket.
This one I was cooking was going to a take at least three hours, maybe four. Which, by happy coincidence, was about how long the game was supposed last on TV. I would know the brisket was done when a fork pierced it easily, but the meat still held its shape.
At least that's what Julia said in her book, "Way To Cook" (Knopf, 1989, $50).
I ended up going with Julia's brisket, rather than Mom's, because, like many sons who adore their mother's cooking, I knew what a brisket should taste like, but I didn't have a clue on how to arrive at the "correct" flavor. As kid, I had specialized in the eating part of the meal, and glossed over all the cooking details that brought the feast to the table.
I knew the beef should be brown, crusty and tangy. There were supposed to be peeled potatoes on the side, the way a vice president appears with the president. Those potatoes were also supposed to be brown. But after those two cooking insights, my recollections of the Mom-style brisket were fuzzy.
Using Julia made some sense. Julia is a surrogate mom to many American eaters. She is the kind of woman who begins a meal by peeling potatoes or chopping vegetables. She cooks for the afternoon. I bet Julia's house smells delicious.
The first thing Julia told me to do was to make a paste out of a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a similar amount of thyme mixed into two cloves of pureed garlic. Next I beat this paste into a quarter-cup of olive oil and smeared the mixture over both sides of the brisket.
This was good therapy. The brisket weighed about 4 pounds and throwing it around and giving the meat an oily, garlicky massage was an excellent way to relieve the tension built by watching my team get pasted on TV. Not only could I shout, "Pound them into the ground!" at the TV set, I could also slap the meat around as I yelled.
I wept as I chopped 1 1/2 cups of onions, which was cleansing. Then I tossed them and 2 cups of canned Italian plum tomatoes in the big pot the brisket was resting in. I cooked it, covered, at 300 degrees for four hours, which was shortly after the basement cleaning ceased and the sports slaughter on TV ended.
My family liked it. Even the kids ate it. But I wasn't satisfied. It was too "tomatoey," too soupy. Its juice was the wrong color, red. Mom's gravy was brown.
So the next day I called up Mom in Kansas City and got straightened out. She sprinkles the brisket with a packet of onion soup, and puts a cup and half of water on the bottom of the cooking pan, being careful not to pour the water over the beef. She cooks it uncovered at 300 degrees for about 45 minutes, then covers it and lets it cook until it passes the fork test.
About 40 minutes before the meat is done she tosses in peeled potatoes cut in half. Everything comes out brown.
Now that I have the technique down, all I need is another brisket, another game on TV, another Sunday afternoon. Not that I'm superstitious, but I think Julia's brisket gave my team bad luck.