(by Barbara Ballinger)
As my older daughter neared the end of her first pregnancy, I began to think about what I might cook to feed her and her husband when they brought the baby home—to nourish them and friends who would be visiting to greet their new arrival (vaccinated and masked, of course).
Food plays a starring role at gatherings in both of their heritages—one Jewish and one Irish Catholic. And my daughter has become more sentimental about our family food traditions, even those she didn’t like as a child. But her taste buds and culinary standards have advanced beyond my kitchen. She and her husband are Anthony Bourdain groupies who watched his globe-trotting-and-eating adventures and were inspired to travel as much as time and funds permitted—from South America to Iceland, pushing the boundaries of the foods they’d grown up with (Scandinavia has smoked salmon but also venison tartare).
That was no surprise since she’s always been more adventuresome about almost anything from a tender age. I may have provided some inspiration, but she grabbed the reins and went beyond my skills. After watching me entertain, she shooed me out of the kitchen one day, baked a two-layer lemon cake all on her own from a challenging cookbook called The Cake Bible, and “opened” a cake baking business in junior high school to earn spending money since she didn’t like babysitting. (I funded the initial ingredients.) Through a business contact, I was able to help her get an interview for a summer internship with Claudia Fleming, the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern, one of New York’s premiere restaurants. I don’t think I stopped smiling during the entire lunch we had there to celebrate her paternal grandmother’s 90th birthday, with a dessert that she helped make. When she secured an internship at the celebrated Guy Savoy in Paris, holding her own with the all-male staff, my mother and I went to visit. I invited Monsieur Savoy to come for dinner if he was ever in Chicago, where we then lived. (My daughter was horrified. “Really, Mom?”)
That same type of perseverance led to her first job out of college as a management consultant—where she’s still employed and has progressed up the corporate level. Pre-pandemic, she traveled weekly on her own to destinations as far away as India (twice), dutifully texting me when she arrived home safely. Back in her own kitchen, she experimented from new cookbooks and food blogs, sharing favorite recipes and techniques. She encouraged me to taste jammy eggs atop avocado toast, brine a turkey rather than my usual roasting method, bake biscuits right before a meal even if it meant leaving messy counters and a dirty sink when we sat down, and eat salmon much rarer than my medium cooked preference.
For years, we made three-generation visits to a favorite spa with my mother and her sister. In the fitness classes, she was the cheerleader. When I was exhausted and sweaty, she’d urge me on: “You can do it—you have to keep going.” And I would, not wanting to disappoint her or dampen her enthusiasm.
Yet this feisty, adventurous first daughter was surprisingly sentimental about our traditional repertoire at holidays, and outright annoyed when I switched out our usual mashed potatoes to a recipe that called for them to be prepared ahead (there are limits to what fits in my oven). I was too timid to tell her that I was changing our sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows to another iteration until just before her arrival at my home. Bad decision.
During her pregnancy I marveled at how she managed long work hours, planning the baby’s room without any input from me, even though I write about design. “Don’t give us anything for the walls—we have plans,” she informed me emphatically, knowing I wanted to give my traditional gift of a clock with a truck or animal motif. I acquiesced.
She was so good at managing (well, she is a management consultant), even though I picked up on the anxiety of a first-time mom and knew not to ask questions that could increase her worries. I knew that my baby would fare well, and offered to go weekly to help and bring food as I had done when her sister became a mom.
So, when she requested that I make one of the perfect comfort foods—a brisket—I jumped at the chance. Brisket is a long popular dish in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. I had progressed well beyond the first brisket I made back in the 1970s with Lipton dried onion soup mix—a “convenience food” that seems archaic and quaint now. Even the recipe my mother, a good cook, favored was pretty dull, with its array of cut-up carrots, potatoes, and onions sitting in a pool of water. When age required my mother to step away from making that brisket (or her roast chicken, tiny potato latkes, spiced apricots, brownies, and apricot-filled rugelach), we stepped up and did our own versions. I also continue to heed her non-cooking words: “You had your chance to parent; now it’s their time. Don’t offer advice unless asked.”
I searched through my favorite cookbooks, magazines, and food blogs. One brisket recipe included three pig’s feet (from a three-footed pig?). That might suit my daughter’s more adventurous palate, but I am not amenable to cooking, let alone touching, that porcine appendage.
As I ruled out various recipes, I realized what I wanted to achieve with my gift of food: It was not about wowing my daughter and son-in-law, or firing up their palates. It was more about warming their hearts, giving them sustenance and energy to care for their newborn. During her return from delivering her son, I was sad to hear her say, “I’ve never been so tired in my life.” I needed to give her something restorative.
I shifted gears and found a recipe that pleased me. Cooking this time was simply about showing my love and excitement for a milestone—new parenthood. The brisket was delicious, but not spicy or exciting. The baby will provide those special qualities that make us savor the best in life.
And already he has: Welcome to the world, Eoin (pronounced Owen).
5 - 6 lb. first-cut beef brisket, trimmed so a thin layer of fat remains in some spots
1 1/2 T. kosher salt
1 t. ground black pepper
2 T. all-purpose flour (or matzo meal for Passover)
3 T. vegetable oil
8 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced 1/2-in. thick
3 T. tomato paste
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
6 carrots, peeled and sliced into large chunks on a diagonal
handful fresh chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)
Set an oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 350 F.
Season brisket on both sides with salt and pepper.
Lightly dust with flour, then shake and turn to coat evenly.
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a heavy flameproof roasting pan or ovenproof
enameled cast-iron pot just large enough to hold the brisket and carrots snugly.
Sear brisket on both sides until crusty brown areas appear on the surface, 5 - 7 minutes per side.
Transfer to a platter.
Add onions to pot and cook until softened and golden, stirring and scraping up any browned bits, about 15 minutes.
(If browned bits start to burn, add a few tablespoons of water, and scrape with a wooden spoon to release them.)
Remove from heat, and place brisket, fatty side up, and any accumulated juices on top of onions.
Spread tomato paste evenly over brisket, then scatter garlic and carrots around edges of the pot.
Cover very tightly with a lid or aluminum foil (preferably heavy-duty or two layers.
Transfer to oven, and cook for 1 1/2 hours.
On a cutting board, with an electric or very sharp knife, slice meat across the grain,
approximately 1/8 - 1/4-in. thick.
Return slices to the pot, overlapping them at an angle. (It should resemble the original unsliced brisket.)
Cover the pot tightly and return to the oven.
Lower the heat to 325 F. and cook until brisket is fork-tender, 1 3/4 – 2 1/2 hours, or longer if necessary.
The brisket is ready to serve with its juices, but it is even better the second day.
(Note: If the sauce seems greasy, transfer the meat and vegetables to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Pour the sauce into a bowl, and let sit until the fat rises to the top. Using a small ladle, spoon out the fat. Pour the skimmed gravy back over the meat.)
Note: The brisket can be made up to 3 days ahead of serving and refrigerated. Reheat at 300 F. until hot, about 45 minutes.
The brisket also freezes well for up to 2 months; defrost in the refrigerator 2 days ahead of serving.