(by Laura Davis)
I want to tell you about my mother’s brisket because she doesn’t make it anymore. She will never make it again. I am pretty sure, no, I am positive that her brisket-making days are over.
First you go to the butcher shop. You buy a piece of brisket. You don’t want one that is completely trimmed, with all the fat taken off, although you might be tempted to because fat is gross and bad for you, right? Besides, who wants to pay $6.99 a pound (if you’re very lucky and it’s on sale) for a slab of fat? But this is where you’d make a crucial mistake. Some foods, and brisket is one of them, don’t lend themselves to healthy eating, and they never will.
The fat, my mother taught me, is essential because it’s the fat that makes the meat tender. As the meat cooks, it will gradually absorb most of the fat, and that is where the flavor comes from. So, tell the butcher that you want the brisket trimmed—lean on one side, but with at least a quarter inch of fat, maybe more, all the way across the other side, like a vast, clammy, white sea stretching out all the way to the horizon.
I don’t think my mother goes to the butcher shop anymore. She barely goes to the market, and when she does go, she gets a small, old lady bag of groceries. Some of them are healthy, but many of them are foods she shouldn’t eat, like dry cereal and raisins. It’s bad for someone with diabetes to eat cereal and raisins for breakfast because where’s the protein? But my mother can’t remember that. The habit of eating that low-fat (translates into “good for you”) breakfast is too entrenched to break. No matter how many times I tell her or the diabetes nurse tells her or Dr. Eisendorf tells her, she is incapable of remembering. Most of the time, she doesn’t even remember she has diabetes. Or she just doesn’t really believe it. She thinks all of her ailments are made up by doctors just to bilk Medicare out of more money.
When you get home with your brisket, cut slots all over both sides with a sharp knife, and insert small, cut-up, fresh pieces of peeled garlic and ginger root. Marinate in a large pot in a mixture of several bottles of cheap red wine and some soy sauce. I use four parts cheap red wine to one part soy sauce. Make sure the meat is entirely covered. Put it in the refrigerator overnight.
My mother insists that she can cook for herself perfectly well, that she is perfectly capable of living alone. I have fired Fiona, her caregiver, because my mother hates her and hates having someone in her home. She treats Fiona like a servant or worse and seeing the way she treats another human being as not a human being has made it harder and harder for me to love my mother.
The next morning, preheat your oven to 325 degrees. You may have to lower the rack to make room for the big pot and lid you’ll soon be putting in the oven. Lift the brisket out of the marinating juice (which you save for later).
Dredge the meat in a mixture of flour and spices. I love that word "dredge." It means to take each side of the soaked meat and lay it in a flat tray containing white flour, garlic powder, salt, and pepper, until each side is coated and white. Then you sear the meat, cooking each side in a large, flat skillet until it is browned. You do this on medium heat at least, if not higher, watching it all the time. Put a bit of oil in the pan if you need to, but just a little. You are quickly cooking only the outside of the meat, sealing in the flavors. I’m not really sure why this is done but since my mother taught me to do it, I do it, too.
My mother insists that she was never a good cook, but I have fond memories of her "hiding meat" (our nickname for stuffed cabbage), veal scaloppini, spaghetti and meatballs, all-day spaghetti sauce, eggplant Parmesan, lasagna, and lots of other 1960s housewife delicacies that she created for us every night.
When she traveled to Spain, my mother came home toting a paella pan and some saffron. When I went to Bali recently, I came home with saffron, fresh vanilla beans, and a wooden coconut grater.
After the meat has been seared on all sides, put it in a large ovenproof casserole with thick sides and a lid. Add a couple of cut-up onions and pour a packet of Lipton French onion soup mix over the top. Pour the marinating liquid back in. It should still be covering the meat. Put it in the oven, covered, and bake for three to four hours. You want it to become so soft that it can be torn apart in strands with a fork.
One of the mistakes a lot of people make at this point is to throw in the potatoes and carrots, but don’t. They will only become soggy and overwhelmed by the wine-soy sauce marinade. My mother taught me to cook the potatoes and carrots separately, baking them in the oven in a single layer with a drizzle of olive oil on top until they’re almost completely cooked, but still intact. They should be crispy on the outside and tender and soft on the inside. These get added at the very end on the serving platter with some of the gravy spooned over the top. The gravy, you see, has mellowed with those hours of cooking and no longer has the sharp, unmelded flavors it had in the beginning.
You have to be patient to make brisket, and you have to plan ahead. Unfortunately, those are two things my mother can no longer do—be patient or plan ahead. It is impossible to plan ahead when you can’t remember whatever happened just five or ten minutes earlier. It is impossible to be patient when you are 84 and you have dementia and your life is slipping irrevocably out of your control and you are moving toward death and the loss of everything that has made you you. You are losing your mind and you are terrified, but instead of ever acknowledging that you are terrified, you hold on for dear life to any shred of control over your life that you can still hold, and you resent the hell out of your children who are trying to take over everything. So, patience is out of the question.
You have to wait until the brisket gets really soft. At least that’s the way I like it. My mother used to cook it far less, so it was still firm and sliceable, and then she’d warm it up later in the gravy. And to be honest, I loved her brisket, but I am afraid I will never ever get to eat it again. And so I will pass the recipe on to my daughter and my son (who is starting to like to cook), and I will pray that if I live to be 84 and cancer doesn’t kill me first, I will find the grace and acceptance that my mother does not have. But who am I to think that my old age, should I be blessed or cursed to have one, will be any different? My children might be cursing me just the way I am cursing her. They might be loving me with strings attached, one of them being obligation and another pity and another pure blinding love, just the way I love her.
Laura Davis is an author and writing teacher who lives in Santa Cruz, California. She can be found at www.lauradavis.net, on Facebook and Instagram. Her new book, a memoir of her tumultuous relationship with her mother, is The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother-Daughter Story.
5 lb. brisket, with a layer of fat on one side
big handful of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into slivers
big handful of garlic, peeled and cut into slivers
2 - 3 bottles of cheap red wine (the marinating liquid should cover the meat completely)
tamari soy sauce (1 part soy sauce to 5 parts wine)
salt and pepper, to taste
garlic powder, to taste
several tablespoons of oil (olive, safflower, grapeseed, or canola)
2 large onions, cut in eighths
2 oz. package Lipton onion soup mix
The day before cooking, cut slots all over both sides of meat with a knife, and stick pieces of ginger and garlic in the slots.
Pour wine and soy sauce into a large pot, and marinate meat, refrigerated, overnight.
The next day, preheat oven to 325 F.
Lift brisket out of marinade, reserving marinade.
Combine flour, salt and pepper, and garlic powder.
Dredge meat on all sides in flour mixture.
Put a thin coating of oil in a large, flat skillet and add a thin layer of oil
Sear meat on all sides over medium-high heat until browned.
Place meat in a roasting pan or large ovenproof casserole dish with thick sides and a lid.
Add onions and sprinkle with onion soup mix.
Pour reserved marinating liquid back in. It should still be covering the meat.
Cook, covered, for 3 - 4 hours, until tender but not crusty.
Remove meat from liquid and let it cool.
Discard onions but reserve cooking liquid.
When cool, slice meat across the grain, trimming any remaining fat.
Put meat in a rectangular Pyrex pan, and pour some of the cooking liquid on top.
Save remaining cooking liquid to serve in a gravy boat.
Cover meat and refrigerate.
To reheat, cover with foil.
(Recipe can be doubled. Leftover meat is good in sandwiches or can be frozen.)
Optional, but strongly recommended: vegetables (to be cooked separately)
3 large onions, cut into wedges
6 - 8 large red or white potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
8 - 10 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
salt, to taste
sprigs of fresh rosemary
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Toss vegetables with olive oil, salt, rosemary, and garlic.
Place in a single layer on one or two baking sheets brushed with oil, and roast until tender and crispy at the edges, checking every 20 minutes and turning at least once.