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Season for a brisket cook-off

It's a brisket showdown: A chef's wine-marinated version is pitted against a beloved vintage recipe

By Lucy Stille

Special to The Times

March 28, 2007

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Brisket is my favorite part of the Passover meal, and yet, until very recently, I had never made one. This year, when it looked like I would be in New York for Passover, my brother suggested we hold a Seder at his apartment on the Upper West Side.

Being the older sibling and more experienced cook, I knew I'd be assigned the brisket. I had no old family recipe to fall back on as my Jewish grandmother didn't cook and my WASP mother was a pot roast kind of gal, so I consulted my cookbooks. I didn't expect to find much -- brisket is a stringy, uninviting cut of meat that doesn't lend itself to invention.

Much to my surprise, I found several interesting options. Daniel Boulud's recipe featuring turnips and apple cider was particularly appealing. Then I asked myself -- do I really want to make a chef's brisket for Passover? Aren't rituals and traditions the essence of Passover? I prodded friends for their versions and perused the shelves at the bookstore, coming away with Joan Nathan's "Jewish Holiday Cookbook."

With multiple brisket recipes to choose from, Nathan's book armed me for Passover as well as any other Jewish holiday that might come my way.

Still I was torn. Her brisket with chile sauce and onion soup mix satisfied the part of me that wanted a traditional dish, but the idea of Boulud's sophisticated Normandy-style brisket spoke to my sense of adventure.

Ultimately, I wanted the one that tasted best. The solution, of course, was to cook both as part of a pre-Passover dinner and see which I liked better. The battle of the briskets was on.

But two briskets is a lot of meat, so I decided to include some other tasters.

Kenny, who I knew was a brisket aficionado from our many Passovers together, RSVP'd with pleasure, dubbing us "the Brisketeers." Leesa announced, "I make great latkes and great matzo ball soup. Take your pick."

I opted for the soup and rounded out my menu for eight with an appetizer of warm dates stuffed with slivers of Parmesan (my nonkosher nod to Passover's Middle Eastern roots), a side of broccolini sauteed with red pepper and garlic, and a flourless chocolate cake for dessert.

Most of the recipes I read call for "first cut" brisket. A whole brisket weighs about 12 pounds, but the point end, or "point cut," is mainly fat. Most grocery stores trim it off, leaving a "first cut" that weighs anywhere from 4 to 6 pounds. I bought two "first cut" briskets, each weighing between 4 and 5 pounds.

The recipes also stress selecting a roasting pan that fits the brisket snugly. The reasons, I quickly learned, are that brisket shrinks dramatically as it cooks, leaving space to add vegetables during the final cooking stages, and an oversized pan requires excess liquid to adequately cover the meat. I found using a braiser or Dutch oven rather than a roasting pan produces a better result, because they allow for less evaporation.

Where the recipes differ, however, is in their stance on searing. Old-fashioned recipes don't call for searing, whereas Boulud's recipe as well as recipes from cookbooks by chefs Suzanne Goin and Mark Peel recommend searing as a way to seal in flavor.

After trying both, my advice is that if you do sear, be careful not to let a crust form because the key to good brisket is its tenderness.

The tasting begins

Leesa's matzo ball soup was sublime, whetting appetites for the briskets, which were accompanied by bowls of pickles, horseradish, ketchup and spicy sweet peppers. We agreed that Boulud's brisket was delicious. A day of marinating in white wine and brown sugar and the last-minute addition of cider and cider vinegar gave the meat an interesting and distinctive flavor.

But it failed to evoke the warmth and hominess of Passover. Ultimately, the Brisketeers preferred the old-fashioned version. We simply couldn't escape the relationship between our memory and our palates. All those years of eating beef bathed for hours in a thick tomato sauce had trained our taste buds.

My experiment revealed brisket's special charms for the cook: You can make it ahead of time; you can't overcook it; and you get great leftovers (the makings of a brisket sandwich or a pasta ragu). I decided brisket should no longer be relegated to a once-a-year event, but placed high on my list of Sunday suppers.

Both versions, of course.

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