tangy brisket

When it comes to cooking, I’m far more apt to bake than braise. Perhaps it’s the fact that I live alone. Or maybe it’s because there are so many grill-masters in my family already, while baking is a sort of under-represented talent. Regardless, I don’t cook a ton of meat, and I cook even fewer “large cuts.” Until recently, the thought of a roast beef, or whole turkey scared the bejezus out of me. So much meat! What if I messed it up???

Recent events have prompted me to reconsider my fear of big cuts. First was this recipe, and then my Thanksgiving turkey (which turned out wonderfully!). They’re great for feeding crowds without much work, and they make the nicest leftovers. My rule of thumb (for the time being, anyway) is to cook low and slow, which helps keep the meat tender, and to not try to do too much with it. Good meat is good meat. Let it speak for itself. Also, investing in a good meat thermometer helps.

The impetus for all this happened a few months ago when I got a hankering for brisket. Not dry rubbed Texas brisket, but swimming in sauce, sweet and tangy, slow braised brisket, like I had at the one and only Passover meal I’ve ever attended. Not having a Jewish mother at my disposal, I took matters into my own hands, did some internet research and headed to the market.

Side note: a funny thing happened at the market. All the briskets looked like meat doormats, all trimmed and square, with nary a shred of fat clinging to them. But I had a nice talk with the butcher, and he procured an untrimmed 8 lb. brisket from the back. If you go in search of brisket, this is what you want. The fat will melt in the cooking process and keep the meat moist.

Back in my kitchen, I used a Smitten Kitchen recipe for inspiration, adding my own improvisation for good measure. The result was spectacular. So spectacular, I didn’t end up with any of my coveted leftovers.

Tangy Brisket
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

3 large onions, sliced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 Tablespoon smoked paprika
1 Tablespoon salt
1 Tablespoon garlic powder
1 Tablespoon teaspoons black pepper
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon dried thyme
2 cups beef stock
1 cup ketchup
a few dashes of Cholula (add enough to your liking)
a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
8 lb brisket
2 Tablespoons cornstarch (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Slice onions and chop garlic. Heat oil in a large pan and add onions and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat until the onions are translucent. Set aside. In a large bowl combine the spices, stock, ketchup, hot sauce and brown sugar. Mix well and set aside.

Get your brisket and pat dry with a paper towel. Set meat in a large pan or casserole dish with the fattiest side up. Pour the sauce mixture over the top, and then add the onions. Cover the pan with foil (careful, it will likely be very full), and bake until the meat is fork tender 3 to 4 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven, uncover and let sit 30 minutes to an hour. Remove the brisket from the pan carefully (tongs and a spatula are a good way to do this) and transfer to a cutting board. Use a spoon to scrape the excess fat from the meat and discard. Set the meat aside to cool a bit.

You can serve the meat/sauce as is, or if you like a thicker, smoother sauce, continue on: Transfer the sauce/juices in the pan to a bowl and let sit for 10 minutes. Use a ladle to skim the fat off the top of the sauce. Then, use and immersion blender to blend it smooth. If you want a thicker sauce add a tablespoon or two of cornstarch and blend smooth again. Transfer sauce to a saucepan to warm up if it’s too cold for your taste.

Slice your brisket against the grain, about a quarter-inch thick. Arrange slices on a plate and top with sauce. Serve extra sauce on the side.

double pork Boston baked beans

This is the post where I sound like a townie. I’m not, but I’ve been around a bunch of them as they mourn the loss of their blue-collar neighborhoods to yuppies, hipsters and the like. They lament that JJ Foley’s now serves salmon dishes and fancy salads, and that what they grew up calling Roxbury is now “The South End.” They miss the Olde Stag Tavern, but they’re beside themselves over the fact that it may become a tapas bar named Coco’s. That is if they even know what tapas are. For most of them, when you say tapas, they think you’re headed to The Glass Slipper.

Amid all of this, they’ve also lost their baked beans. Despite the city’s moniker as “bean town,” and the proliferation of comfort-food joints, gastro-pubs and heritage cooking, Boston-style baked beans have become woefully under-represented here. Durgin Park is recommended on a few sites, and Citizen Public House serves them with one entrée, but overall it seems local eateries are more keen on polenta and poutine than the humble bean. Why are local chefs ignoring one of the area’s greatest culinary traditions?

-courtesy of Boston Public Library

Partly, I think baked beans have gotten a bad rap. Both because of their, um, supposed side effects, and also because of the canned stuff. Watery. Bland. Not so great. Also, I’m not sure that people in general know and appreciate what a true Boston-style baked bean is: white beans baked in a sauce containing pork and molasses. Salty, tangy, and just slightly sweet, they are nothing like you get from a can. They are also super easy to make, either in the oven or in a crock pot.

A native Bostonian gave me his recipe for baked beans shortly after I moved back to the city. It sat forgotten in my email in-box for years, and when I found it recently I lamented that I’d missed the wintry window of opportunity in which beans are so perfect. Then this cold snap hit and wham, I made beans. Since they take about 24 hours to prepare, some planning is needed, but it’s 98 percent hands off. I’d recommend soaking the beans during the day while you’re at work and then in the evening transferring them into a crock pot, bean pot or dutch oven and cooking them slowly overnight. Add a couple hotdogs, sausages or fish cakes and you’ve got a majorly great meal. Don’t want to wait until dinner? Serve with eggs, toast and bacon for a Boston take on a full English breakfast.

A note about the beans: I’m usually not persnickety about canned vs. dry beans, but you want dry beans here so that they soak up all the flavor of the sauce. Also, the beans cook a long time and they’ll get mushy if you start with canned. Dry beans can be found in the ethnic/bean aisle of your local grocery store, and they are surprisingly affordable when bought in bulk at Whole Foods. Before soaking, sort through your beans, and remove any blemished ones or ones that look icky. If you’ve never done this before, here’s a guide:

You’ll also notice that these are “double pork” Boston baked beans. That’s because I had some smoked pork jowl in the freezer and decided to gild the lily and use that in addition to bacon. I am 100 percent sure that these beans will be delicious if you just use 8 ounces of bacon or salt pork (or half bacon and half salt pork). Because, really, what isn’t delicious when you add a half pound of pork to it and cook it for 8 to 10 hours?

Double pork Boston baked beans
Serves 6.

1 lb white or navy beans
2 teaspoons mustard
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3 medium onions, chopped
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup Heinz ketchup
2 Tablespoons pickle juice or vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces smoked pork jowl, cut into 1-inch chunks
4 ounces bacon, sliced into lardons

Pick over beans, wash and cover with water. Let soak 8 to 12 hours. Then add water to cover, add all ingredients except pork and boil in a dutch oven for one hour. If using a bean pot or a slow cooker, boil in a separate pot first.

Heat oven to 225. Transfer beans to bean pot or crock pot, if using. Add pork and mix in. If using a bean pot or a dutch oven, bake 7 to 9 hours covered or until tender. If using a crock pot, cook on low for same amount of time. If possible, check on beans after 4 hours and add just enough water to cover (I didn’t do this and mine were fine). Uncover for the last 30 minutes of cooking.

Frito pie

They say necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of food, I’d argue that poverty is often the root of genius. Really, think about it… some of the most exquisite dishes are peasant food. Cassoulet. Gazpacho. Bread pudding. Offal. Tamales. Frito Pie.

What? You’ve never made Frito Pie? Well get on board… this is the stuff that dreams are made of. At least, if your dreams include consuming 3oo times your recommended daily salt intake and having a gut that oozes over your pants. But it’s so tasty!

When I was in college, I was on the sailing team, a pseudo-sport that entailed sailing five days a week on Lake Michigan and getting together often to drink as much beer and rum as humanly possible. As we wanted to put our (meager) funds towards buying as much booze as possible, we didn’t spend much on food. Enter Frito Pie.

A coach from Texas taught us this dish and it quickly became a de facto team dinner. So much so that at one annual banquet I made Frito Pie to serve 60. It was cheap, filling and delicious. Made with lean ground turkey, it also was probably the healthiest thing I put in my body during those four years.

For these same reasons this is a great recipe for a (Superbowl?) crowd. It’s can be made ahead of time, left simmering all day in a pot, or frozen and thawed in a pinch. It can also be easily doubled or even tripled for a big crowd.

Though this dish gets its name from the Frito “crust” that you create in the bottom of the bowl, the Fritos are entirely optional (albeit sinfully delicious). You can substitute other tortilla chips or rice, and use any combination of topping you like: sour cream and cheese are my favorites. You can also easily make it vegetarian by skipping the turkey and adding two extra cans of beans.

Frito Pie
(A Musing Bouche original)

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 lb lean ground turkey (if you don’t want turkey, double the quantity of beans)
1 sweet yellow pepper, diced
1 14.5 ounce can black beans, drained
1 14.5 ounce can kidney beans, drained
1 14.5 ounce can creamed corn
2 14.5 ounce cans diced tomatoes
2 cans Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and green chilies
2 packets chili seasoning- 1 hot and 1 mild
1 bag Fritos
sour cream, chives and cheese to suit your tastes

Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high head and add onions, sauteing until soft, about two minutes. Add turkey (if using) and stir to break up the meat. When meat is browned, add  pepper, beans, corn, tomatoes and chili seasoning. Reduce heat to low and simmer at least 45 minutes or up to three hours, stirring occasionally.  To serve, put a handful of Fritos in the bottom of a bowl and ladle chili on top. Garnish with cheese, sour cream and scallions. Serves 6.