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   Just Right for Hanukkah
   by Joan Nathan

  When I invited a friend to dinner last year to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, she accepted with a caveat: she and her husband do not eat red meat. I said that I was making brisket, but would give them something else. "Oh, but we eat brisket!" she exclaimed.

  Almost everyone likes brisket. It is the perfect comfort food: fragrant, flavorful, and if you cook it right, fork tender. (I always have one on hand in the freezer.) In Eastern European Jewish homes, brisket was reserved for special occasions like weddings. In Texas, barbecue brisket is everyday food. A versatile cut, brisket can be simmered as a pot roast on top of the stove or cured and used for corned beef and pastrami.

  Brisket is the Zelig of the kitchen. It takes on the character of whoever cooks it. In the early part of the 20th century, when "The Settlement Cook Book" reigned supreme in American Jewish households, recipes for savory briskets of beef with sauerkraut, cabbage or lima beans were the norm. As tastes became more exotic, cranberry or barbecue sauce, root beer, lemonade and even sake worked their way into recipes.

  "My mother always sent me to New York with a huge brisket with gravy frozen in," recalled Eli N. Evans, the author of "The Provincials," who was born in North Carolina.

  "She was worried that I couldn't eat good Southern Jewish home cooking in the barren canyons of Manhattan. We called it Atlanta brisket, and her secret was marinating the meat overnight in the dark, epicurean liquid called Coca-Cola."

  Levana Kirschenbaum, an owner of Levana's Restaurant in New York and the author of the just published "Levana's Table: Kosher Cooking for Everyone" (Stewart Tabori & Chang), grew up in Morocco, where few if any cooks made brisket. Hers was a tradition of top-of-the-stove lamb tagines. While many Moroccan cooks in this country have adapted their lamb dishes to brisket with tomatoes, preserved lemons and olives, Ms. Kirschenbaum has created a new brisket with Asian ingredients. "I wanted the hint of sweet and sour so I made a brisket with ginger and soy sauce," she said. "Coca-Cola gives it a bubbly fizzly thing. It is exciting."

  Or if you want it simple, do it as Sanford Herskovitz, a k a Mr. Brisket, a Cleveland meat purveyor, does: with Coke, onion soup mix and chili sauce. Mitchell Davis, author of the recently published "Mensch Chef" (Clarkson Potter) scoffed at sweet and sour until his editor Chris Pavone insisted he try his brisket with pears. "I was a disbeliever on principle," he said. But he tried the recipe.

  "As I cooked the liquid, puréeing the onions and pears together and tasting the result, I realized he was right," Mr. Davis said. "It was the magic of mixing ingredients."

  Mr. Davis might have taken convincing, but Jewish cooks really are no strangers to sweet and sour brisket. Among the evidence is a restaurant review that appeared in The New York Times in 1872, entitled "A New Cuisine. The Jewish Restaurant — Peculiar Food — Experiences of a Seeker After Novel Dishes." The article read, "What we actually had before us seemed to be beef with raisins, the whole floating in a sea of gravy. . . . Beef and raisins were incompatibilities." The waiter, sensing the diners' distress, told them: "Some people's very fond of it, but generally if you ain't born and bred up religiously, that kind of thing, why, Sir, it's what they call it in this 'ere country, rather rough. 'Ave a mutton chop, Sir!"

  Would anyone, today, turn down brisket for mutton chops?

  There are two rules for cooking brisket: cook it long and cook it with the fat. Since the meat comes from the muscular forequarters of the steer, slow cooking is required to tenderize the meat. The first cut, or flat portion of the brisket, is available oven-ready at supermarkets all over the country.

  Jack Lebewohl, the owner of the Second Avenue Deli, whose brisket recently won first prize in a Slow Food competition, said: "I try to get a very large, good-quality brisket. It should not be too lean. You have to be careful with the cooking, spice it right, and cook it slow." For the cholesterol-conscious, the fat can be frightening.

  Mr. Herskovitz is outspoken on the subject: "When there is no fat you absolutely kill the taste," he said. "If you cut the fat off beforehand, your brisket is `farfaln.' You have defeated your purpose."

  But you can have the cooking benefits of fat without serving a plate of it: simply cut the fat off after the brisket has finished cooking. One home brisket cook, Lucy Lang of Riverdale, in the Bronx, who has been making brisket almost every Friday night since 1949, said the secret is sweet and spicy paprika, a little fat, and loads of onions, which give the meat flavor and moisture.

  Many busy cooks prepare the brisket a day ahead and refrigerate it, allowing the flavor to deepen. When ready to serve, they simply remove the fat, slice the brisket against the grain and reheat it. That is what I'll do this Hanukkah and that is what will have my "we don't eat red meat" friends asking for seconds with their potato latkes.

  • Recipe: Brisket in Sweet-and-Sour Sauce

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