I’ve a soft spot for humble meals made quietly, slowly, with nothing more than basic ingredients. Dishes that cook over slow heat for hours, particularly meat. Meat, that when you cut into it, slowly falls apart, so soft you hardly need to chew it. Meat that comes with a rich, thick sauce. Meals like this – I could eat on an almost-daily basis.
Sadly, I do not. Partly because I try to be thoughtful about meat consumption, partly because I work hours that don’t allow me, upon getting home, make a meal, that cooks over several hours (albeit, sort of happily cooks itself as time goes by) because that would mean, I would eat at midnight. Or later. And while I’ve fond memories of making and eating goulash at 1 am in college, college this is not, and somehow showing up for work late isn’t the same as skipping your 8am accounting class. The tardiness policy at work just isn’t very lenient.
Beef brisket is just one of those meals that if you’re spending a few hours at home puttering around, or expecting company for dinner, can be made with minimal effort and some glorious results. The concept is rather simple. You take a fatty slab of meat, brown it to lock in the flavor, brown the vegetables, and combine everything with something like wine, pomegranate molasses (with which I’ve been having a decade-long love affair!) and some dried fruit. In this case, the fruit of choice is prunes.
Wait, come back! I know I just said prunes and I know they’re about as sexy as granny panties, but, please give them a chance. Cooked in stews, or slow-cooked in wine, sugar and spices, they transform themselves into something incredible lush and luxurious. I know, I just called prunes “luxurious”, when nothing could be more pedestrian. But, have I ever lied to you? Well then!
I learned, pretty late in life, that brisket is sort of this traditional Jewish meal served during holidays or Shabbat meals. I didn’t grow up with it, so I felt it was my cultural duty to master the craft. Of course, I was cooking dinner with which I was hoping to impress, and I chose a dish that I’d never cooked before. Smart? I’d say not really. Was I a bit nervous? Absolutely. But everything came together without a hitch and the meat cooked perfectly and didn’t resemble pressed sawdust neither in looks nor in taste. If you’re looking for a centerpiece dish for Passover – look no further than this. And while it is always recommended that you do a practice run with a holiday meal beforehand, I’m pretty certain you will succeed with this one because the building blocks of a great dish are already included in the ingredients and the cooking process. If you cook it patiently and slowly, you will get a “humble” meal that will delicious and festive enough to be fit for a king.
Beef Brisket with Merlot and Prunes
Adapted very liberally from Bon Appetit
1 4-to 4 1/2-pound flat-cut (also called first-cut) beef brisket, trimmed of most fat
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire-roasted)
1 cup Merlot, or other full-bodied dry red wine
2 pounds onions, sliced
4 medium carrots, peeled, roughly chopped
1 lb fingerling potatoes
16 garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2 cups pitted large prunes (about 8 oz)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/3 cup pomegranate molasses
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tsp maple syrup or honey
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 325°F. Pat brisket dry; sprinkle all over with salt and pepper. Heat oil in heavy extra-large dutch oven, or the cocotte, over high heat. Add brisket and cook until deep brown, about 7 minutes per side. Set the meat aside and brown the onions, carrots and potatoes for a few minutes. Pull them out of the cocotte and place the meat back in there. Add tomatoes with juice and wine to skillet. Distribute onions, carrots, potatoes and garlic around brisket. Add prunes and thyme; drizzle with pomegranate molasses, honey (or maple syrup) and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid and place the cocotte in the oven and braise for about 3 hours 15 minutes.
Serve with the vegetables while hot, and garnished with parsley, or let rest for an hour and serve at room temperature.
DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover with foil and chill. Bring just to simmer when reheating.
How to know the brisket is done? Try inserting a turkey lacer into the thickest part of the brisket. If it meets no resistance, your brisket is done.