A beef brisket supper is associated with many of the Jewish holidays, but perhaps none more regularly than Hanukkah. And there's a good reason -- the festival of lights lasts a full eight days and always includes a Friday night Sabbath meal.
Sure, brisket is an inexpensive yet delicious cut that feeds a crowd and turns meltingly tender when cooked slowly at a low temperature. But it's that last part that makes it perfect for a Sabbath supper when the cooking needs to be finished before sunset. Brisket is the perfect make-ahead meal.
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Other Hanukkah traditions call for dairy meals and, of course, fried foods such as the ubiquitous potato latke to celebrate the legend of the tiny amount of oil that burned for a miraculous eight days in the Jewish temple. But there almost always is a meat-based meal, as well.
Meat guru Bruce Aidells remembers that his grandmother, who kept a kosher home, always had an onion- and carrot-smothered brisket for Hanukkah served alongside crispy potato pancakes. He says there was invariably a roasted chicken served, too.
Aidells, who is author of "The Complete Meat Cookbook," says his own mother prepared a brisket, as well, but braised it in a more traditional fashion using a jar of chili sauce, lots of onions and some onion soup mix for additional flavor in the gravy.
Kosher chef Laura Frankel says she has a hunch that this tradition of braising a brisket is the reason that the roasted chicken often accompanies the meal.
"That brisket shrinks so much when it's cooked in liquid," says Frankel, "that all those Jewish mothers out there worried they wouldn't have enough food, so they would throw a chicken in the oven as well."
As a result, Frankel, who authored "Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes," likes to cook her Hanukkah brisket covered, at a very low heat, simply sitting on a bed of vegetables, which she later turns into a sauce with some wine and the drippings. The results, she says, are just as tender as a braise, but with less shrinkage.
Other make-ahead meat meals that Frankel prepares include braised short ribs and a slow-cooker lamb tagine served with sweet potato latkes.
Aidells still has a love for brisket and though he likes the dry roasting technique as well, says that braising is a great way to add flavor to the meat. He prefers to use grass-fed beef for its superior flavor. If he's looking to go leaner, he'll prepare a bison brisket, which can be purchased from specialty meat shops.
When shopping for a brisket, Aidells says that even when buying the leaner first or flat end of the brisket (the most common cut at grocers), look for some marbling in the meat to ensure tenderness and the best possible flavor.
He also recommends purchasing a brisket with at least ¼-inch of fat on the top (called the deckle). You may have to ask your butcher to cut it this way, as briskets most often are sold trimmed completely of visible fat.
Our recipe for Hanukkah is a variation on the traditional beer and chili sauce-braised brisket. We use the bottled chili sauce in a nod to tradition, but then intensify the flavors with some strong black coffee and a hearty porter beer. The result is a fork-tender pot roast with rich and flavorful mahogany-colored gravy.