There's an urban myth about a hostess who stumbles out of the kitchen with a roast, sending dinner crashing to the floor in front of a dining room full of guests. Without hesitation she blurts out, "Good thing I made two," before scooping it up, scurrying back into the kitchen, wiping it off and serving it to her guests. There are two takeaways from this story for me. First, you have to be able to think on your feet when entertaining. No matter the catastrophe, a great hostess knows how to spin it. And second, guests want to believe you; if you act like you know what you're talking about, they will.
I used to be in a gourmet club, comprised of a dozen or so women who were all great cooks. Once a month one of us would host the dinner, create the menu, send out the recipes and everyone would bring her assigned dish for a fun, boozy night of great food and great conversation. I loved all the women and I particularly loved the challenge of getting out of my comfort zone and creating something I wouldn't otherwise think about making. One month, my friend Susan Bridges and I were assigned the quiche. If the dish is particularly challenging or expensive, two people split the task of making it. Susan is a fabulous art dealer. She and I had both had busy weeks, so we agreed to pull a bait-and-switch, using store-bought pie crust instead of homemade. I'm a horrible baker - I simply don't have the attention span to follow all the steps. I was totally cool with the ruse. When we arrived at the dinner, everyone marveled at our beautiful quiche with its golden flakey crust. We never said that it wasn't homemade, we just agreed that homemade pie crust is always better. And it is.
Above all, guests want to enjoy a great meal and no one wants to see how you make the sausage. I remember coming home from elementary school one day when my mom was actually making sausage with her new KitchenAid mixer. Seeing the chunks of raw, fatty meat forced into the casing was horrifying. But I still eat sausage. I know plenty of people who won't go to a restaurant because it got a bad rating from the Health Department. I would rather not read the ratings.
I work long and hard at my day job, so I find creative times to cook. My guests don't need to know that I put the brisket on the stove right before I went to sleep, letting it braise overnight. Or that I staggered out of bed at 3 a.m. to check it, assess through a fog of half-sleep that five hours of cooking hadn't yielded the tenderness I was aiming for and let it keep cooking until morning. Or that in the morning, after I'd taken it off the stove, let it cool and was carrying it to the fridge, the sauce had splattered onto my dog, Pinkie, as it spilled to the floor. Or that she'd lapped the sauce off the floor and spent the rest of the day cowering under the bed with a belly ache, which required a trip to the vet the next day. Or that later that day, since I didn't wait for the roasting pan to come to room temp before re-heating the cold brisket on the stove, the chemical reaction resulted in the pan cracking in half, spilling sauce everywhere. All they care about is the delicious dish that I'm serving them.
And it was a delicious meal. Brisket is my signature dish. It's taken me years to master and requires hours to make, so I reserve it for very special guests. It's great over mashed potatoes, parsnip puree or grits - anything that will sop up the sauce. That night I made grits because an old friend had moved back from Boston to Atlanta. What better way to welcome him to the South than with Chef Scott Peacock's recipe for grits? Pinkie is on the mend - the early morning visit to the vet revealed I had let her consume a goodly amount of salty braising liquid, which is not a part of her regular diet, and is most likely the reason that she was sick. Cue the exasperated expression on the vet's face. See - no one wants to see how you make the sausage.
5 lb. Brisket
1 Onion, chopped
3 Carrots, chopped
2 Stalks of celery, chopped
1 Bottle red wine (good enough to drink)
1 16-oz can whole tomatoes
1 head garlic peeled
2 Bay leaves
2 stalks rosemary
2 T Olive oil
Gremolata (handful of chopped parsley, zest of one lemon, one clove of garlic finely chopped)
Rub the brisket generously with salt/pepper. Heat the olive oil in a hot heavy bottomed roasting pan on high. Sear the brisket on both sides for about 10 minutes. Remove the brisket and saute the carrots, onion and celery in the roasting pan, scraping up the brown bits, for another 10 minutes. Add the brisket back (fat side up) with the rosemary, garlic, bay leaves, wine and tomatoes (crushing the tomatoes in your hands as you add them to the pan). The liquid should come halfway up the side of the brisket. Bring it to a boil and then reduce heat to low, cover and braise for about five hours (in the oven, on the stovetop or in a slow cooker). Brisket is a tough and unforgiving piece of meat, and you can't cook it for too long as long as it's on low and you have plenty of liquid. In fact, you're cooking it for so long that you really don't need the sear or to sautee the vegetables. I enjoy the process. Remove from heat, let it cool on the counter for about 30 minutes, and put it in the fridge until about an hour before you serve it. Brisket is easier to slice when it's cold, so you want to wait until you take it off of the fridge to slice it (against the grain). Remove the bay leaves and rosemary stalks and skim the fat with a spatula. Then puree the liquid and aromatics into a sauce. Put the sliced brisket back in the roasting pan and pour the sauce over the sliced brisket and reheat on low covered.
This is a super rich dish and gremolata is a great way to brighten the flavor. I'm not very precise about how much of each ingredient to use - adjust to your taste. Sprinkle over the brisket as you serve.