“The days aren’t discarded or collected, they are bees that burned with sweetness or maddened the sting: the struggle continues, the journeys go and come between honey and pain. No, the net of years doesn’t unweave: there is no net.” – Pablo Neruda, Still Another Day

Brisket

Some time ago, a friend from college told me about a brisket that her mother used to make every year for Passover; my friend visibly swooned as she talked about it — the buildup, the frantic shopping for the deckle, the preparation for cooking that involved her mother taking an old, bent Ginsu filet knife and making small, deep slits in the meat into which she would insert narrow slivers of garlic. One year, she added raisins and dill to the garlic. Another year, she included small slices of Jerusalem artichoke, which she thought was appropriate, she told everyone, on account of the holiday.

Every year, she cooked her brisket until it had the consistency of beef jerky.

This is the most exquisite brisket you’ve ever made, Mom, everyone would say in unison, sitting around the formal table and sawing at the meat in front of them. Then they’d put down the family silver and actually applaud. Mom would blush a deep crimson and insist that everybody have a second and third helping, because there was always so much left over. She’d wrap up slices for everyone to take home, and after the Seder was over and my friends’ sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews got into their cars, smiled and waved goodbye, they drove to the nearest dumpster and threw the brisket out because it was vile, inedible, and everyone hated it.

This went on for thirty-five years.

I remember it so well, my friend said, smiling sadly and growing misty. She still has the Ginsu knife.

Of course it was memorable. But how could she swoon? Was it a good memory, or a bad one? Was it the meat she was missing, or the whole event and the people involved in it, or was it just her mother? This is a universal conundrum: bad memories are inevitably married to good, the delicious is always somehow married to the stomach-turning. As Neruda says, the journeys go and come between honey and pain. You can’t have one without the other.

The past — memory — is everywhere we turn, right in front of us; it lives in the recesses of our brains and makes us who we are, even as our palates taste it and our brains contort it and make my experience different from yours, while the facts are identical. The past is also stuff; it masquerades as your mother’s muffin tin; the bags of photographs that you haven’t had the time or inclination to sort or frame, but that you’ve carried around with you for twenty-five years, moving from house to house and city to city. It’s people who no longer exist in your life — they’ve left the building in one way or another, like Elvis, disappearing, shrinking like a figure in a rear view mirror — but you vividly remember the density of their matzo balls, or the lightness of their gefilte fish, their sense of humor and their frightening temper, and the forty Passovers you spent together. You remember the Swedish meatballs made with ketchup and cream that your grandmother used to cook for holidays, and her leftover Easter ham salad tossed with the chopped sweet gherkins that no one but you ever really liked.

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It’s the stained recipe cards written in Yiddish script that no one has been able to read for sixty years, that you cannot bring yourself to throw out even though the beloved great aunt who wrote them never tried to hide the fact that she didn’t like you, and even at five years old, you knew it.  It’s the Haggadah — the one you can’t manage to part with even though it’s splattered with heavy Malaga from the time your long-dead grandmother spilled her Waterford goblet while reaching across the table for the soup nuts. It’s the gaggle of stuffed miniature teddy bears dressed in bunny outfits that your mother found charming, and the four, black and red Ukrainian Easter eggs that you meticulously hand-painted for her one Sunday afternoon in 1977 while listening to Patti Smith when, somehow, inexplicably, you managed to stay in the lines because you weren’t stoned.

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This is the stuff from our past that we cling to—the good, the bad, and both. These are the memories that we grasp on to for dear life, that refuse to be flushed from our mental catacombs, that act as a tether to who we once were before we became who we are now. Memory is a two-edged sword: relinquish it, and your self goes with it. Cling to it, and you forget where you are in the present; it stands in the doorway and blocks up the hall, like the song says. It muddies the future and obscures the light.

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It’s been a difficult year for me and Susan since my book came out; amidst such enormous excitement, anything that could possibly go wrong, did: there’s been illness, death, and even shunning. The upshot has been a lot of time spent trying to untangle strands of memory in order to separate the good from the bad, and to make sense of them; it’s been a challenging task — they’re so tightly plaited that where one goes, so goes the other. Lately, I’ve been clinging to memories of the way things used to be — the stained Haggadah and the soup nuts; the photographs and the gefilte fish. We’re getting into holiday season, and so I suppose this happens. During this time — with all of my focus on the past instead of the present, the here and now — food has somehow tasted blander, it’s been grayer outside, the garden hasn’t beckoned. The memory strands have been so many and have gotten so jumbled up like old jewelry clogging my dresser drawer that it’s taken me this long to finally realize that some strands simply don’t want to be unraveled; in those cases, where the bad outweighs the good, you just need to let them go, to plop them on a small inflatable raft with a box of glazed donuts and push them out into the water with a wish for peace and luck, and then, as the late Jesse Winchester sang, wave bye bye.

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After a way-too-long, icy, snowy season in Connecticut, I’m finally able to throw open the windows and pull back the curtains to let in light and air; these days, I need light like a drowning man needs a life preserver. I’m desperate for it. I want to purge a lot of what I’ve hauled around with me — the bad memories, the unnecessary stuff, the monkey on my back — that’s blackened the winter windows with knotted veils of worry, and prevented me from breathing deeply, cooking and tasting with purpose and intensity, and moving forward the way I want and need to: with Susan, and with an eye on the past but also very certainly in the here and now, and looking to our future with the wonderful circle of family and friends who love and surround us. This is not memory; this is what life is. This is the stuff that’s real.

For every disgusting brisket, it’s the happiness, kindness, and love swirling around it that stays.

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Not My Grandmother’s Brisket

(Recipe Redux)

Those of you who are regular readers of Poor Man’s Feast will recognize this recipe as one that appeared a bit less than a year ago, on the occasion of another Jewish holiday. It’s a keeper, which is why I decided to run it again; I also thought it was appropriate because it is very much NOT the way my paternal grandmother made it, although it does include her drill-holes-for-garlic method. While her version was mouthwateringly delicious and tender — nary a Jerusalem artichoke or raisin in sight — I still prefer brisket when it’s braised with tomatoes, wine and herbs. The leftovers are stellar.

Serves 4, with leftovers

1 4-pound first cut brisket, trimmed of some excess fat but not all

1 garlic clove, peeled and slivered

salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon grapeseed oil

3 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup dry red wine

1 16 ounce can plum tomatoes, smashed in their own juice

3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced on the bias

2 celery stalks, sliced on the bias

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs each rosemary and thyme

Bring the brisket to room temperature, place it on a cutting board fat-side down, and using a sharp, thin knife — I use a filleting knife — make small slits (no more than 1/4 inch long) all over the meat, and insert 1-2 slivers of garlic deeply into each slit. Salt and pepper the meat on both sides and massage it with the grapeseed oil.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

In a large, heavy, straight-sided, non-reactive saute pan with a lid (you can use a shallow, fire-proof roasting pan too) set over medium-high heat, brown the meat fat-side down, about 5-8 minutes. Turn the meat over and repeat; you should wind up with a good, strong golden brown crust as in the image above. Remove, set aside, and add the onions to the pan. Toss well until they’re coated with the fat, and return the meat to the pan, setting it on top of the onions along with its accumulated juices, skin-side down.

Add the wine and tomatoes to the pan, cover tightly — if the pan doesn’t have a cover, tightly wrap it in heavy duty foil — and place in the oven for 3 hours. Baste the meat with its juices frequently. After 2 hours, add the carrot, celery, bay leaf, rosemary, and thyme, and continue to braise for another hour, basting frequently.

Remove the pan and allow to come to room temperature; place in refrigerator, covered, overnight.

The next day, skim all of the accumulated fat from the pan; remove the meat from the pan and slice it carefully across the grain. Return it to the pan, and reheat, covered, at 300 degrees F until tender. Serve hot, or at room temperature.

 

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I’m sitting in my office right now and staring out the window at a stupid amount of snow.

And it’s snowing as I write this. Again.

One minute the sky is blue, and then, it isn’t.

Another foot is supposed to come tomorrow.

The snow started to fall a few months ago and for a long while, it just didn’t stop; the garden Buddha in the way back, marking the spot where my beloved cats Cleo and Viola are buried, is completely obscured. The bottom of the birdbath is resting on the surface, like a giant hockey puck, which means that we have, all told, about three and a half feet to contend with. Our stoic Yankee plow guy worries that there’s nowhere to put it all, and every time he shows up to shovel out our circular driveway, the piles he makes just grow higher and more threatening. There are no paths to walk to the garden or to deliver heating oil; when the dogs go out to pee, they sink in almost over their heads and emerge surprised, their beards flocked with dripping, icy, dog snot.

My dogs are not Orvis Dogs; they are annoyed, half-Jewish dogs who frown on inclement weather.

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This much snow is as threatening as it is beautiful; gutters have to be de-iced, foundations have to be checked for cracks, tree branches collapsing under the weight of precipitation have to be sawed away like gangrenous limbs. Last week, I had six guys standing on my roof with shovels; everyone in New England has heard stories of twenty foot lengths of gutter coming down into the snow, only to be discovered in spring. Late at night, after Susan goes to sleep and I stay up to read for a bit, the house creaks and groans in the cold.

“It’s just the heat,” she says, when I reach for her hand. I know she’s right, but the noise makes me feel queasy and unmoored, like I forgot to pay my taxes, or like maybe that pesky tumor that’s been going around has returned. This much lack of control undoes me.

I don’t expect that we’ll see the ground again until late March or early April, traditionally that time of sweet renewal and rebirth. The great melt will coincide with the year anniversary of the publication of Poor Man’s Feast; the year anniversary of the thirteen-city, 9,000-mile book tour that took me from coast to coast; the year anniversary of my stepmom getting sick; the year anniversary of my mother-in-law getting sick; the year anniversary of my relationship with people I’ve loved forever falling apart; the year anniversary of my living, daily, with such profound joy and pain so withering that it’s almost absurd in its ridiculousness, if pain could ever be absurd. Snow is beautiful, and it’s dangerous; you can step into a crevasse and be gone forever.  Joy and sorrow are plaited together, too: pull one loose strand and the whole thing unravels like a cheap sweater.

A year ago, when my mother-in-law had her heart attack, I wrote here that life unfolds, and about my friend, David Rakoff, who used to say, Don’t get too comfortable. And I don’t, anymore. Because nothing — really, nothing — stays. The Buddhists know this; their whole practice is based on impermanence. The rest of us? I’m not so sure. We want things to remain exactly the way they are. The devil you know. Comfort is key. No surprises. Sunny and 70, every day. People behave. Everyone wants life to be a lemon-yellow ’82 Cadillac with soft shocks and a moon roof.

Instead, life moves forward and drags you along with it, for better and worse: you can go along willingly, with a sense of nervous wonder, or you can go along caveman-style. Or, you can get left behind, like the broken gutters that you don’t even notice are buried in the snow until the sun comes out, sheds light on them, and you realize your house is in serious trouble.

So, even as the beautiful, dangerous snow falls, I am moving forward with a sense of nervous, panicky wonder, or at least I’m trying to: right around the first anniversary of Poor Man’s Feast, I’ll be starting a new book — another memoir — that I haven’t talked about much, and likely won’t, beyond saying that it’s about rule breaking, the cost of acceptance and love, and the often bizarre hoops we jump through in order to attain those two things. And yes, food will be involved, front and center, as a main character.

I look forward to seeing the ground again — to being able to dig around in the garden and amend the soil and plant the earliest of our vegetables — right around the time that my notes and scribbles become the beginnings of a new first draft filled with surprise, wonder, and hope.

Snow, more snow, weird anniversaries both joyful and sad, and new beginnings. Moving forward with trepidation. Cooking for my heart and my nerves.

Braised Short Ribs with Polenta

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I’ve never been much of a restaurant short ribs fan; very often, they’re not afforded the time it takes for them to cross the threshold from jiggly to tender and luscious. Made well, however, they are rapturously comforting. So a few weeks ago, in the throes of one of the bigger storms we’ve had this year, I set out to make them in as slow a manner as possible: we were snowed in, the cars were snowed in, the plow guy hadn’t come, the town hadn’t spread sand on the roads, and I was making a lot of Shining jokes. I had the forethought to pick up the ribs before the snow started to fall, but beyond that, these were cooked with nothing more than what we had in the house — red wine, beef stock, coffee — and time.

The polenta recipe is  a combination of Marcella Hazan‘s and Laurie Colwin’s: Marcella’s for the basic method (I have my own, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this great lady, so this was my way of having her in the kitchen), and Laurie’s for the addition of Parmigiana Reggiano (and because I always feel her, staring over my shoulder).  My Southern friends scoffed at me for making it (this time) with excellent quality grits; it was all we had in the house.

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Notes: The coffee, as many brisket/pot roast makers know, adds a level of earthy, round depth to this dish; its natural bitterness is neutralized with a tablespoon of buckwheat (or other dark) honey. This is cooked in sunflower oil because of its high burn point; I’ve found that olive oil blackens too quickly. Leftover polenta should immediately be poured into a greased baking dish, covered, and refrigerated. To serve, slice into squares, fry in olive oil, and top with a poached egg.

Serves 2-3 with significant leftovers

For the short ribs

1/4 cup diced pancetta

1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large carrot, peeled and diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 large celery stalk, diced

salt and black pepper, to taste

2-1/2 pounds meaty short ribs, at room temperature

1/4 cup flour for dredging*

2 tablespoons sunflower or grapeseed oil

3 cups beef stock

2 cups hearty red wine

1 tablespoon strong instant coffee (I used Starbucks Italian roast)

1 tablespoon buckwheat, or other dark honey

3 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

*Use either all-purpose flour, or, if you’re GF, white rice flour.

In a large, oven-proof Dutch oven (preferably enameled cast iron) set over medium heat, cook the pancetta in the olive oil until the pancetta browns, rendering its fat, about six minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove to a plate lined with a paper towel. Add the carrots, onion, and celery to the pot and cook slowly, letting the vegetables sweat and soften in the fat. When tender, remove them, too, to a plate lined with a paper towel.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Salt and pepper the short ribs; place the flour in a wide, flat bowl, and dredge each rib, shaking off the excess. Add the sunflower oil to the pan, raise the heat to medium high, and when the oil is hot but not smoking, brown the ribs on all sides, in batches of three, removing them to a platter as they brown. Take your time; your goal is to get a crusty brown rime on all sides of the meat. This should take half an hour; return all the meat to the pot, along with its accumulated juices.

Add the pancetta and vegetables back to the pot, along with the stock and wine; bring to a slow boil, and sprinkle in the instant coffee grounds. Stir in the honey and combine well; the meat should be nearly — but not totally — submerged. Add the thyme and the bay leaf, cover the pot, and place on the middle rack in the oven. Cook for three hours, stirring the pot occasionally (and gently; short ribs notoriously like to separate themselves from their bone if jostled). At the end of three hours, the braising liquid should be thick and nearly syrupy; taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Remove the cover from the pot and continue to cook for another hour, frequently spooning the now-reduced braising liquid over the meat. The ribs are done when they are knife-tender; at this point, if you want to refrigerate or freeze them, let them come to room temperature first and store them in their braising liquid.

Remove the bay leaf, and ladle out into warm, broad bowls, on top of polenta (or noodles, or rice). Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve immediately.

For the polenta

1 tablespoon salt

2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal

1/2 cup grated Parmigiana Reggiano

Pinch red pepper flakes

Pinch of salt, to taste

Bring 6-1/2 cups water to a boil in a large, heavy Dutch oven or soup pot. Add the salt, reduce the heat so that the water is simmering, and add the cornmeal slowly, stirring it all the while with a heavy, wooden spoon. Continue to stir, constantly, keeping the water at a simmer, for twenty minutes. Fold in the Parmigiana Reggiano and the red pepper flakes, and, if desired, the salt. The polenta is done when it pulls away from the sides of the pot as you stir. Serve immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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