Slow and low: That is the tempo for brisket

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If you want to impress strangers, serve them filet mignon in all its tasteless tenderness. But if you want to make those strangers your friends, cook them a brisket.

That's some of what you're going to learn if you read between the lines of Stephanie Pierson's quirky new book, The Brisket Book, A Love Story With Recipes, which came out of her year's sabbatical as a brisketeer. She also delivered this recipe: My Mother's Brisket.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What did you learn in this year as a brisketeer?

Stephanie Pierson: I learned that everyone loves brisket, and that brisket is the ultimate comfort food. I learned that it is a multi-cultural wonder; it's served all over the world. I learned that there's an emotional connection with brisket that really doesn't exist with very many other foods, and not really very much with other meats. Like chuck and skirt steak -- you just don't feel the love.

LRK: I don't think a lot of people know what the brisket really is.

SP: Right, and what people do know is that it has a certain negative perception -- though not as much as fruit cake. People think it's a tough cut, or that it's a difficult cut to be cooking, or that it's poor or it's kind of ugly. It's not a very sexy food, so it doesn't get great press.

LRK: Give us the nuts and bolts of how to buy a brisket, where it comes from and what we should look for.

SP: Brisket comes from the chest of a steer. (And one of the first things I learned was that a steer is not a cow. Everybody yelled at me; I kept calling it a cow. It's a steer; it's a neutered male.) So brisket is right on the chest. And because a brisket is way up front in the forequarters of the animal, it's very tough. All the meats that are in the forequarters of the animal are very tough, because that's where all the hardworking muscles are. That's where the animal grazes and lies down and uses so many muscles that it's an enormously tough piece of meat.

One of the joys is that because it's in the forequarters, it's kosher. So, whereas a sirloin or filet mignon might not be kosher, this is.

There are two cuts of brisket that you can cook with. On the very outside of the steer is what's called the point, and below that is what's called the flat. When you barbecue a brisket -- and anybody who barbecues a brisket knows this -- you cook both together. It's called a packer cut. But what you do have is a choice between is a flat and a point.

LRK: So if you buy a whole brisket, it's called a packer, and there's a flat side of it that is probably about 2 to 3 inches thick and it's maybe about 6 or 8 inches wide, right?

SP: Yes.

LRK: And then as you go up the whole piece of brisket, there's another side to it that's called the point, and that's much bigger, much thicker, a bit wider, and that has a lot more fat.

SP: Right.

LRK: And that's from the front of the animal that sits right between the front legs.

SP: Exactly.

LRK: Which cut do we want to get the juiciest brisket?

SP: If you're making a braised brisket and you're choosing one over the other, it doesn't really make a huge difference, as long as you have enough fat on either piece of the meat and you cook it properly.

LRK: So, what do we have to know about the do's and the don'ts?

SP: Brisket's a very forgiving cut of meat, especially if you're making a braised brisket. Braised brisket is incredibly easy to make, as long as you know that you have to cook using the low-and-slow mantra. That's the cooking mantra for all types of brisket. You also need to make sure that you have enough liquid to keep it nice and moist throughout, so that it doesn't dry out. Those are really the two basic facts for how to cook a brisket.

The ultimate combination, and the very best one, is brisket and onions. It's so moist and lovely and sweet. But you can use anything from ginger snaps to cranberry to Coca-Cola to red wine to white wine to stout. So many things go into a brisket, and the brisket is quite forgiving of ingredients.

LRK: So, you've eaten all of these perfect briskets. What brisket are you eating now?

SP: It's like picking your favorite child -- a terrible thing to have to do that -- but at the moment, I fell in love with Roberta Greenberg, who is the assistant to the rabbis at Temple Emanu-El in New York. Roberta Greenberg cooks her brisket with cranberry slices.  She also does a rub on it the night before, and then the next day cooks it with onions and cranberry. The cranberry caramelizes, so it turns into this incredibly ambrosial, sweet, lovely, silken gravy, and just a wonderful amazingly succulent brisket.

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