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Real Entertaining

New Year, New Brisket

Real Entertaining columnist David Hagedorn offers these step-by-step instructions to his recipe for Smoked Stuffed Brisket.
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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Remember that guy who wasn't really a doctor but played one on TV? That's kind of where I am when it comes to telling people what to make for dinner on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

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I hail from a family of bacon-eating, lobster-loving Reform Jews who observed the important holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover but also celebrated Christmas. (We found it prettier than Hanukkah; to hedge our bets, we lit a menorah faithfully. It was on the mantel next to a Frosty the Snowman snow globe.)

The only dietary law we really followed was the one about not swimming for an hour after eating. We did not keep kosher; still, there were unspoken menu do's and don'ts for the family's Jewish holiday dinners, which always took place at our house. Neither pork nor shellfish was served, but there was definitely some mixing of meat and dairy (a no-no). What mattered most to us were the gathering of relatives and the appreciation of traditions and customs as we knew them.

Holiday meals were rituals. We put the extra leaves in the dining room table, placed pads on top and set it with a lace tablecloth and damask napkins, delicate crystal stemware, freshly polished silver and my mother's Lenox Starlight china. We respected the solemn aspect of each particular occasion: for instance, that Rosh Hashanah was the New Year, but also the Day of Judgment that preceded the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

Things always began on a serious note, with all the proper prayers said, but inevitably degenerated to the point where my grandmother admonished my grandfather for being shikker (drunk) and entreated him to cease running his finger around the edge of his water glass to "stop that god-awful ringing!" My brother invariably was banished from the table and sent to his room for one reason or another.

The mainstays rarely varied: relish trays, jarred gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, pot-roasted brisket, mashed potatoes and a cake whose texture resembled that of dirt. One thing always struck me: The humble nature of the fare never matched the splendor of the beautifully staged set. A bowl of broth with a giant sponge ball in the middle can look a little ridiculous in a delicate, two-handled soup bowl painted all over with little flowers.

Thanks to the recent resurgence in Julia Child's popularity, I felt I could get away with upgrading our Rosh Hashanah dinner for 12; this year, the holiday begins at sundown on Friday. To me, those copies of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" flying off the shelves mean one thing: Home cooks are comfortable with the idea that doing things the right way takes more time and trouble than doing them the easy way.

So I used egg whites to lighten up spongy matzoh balls. I clarified and reduced rich chicken stock and thickened it with a roux, turning matzoh ball soup into chicken veloute with matzoh quenelles and a crisped shiitake mushroom garnish. For the main course, I stuck with brisket but stuffed it with apricots, dates and caramelized onions (and pine nuts; keep reading), rolled and tied it, grill-seared it and smoked it over hickory wood for an hour before braising it with red wine and pomegranate molasses.

For side dishes, I opted for understated elegance: parsleyed, turned (peeled and pared into many-sided orbs) Yukon Gold potatoes, grilled asparagus, green beans tossed with lemon zest and tarragon leaves. Round challah (rather than the usual oblong braided loaf), symbolizing continuity and the cycle of life, was a given.

My apple-carrot Tatin cake brings together elements of two classics -- tarte Tatin and carrot cake -- in one spectacular upside-down dessert. Granny Smith apples are caramelized with dark brown sugar and honey in the fashion of a tarte Tatin, then topped with a carrot cake batter infused with cardamom, cinnamon and orange zest. It's a breeze to put together, which frees up time to work on other components.

Many of the meal's ingredients are foods customarily eaten for Rosh Hashanah. (Thanks to Web sites such as http://www.hagshama.org and http://www.ou.org, I was able to bolster my spotty knowledge.) Apples, honey and other sweet foods reflect the desire to have the prayer "May it be Your will to renew us for a good and sweet year" be answered. There are 613 commandments in the Torah that Jews are to fulfill and, supposedly, 613 seeds in every pomegranate. The Hebrew word for "green bean" derives from the verb "to increase" and therefore speaks to the hope for an abundant new year.

Once I had riddled my menu with nuts (pine nuts in the brisket stuffing and pecans in the dessert), I discovered that many Jews avoid them on Rosh Hashanah because the numeric value of the words for "nut" and "sin" in Hebrew is the same. Those who follow that custom may omit the nuts for this occasion, but I suggest leaving them in otherwise. My menu is suitable for any holiday meal or just a lovely fall or winter dinner party. (If dairy were not an issue, I would add some vanilla or, better yet, honey ice cream to the gooey, honey-caramel goodness of the apple-crowned dessert.)


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