Interview'It is the noblest, most challenging cut'

Any way you slice it, from delicatessen to BBQ smoker, this meat is a cut above

Culinary master Steven Raichlen’s new history-meets-cookbook, ‘The Brisket Chronicles,’ is a love affair with a carnivorous delicacy that’s as delicious as it is tough to perfect

Illustrative: Texas style brisket Tuesday, June 14, 2005, in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Illustrative: Texas style brisket Tuesday, June 14, 2005, in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

From pastrami to the Reuben sandwich, many Jewish-Americans have had a long-lasting love affair with brisket. There’s just something about all those thin slices of beef slathered with mustard and squeezed between two pieces of rye bread that makes waiting in line at the deli counter so worthwhile.

Yet these classics are just some of many ways meat-lovers across the world savor brisket — including barbecue. With barbecue season in full swing, it’s an opportune time to take a look at BBQ expert Steven Raichlen’s new book, “The Brisket Chronicles: How to Barbecue, Braise, Smoke, and Cure the World’s Most Epic Cut of Meat.”

“It’s the biggest piece of beef most of us will ever cook, especially if you start with a whole cut,” Raichlen recently told The Times of Israel. “Unlike steak, which takes a couple of minutes, [brisket] takes half a day to cook. It has a very big flavor. And it’s relatively affordable.”

Formed from the chest muscles of a steer, brisket has another quality that intrigues Raichlen — “roots and gravitas,” he said. It was first noted (as “bru-kette”) in an English-Latin dictionary from 1450. The first published brisket recipe came out seven years before the founding of the United States in the 18th century. Ashkenazi Jews made delectable brisket dishes in the Old Country before bringing them to the New World.

Readers will learn about the namesake of the Reuben sandwich, and the affinity both Jewish-Americans and Irish-Americans have for corned beef. As for pastrami, there are recipes from two icons of New York: an Old School version from Katz’s Deli and a New School approach from Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co.

Raichlen details the pastrami origin story in the Ottoman Empire, and a tale of two Romanian cousins who immigrated to two separate venues — New York City and Montreal — where they helped popularize, respectively, pastrami and smoked meat.

Sliced barbecue brisket from ‘The Brisket Chronicles’ by Steven Raichlen. (Courtesy Raichlen)

Raichlen, who grew up in a Jewish-American family in Baltimore, is perhaps best known for his expertise on barbecue, which he has covered in award-winning, bestselling books including “How to Grill,” and on his TV shows such as “Project Fire.” His book tour for “The Brisket Chronicles” began on May 1, the start of National Barbecue Month in the US, with his first stop being the State of Texas High School BBQ Championship on May 3-4. (May also included another barbecue holiday, in Israel: Lag b’Omer.) Two months later came July 4, which he said is the biggest grilling holiday of the year.

“What intrigued me was the notion of a cut of meat that in barbecue circles is the noblest, most challenging cut of meat you can barbecue,” Raichlen said.

Yet the story goes beyond barbecue, he added: “So many other cultures have so many other dishes — Irish corned beef, Jewish pastrami, Vietnamese pho [noodle soups, pronounced “fuh”]. All of these start with brisket.”

A world of meat

Steven Raichlen on the set of ‘Project Fire.’ (Courtesy Raichlen)

The book’s 50 recipes include something for everyone.

“If you have a charcoal-burning grill or smoker, I would say barbecue brisket is the Holy Grail,” Raichlen said. “If you are a cook who is very indoors or has a condo, with no grill, or who has a gas grill, there’s a ‘braised’ chapter, with brisket with red wine from France, and with onions and beer from Belgium and Germany.”

There are recipes for pho — “the national dish of Vietnam,” Raichlen said. “The most important part is the broth… Brisket gives the broth backbone… It’s hard to imagine Vietnam without pho, without brisket.” And, he said, “pho is one of those dishes that takes so long, so much work to make, that there’s rarely a bad pho. There’s good, better, best.”

Asked about the most surprising recipe in the book, Raichlen mentioned the Korean style direct grilled brisket. Unlike the “common convention” of cooking brisket “over low heat for a very, very long period of time,” he said, “in Korea they figured out a way to go from start to finish in minutes, freezing it, cutting it paper-thin and direct grilling brisket on a hibachi.”

There’s brisket butter and brisket broth. And there are even several vegetarian recipes, including cucumber salads, one of which is served with pastrami and another that accompanies the Korean direct grilled brisket.

Vietnamese crispy brisket salad from ‘The Brisket Chronicles’ by Steven Raichlen. (Courtesy Raichlen)

Raichlen loves that readers can have their brisket morning, noon and night. “You can eat it for breakfast as hash or tacos, lunch with so many sandwiches, even eat it for dessert,” he said.

Many have likely not had a brisket chocolate-chip cookie (the final recipe of the book). But the sandwiches have become deli staples, and here Raichlen reveals some potential surprises.

According to Raichlen, “pastrami” originated as a Turkish word, “basturma,” used in the Ottoman Empire to refer to spice-cured meat. The recipe traveled to Romania, where chefs added garlic and made it with goose. As Romanians immigrated to New York, the name of the dish evolved to “pastroma” and then “pastrami.”

One Romanian immigrant who played a key role was a butcher who heat-cured his meat, crusted it with coriander and pepper and smoked it; we know it as pastrami. His cousin, also a butcher, immigrated to Montreal, where he dry-cured his meat, crusted it with spice and smoked it — hence the name “smoked meat.”

“Taste them side by side, we think they’re the same,” Raichlen said.

In the immigration era, both the Irish and Jews looked for new beginnings in America. Irish-Americans would introduce a new dish to the national menu — corned beef. First mentioned in a 13th-century Irish epic poem, it has a “bittersweet story,” Raichlen said.

As he explained, “England occupied Ireland, English merchants owned big herds of cattle, and the Irish were historically too poor to eat beef and veal. The English owned factories of Irish beef. Corned beef was shipped to all four corners of the English empire.”

Half corned beef, half pastrami at 2nd Avenue Deli, in Midtown, New York. (Shimmie Pesis/Times of Israel)

As a response to the British historically sending corned beef everywhere but the place where it originated, “to this day, the Irish [in Ireland] don’t eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day,” Raichlen said. “Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating take on the life of how it got to the US.”

Comfort food

Brisket in all its forms has been part of Raichlen’s life since his childhood in Baltimore. He remembers it being served at Friday night dinners, and on Rosh Hashanah there was his Aunt Annette’s brisket with dried fruits — “a thing of glory and magnificence,” he calls it, sharing the recipe with readers.

His first post-college job was at a deli, where he cured his own meat. He received culinary training — and researched medieval European cooking — in France, learning how to make boeuf à la mode with red wine and bacon-braised brisket. Returning to the US, he lived in Boston and experienced the corned beef of its Irish-American community. Then he traveled to Southeast Asia to report on pho for National Geographic.

“In a fashion, it’s my autobiography,” he said of the book. “I spent the last year-and-a-half writing, but actually my whole life I’ve been doing writing and research.”

Brisket hot out of the smoker, from ‘The Brisket Chronicles’ by Steven Raichlen. (Courtesy Raichlen)

He’s ready to share what he’s learned over that span.

“[Brisket] has such mystique, so many elements,” Raichlen said. “You have to get the fire right, the timing, the seasoning, the carving right on two muscle meat fibers perpendicular to each other — it’s very challenging to do that.”

One section of the book describes how to use all five senses to detect “a perfect brisket.” For example, he writes, a slice “should be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers — but not so soft that it falls apart.” And, he notes, “The meat will taste beefy and smoky (though not necessarily in that order) — satisfyingly meaty and luscious with rendered brisket fat.”

‘The Brisket Chronicles’ by Steven Raichlen. (Courtesy Raichlen)

When Raichlen is not making brisket himself, he’s savoring it at restaurants, from Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas, to Attman’s Delicatessen in Baltimore. (Of the latter, he said, “nobody has a better corned beef.”) For pastrami, he likes Harry and Ida’s, along with another New York mainstay, Pastrami Queen — while for smoked meat, it’s Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal. His top pho places are Hanoi House in New York and Pho Pasteur in Ho Chi Minh City.

He regrets the closure of a longtime New York destination, the Carnegie Deli. “I went there as a kid,” he recalled. “My mother lived [in New York] for a while.” Further downtown, he said, “Katz’s is interesting. Their pastrami is actually beef navel. But their corned beef is with brisket. Their corned beef is excellent.”

It sounds like Raichlen is already anticipating his next serving of brisket — as are many of his fellow Americans, including some who will do that right in their own backyards.

“It’s affordable, democratic, and it does require this time and patience to cook,” Raichlen said. “That’s what makes it so special.”

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