31 March 2010

Meemaw's Tzimmes

There are some foods we love simply because someone we care for deeply makes them for us. I can think of no better explanation for the fact that I always ate my grandmother’s tzimmes, and loved it, despite being a strict vegetarian for my entire childhood and young adulthood (not for health-related or political reasons, mind you, but a natural distaste for meat). It didn’t hurt, of course, that Meemaw’s tzimmes was also incredibly delicious.

Tzimmes (roughly pronounced sim-mus), is a classic example of European Jewish peasant food—some meat, cooked with some garlic and onion, and stewed for a long time with potatoes, readily available veggies, and maybe some fruit for sweetness. It is simple, honest food that is a comfort to eat and an inexpensive, satisfying meal in one bowl. You would never know it was so simple, however, given its esteemed and sacred position in my family.

We only eat tzimmes at Passover. Let me rephrase that…We used to eat tzimmes at Passover. Someone will probably correct me on this but I really don’t believe it’s been a part of our seder meal for about a decade now, ever since Meemaw, the keeper of all tzimmes secrets, got sick with cancer and passed way. As she was getting older, Meemaw started writing down her recipes and even gave both of her daughters-in-law a handwritten cookbook that included a recipe for tzimmes (as well one for pistachio gelatin salad—a dish apparently in her repertoire which I, sadly, never had the opportunity to sample). Referring to this list of measurement-less ingredients and the sketchy outline of steps that followed as a recipe was really pushing it, however. Perhaps because of the recipe’s lack of precision, but more likely because of the missing singular ingredient (Meemaw), the few attempts family members have made to cook the dish without her always seemed lackluster.

This week while home preparing for Passover I had a strong urge to try my hand at it. Now there’s nothing, really, in my cooking ‘career’ to have led me to believe with much confidence that I could pull off even a passably similar rendition of my grandmother’s fabled dish. First of all, I don’t cook beef (the star ingredient in Meemaw’s tzimmes although some people make vegetarian or chicken versions). Also, unlike other members of the family, I never really paid much attention to what Meemaw was doing in the kitchen, I guess simply because I had not yet developed my own interest in all things culinary while she was alive. So I went into this with a few handicaps, which makes what I’m about to tell you even more remarkable, or perhaps proof of some kind of ghostly intervention from the other side…I made Meemaw’s tzimmes and it was good. Really good.

So good, in fact, that I am going to record my own more detailed version of her recipe here for you, as well as for myself, as a guideline to follow when I try making it again next Passover (or maybe at some other special occasion—some things, after all, must remain sacred). Although the recipe is more detailed, please keep in mind that I have only made this once, with a great degree of trepidation and guesswork and not a whole lot of scientific method, so things might still seem a bit vague and imprecise. Which brings us to the other secret of Meemaw’s tzimmes: it’s a pretty resilient dish and difficult to royally screw up. I’d recommend sticking fairly close to the list of ingredients (don’t throw anything green in there, for G-Ds sake!), but otherwise you can do this to taste, varying amounts here and there as you like. One of the greatest revelations to come out of this process for me, for example, came from deviating from Meemaw’s fuzzy directions to cook the thing on top of the stove (where, according to my mom, she would potchke (mess) with it incessantly) and, instead, cooking it mostly in the oven. In other words, you have my permission to take creative license, as long as you cook it with love. For I think it’s love, cheesy as it may seem, that is the true secret ingredient in Meemaw’s tzimmes, and thankfully, it’s in steady supply and knows no measurements.

Meemaw’s Tzimmes

Recipe inspired by Betty Lee Mason, the inimitable Meemaw

Shout out to Mark Mason for (re)interpreting the recipe and guiding me through the foreign land of beef cookery-thanks Dad!

About 10 or 12 main course servings

1 medium brisket, preferably grass-fed, local, organic, petted-every-day beef (I used a 5.5 lb brisket); you don’t want one that’s trimmed as the ‘fat cap’ is essential to the dish’s, um, lusciousness.

1 large onion, diced plus another ½ an onion for grating with the potato

3 large potatoes (I used plain old baking potatoes), peeled

2 sweet potatoes, peeled, quartered and cut into chunks (maybe 2 inch chunks—not too small otherwise they will just turn to mush)

1 lb. carrots, sliced into rounds (again not too small)

1.5 cups pitted prunes (or to taste)

1 tablespoon or so canola or other high-heat oil

3 cups hot water

1 tablespoon honey

4 tablespoons brown sugar

¼ teaspoon cinnamon (or more to taste—I’m not a big fan of cinnamon so I used a small amount)

4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered

salt & pepper to taste

optional: 1-2 cups red wine

Use a paring knife to pierce brisket and insert garlic pieces all over on both sides. Salt and pepper the meat. On the stove, over medium-high heat, place a heavy dutch oven large enough to hold the meat in one layer (you can also cut the brisket into two pieces, brown them separately, and then rotate them frequently during cooking to ensure even cooking). You can also use a deep roasting pan with a tight fitting lid. Add oil to the warm pan and brown meat for several minutes on both sides (it’s important not to mess with the meat too much while browning in order to get a good crust on it—when it’s fully browned it will release easily from the bottom of the pan). Remove meat from pan, leaving drippings and add diced onion, stirring until softened. Add optional red wine to the onions or a bit of water and deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom with your spoon to release all the good stuff. Return the meat to the pan, cover, and cook over medium heat for about an hour, stirring about every 15 minutes and making sure nothing’s burning.

While brisket cooks do the following:

-preheat oven to 350

-grate the potatoes and ½ onion (Meemaw certainly did this by hand but I used the grater attachment on my cuisinart). Mix together with salt (maybe 1 teaspoon?) and pepper and cover with a thin layer of flour (or matzoh meal if it’s Passover).

-mix honey, brown sugar, and cinnamon into the hot water (this is the liquid you will braise and baste with)

After about an hour of cooking, add about 1-2 cups of the sugar water mixture, cover, and put the whole thing in the oven to cook for about another hour, checking periodically to baste with accumulated cooking liquid or add more if it’s drying out.

When you’ve hit the two hour total cooking mark, remove from oven, pull out the brisket and place on a plate. Form slightly compact balls of the grated potato, squeezing out any excess liquid, and then place them in the hot fat/liquid at the bottom of the baking dish—try not to stir or disturb these grated potatoes during the rest of the cooking process so that they can sit there, gathering fat and flavor and forming a golden brown crust. Return the meat to the dish, covering the grated potatoes and then place the carrots, sweet potato, and prunes on top, adding another cup or so of the sugar water mixture. Cover and return to oven and cook for about another 2 hours, checking frequently (every 15-30 minutes) to stir the vegetables and baste the whole thing with liquid accumulating in the pan. Occasionally flip the meat, especially if you have it cooking in layers. I had plenty of liquid in the pan but if yours seems to dry out and risk burning toward the end of cooking, add some water. You should taste the veggies and cooking liquid too so you can be sure it’s seasoned to your liking.

After about 4 hours of cooking time the meat should be very tender. Remove the whole dish from the oven and pull out the brisket, tenting on a plate with foil for about 10 minutes or until cool enough to slice. Slice across grain with sharp knife and return to pan with vegetables. Season w/ salt & pepper to taste. If you ended up with a lot of liquid, return the whole thing to a 325 degree oven, uncovered, for about ½ an hour. The final result should be a stewy but not soupy tzimmes.

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