Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mexican Brisket in the Style of Syrian Jews

I am not a competitive person.  Last year, one of my birthday dinners was prepared by my friend Jay and it was the Mexican brisket recipe that I blogged on last November.  So, when they came for a birthday Shabbat dinner last Friday (his wife's birthday is the same week as mine), I had to prepare a better Mexican-style brisket.

This recipe is 100% inauthentic.  It was inspired by a broadcast in March 27, 2010 of the Splendid Table, when  Lynne Rossetto Kasper interviewed Patty Jinich about the Jewish cooking of Mexico.  Amongst other things, they discussed the happy marriage of Mexican and Jewish cooking, especially the cooking of Jews from Syria.  Mexico City has a significant Syrian Jewish community,  and I thought that it would be fun to try a brisket in this style.  So, I used tamarind, apricots and allspice, very typical of Syrian food, along with ancho and mulato chilies and other Mexican herbs and spices. The recipes in the back of my mind when I prepared this were Jennifer Abadi's Chicken with Apricots from A Fistful of Lentils, and Diane Kennedy's Pollo Enchilado from her Mexican Regional Cooking.  I don't think that cooking and serving a whole brisket is typical of either Mexican cooking or Syrian Jewish food, but it works well here and the long cooking allows the meat to absorb all the flavors. Modesty aside (blogs are not the place for modesty), it was magnificent.  Jay said that this was better than his. But then, I'm not competitive.

If anyone is actually familiar with the cooking of Mexican and/or Syrian Jews, I would love to hear your reaction. 

Mexican Brisket in the Style of Syrian Jews

  • 3-4 pound brisket, top-of-rib roast or similar cut (fatty second cut brisket is probably best -- this is soul food, not health food)
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 6 dried chiles, a combination of ancho and mulato
  • 25 almonds with the skin on
  • 4 cloves
  • 8 black peppercorns
  • 1 stick Mexican cinnamon (see below)
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped
  • salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (if unavailable, substitute a teaspoon of paprika and a pinch of cayenne)
  • 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes (I use Muir Glen fire roasted)
  • 3/4 cup tamarind paste (or substitute 1-2 tablespoons concentrate -- see below)
  • 1-2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup dried apricots
  • 6-8 whole medium potatoes, peeled (medium starchy rather than waxy or russet is what I used)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat the oil in a large skillet or roasting pan, and brown the meat on high.  Since the shape will be irregular, it will not become uniformly brown.  Don't sweat it.
  3. Meanwhile, toast the chilies lightly on a cast iron skillet.  Snip them open with kitchen scissors and remove as many of the seeds and veins as you can.  
  4. Remove the meat from the skillet to a roasting pan or a plate, and saute the chilies in the fat remaining on medium heat.  They will become slightly crisp.  Be careful not to burn or they will become bitter. Remove to a blender.  
  5. Add the almond, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon to the skillet and saute gently until they swell and the spices become aromatic.  Add to the blender.
  6. Add the onions to the skillet, salt lightly and saute until soft but not brown. Add the allspice, oregano, thyme and Aleppo pepper and saute a few minutes until aromatic.
  7. Add the tomatoes, tamarind, brown sugar, Worcestershire and a teaspoon of salt and simmer about 3 minutes to combine.  Taste the sauce which should be balanced between sweet, sour and salty, with the sour notes dominating since the apricots and chilies will add additional sweetness.  Correct seasonings with more tamarind, salt, brown sugar or Worcestershire to taste.  Add to the blender.
  8. Blend until well pureed.  It may take a few minutes and  need a little coaxing, but you should do OK if you work your way up from a slow to high speed.  I find that a good blender does a much better job than a food processor at breaking down the chilies and cinnamon stick.
  9. Put a little sauce on the bottom of a large flattish roasting pan.  Put the meat on top and the potatoes around.  Top with the apricots and pour the rest of the sauce over it.  Cover the dish with foil or a cover if it comes with one.
  10. Put the dish in the oven, turn the heat down to 325, and bake for 3-4 hours until the meat is very tender.  Check about an hour before done and add a bit of boiling water if the sauce looks like it is starting to scorch.
  11. Slice meat against the grain and on an angle, and  return to the sauce, and keep warm until you serve.  This is nice served with just challah and the potatoes which absorb lots of flavor from the sauce.  If you don't make it on Shabbat, corn tortillas would be very welcome.  It would also go well with rice or with sliced grilled polenta.  This quantity will serve 6 people generously.
Caution:  The sauce is delicious but dangerous to all kinds of fabrics.  It is similar to a class of moles called manchamanteles which  are made with chilies and fruit and translates literally as "table cloth stainers."  Believe it. My wife and I honeymooned in Mexico (Mexico City, Oaxaca and San Miguel D'Allende) and we ruined an article of clothing every day of our trip because of the chili sauces.  Perhaps the future of indelible inks lies in the combination of chilies and lipids.

Make ahead notes:  Unless you want to spend all day in the kitchen, this dish is best made in advance. Add a bit of boiling water before you reheat it to thin the sauce a bit and prevent scorching. Leave the meat whole.  I find that when people prepare a brisket in advance and slice it before letting it sit and reheating it, it tastes like leftovers and is a waste of effort.  You can also cook it for 2 hours the first day and another two the day you plan to serve it. However, it takes a long time for the meat to come up to cooking temperature if it has spent the night in the refrigerator.    The leftovers are great with soft corn tortillas.

Cinnamon: Mexicans are very particular about their cinnamon, which they call canela and is also known as true cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon.  What we generally call cinnamon is actually cassia.   (Who knew?) True cinnamon is milder, sweeter, and much softer.  Cassia is harder and sharper.  Almost all ground cinnamon sold in American groceries is cassia, unless it is labeled otherwise.  If you cannot find true cinnamon, I would use 1 teaspoon of ground regular cinnamon (cassia) and add it with the other ground spices to the sauteed onions.

Tamarind:  Syrian Jews would generally use a sauce of tamarind and sugar that you prepare yourself or buy in a few stores in Brooklyn or Mexico City.  You can also use prepared tamarind paste, which is even available heckshered now, or make your own which is not that hard.  Take a block of tamarind (available in Indian and Southeast Asian groceries) about the size of an egg and put in in a container with 1 cup of water, cover and zap in the microwave for 5 minutes.  Let it sit until cool, and the press the liquid and paste though a wire strainer, leaving the seeds and other debris behind.  This doesn't take long and is rather therapeutic, and should give you the right amount for this recipe.  You can always add more Worcestershire, which is tamarind based.  A concentrate like Tamcom would be a last resort for me.

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