The winter holidays are upon us. Oh joy! In our house, that means scrambling to find gifts my kids might actually need and making brisket and applesauce from scratch and latkes out of the box.
I know it’s heresy to use potato pancake mix and many of you foodies out there are probably gathering your potatoes and onions already. Go ahead. I have spent many nights, whipping out the food processor, peeling the potatoes, slicing them up so they fit down the chute, letting the processor grate them into mushy bits and then spooning them into a pan of hot oil, exhausted but secure in the knowledge in that I have peeled the potatoes myself and my family might love me more for it. But I’ve found that my kids can’t tell the difference between homemade latkes and Manischewitz, and neither can I. (If you can tell, a decent recipe for homemade latkes is below.)
Over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, I’d rather make homemade applesauce and that meat dish beloved to frugal winter cooks everywhere, long-simmering brisket. (This recipe appeals to all religions. My Irish Catholic stepfather loves it with horseradish.) Brisket takes several hours to cook but then it’s good for at least two or three dinners. Plus, there are always leftovers and brisket freezes beautifully so you can have it again next week.
Homemade applesauce is a delicious, old-fashioned wonder. Last winter, a woman I worked with gave me her grandmother's recipe. R. worked as a translator in a news reporting class I taught at Montclair State. There was a student in the class who was hard of hearing, and the university gave this student a translator. R. typed out everything discussed in class and put it up on a computer screen, so if the hearing-impaired student missed something, she could read it on the screen. When I first heard from R., she warned that I should prepare myself because having a hard-of-hearing student in the class would mean a lot of extra work. I would have to send her definitions, hand-outs and assignments ahead of time, so she would know how to spell what we talked about, and we would be meeting frequently during office hours. I braced myself. I was an adjunct and already overworked and underpaid.
As it turned out, the hard-of-hearing student was one of the best students in the class. She was smart, funny and punk; she dyed her hair interesting colors and pierced different parts of her face. She also turned out to be an excellent writer and outstanding reporter. And R. was fantastic. She periodically worked at our synagogue, translating for hard-of-hearing congregants on the High Holidays, so we often talked about the Jewish holidays. One day, she sent me her Grandma Sally's applesauce recipe. I printed it out and thought about making it, but also got a jar of apple sauce out of the pantry just in case. Then I looked closely at Grandma Sally's recipe. It was obviously recorded with love. I made it, and so should you.
The brisket recipe I learned in 1999, when we first moved back to town and I took a principles of cooking class at , The four women who taught the class were beyond delightful but the one I remember the best was the one who taught us this brisket recipe. Her name was Kathleen Sanderson. She was a cheerful, blonde, middle-aged Mom, who took cooking seriously but didn't yell at us for making mistakes. I think I have made this recipe at least 100 times in the last twelve years. The addition of the half bottle of chili sauce comes from my Mom.
Note: The beauty of this brisket recipe is that this is where your old brown sugar goes to die. Keep that block of brown sugar and don't worry if it's hard as a rock. Cut off a couple of inches and throw it in the pot with the meat. It will melt quickly and smell wonderful. And don't stress about whether you have exactly the right number of tablespoons or not. Too much brown sugar is never a bad thing. Also, Rao's marinara sauce works really well in this recipe. It may seem a little crazy to buy a cheap cut of meat and then pour an expensive jar of tomato sauce on top of it but good meals, like life, are almost always combinations of highs and lows.
R.'s Grandma Sally's Recipe for Apple Sauce
Rome apples, cored. I leave skins on. Sit them in big pot. Can usually fit four or five apples in. Makes maybe two to three cups of sauce.
Put water about 1/3 up apples - trick is to check water - better to have less than more as apples have a lot of their own water. After 15-20 minutes, check with fork - apples start to soften - I help them along, break them down. It is chunky, so get the family ready for a new taste sensation if they're used to creamy.
As apples break down more and more, stir and pray...just when it is the consistency you like, sprinkle cinnamon, add a pinch or two of nutmeg and a give it a final stir or two.
Potato Pancakes (Latkes)
2 pounds baking potatoes, Russet or Idaho (peeled or unpeeled - I don’t peel them)
1 onion, chopped
Salt and pepper (use liberally, there are a lot of potatoes here.)
2 tablespoons plain breadcrumbs or matzoh meal (I used matzoh meal.)
Canola oil or vegetable oil (I have used both.)
Turn oven to 200 degrees. (For warming)
Grate potatoes by hand or use grating disk in food processor. Drain in colander. Grate the onion. Mix together.
Beat eggs in a bowl. Add salt, pepper and matzoh meal/breadcrumbs. Stir in potatoes and onion,
Heat two large frying pans, add about 1/8 inch of oil to each pan (you will be making a lot of latkes.) When oil is hot, drop potato pancake batter on it with a large spoon or a quarter cup measuring cup. Let latkes cook for ten minutes each side. Drain pancakes on paper towel and keep them warm in the oven until you're done cooking. Enjoy.
Braised Brisket of Beef (Adapted from King’s Cooking Studio)
4-5 lbs beef, brisket. 1st cut
1/2 cup flour
fresh ground black pepper
vegetable oil, as needed
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2-3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2-3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
16 ounces marinara sauce (Rao's works well)
2-3 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Half bottle chili sauce
3/4-1 cup water, boiling
2 bay leaves
1/2-3/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
2-3 onions, Bermuda variety is nice and so is Spanish, cut into 1/2 inch slices
Bag of baby carrots (optional but yummy)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Wipe the brisket with damp paper toweling.
Combine flour, kosher salt and pepper and dredge the meat in the seasoned flour. (Note: I skip the flour and it is just as good.)
Heat the oil in large roasting pan with a cover (a thin blue enamel roaster is fine- just make sure it is an oven-proof pot and has a lid.)
Brown the meat, starting fat side down, on both sides to seal in the juices.
Spread the garlic over the top of the meat, pour the vinegar over, letting it drip into the pan, then add all the remaining ingredients, except the onions.
Bring to a slow boil, basting the meat until the ingredients are blended.
Cover the pan and place the meat in the oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hours until meat is almost tender, continuing to baste occasionally, adding small amount of boiling water as needed.
Toward the end of the braising time, lay the onions in a single layer over the top of the meat. Extra onions may be placed around the meat; baste with the gravy, cover the pan and return to the oven for about 20 more minutes or until the onions are tender.
Adjust the seasonings.
Let meat stand for 1/2 an hour at room temperature before slicing against the grain.