Annie’s Wine Baked Brisket and the Multi-Cultural Collaboration That Became a St. Patrick’s Day Tradition

Cows are sacred, salt is expensive, cross the sea trading is prohibited and immigrants had to get to New York. In a nut shell, those are the four substantial situations that had to occur in order to bring brisket to your dining tables today. Happy St. Patrick’s Day dear readers!   Today’s post is all about a traditional Irish food that actually is, in reality, a multi-cultural collaboration between three countries.  While it is certain that many a crock-pot will be simmering away today in honor of the holiday, and the famous corned beef and cabbage that has become associated with it, you might be surprised to learn that the propulsion for this traditional heritage food actually has more to do with New York City than Ireland.

The Kerry cow is considered to be the oldest breed of cattle in Ireland.

It all started back in Ireland’s ancient times when cows were considered sacred animals. Valued for their milk and their strength over anything else, Irish cows were essential components to a working farm and were never considered a viable meat source. But England adored beef, particularly roasts, so much so that by the 1600’s, England couldn’t keep up with their own country’s supply and demand.  So they went to Ireland to see about some cows.

A good revenue stream for the Emerald Isle, and a can’t-live-without-it commodity for England, this cow commerce between countries was mutually beneficial for all.  That is until the Cattle Acts of the 1660’s. In an instant, thanks to the Act, the sale of live cows to England was no longer allowed.  The sudden halt in commerce left Ireland scrambling for a solution and left England grumbly with hungry bellies.  This all came about at a time when salt was also an extremely expensive ingredient in England. Ireland, on the other hand, was not only flush with cattle but also abundant with coastal salt pans. The combination of these two  riches formed a clever way for Ireland to package meat for export that skirted around the law. They created a new method of food preservation called corned beef – a salted meat product that could withstand time and travel to England without spoiling.

Coming from the brisket cut of the cow (located between the front knees and the shoulder area) this salt infused food was named corned beef because of the corn kernal-sized salt crystals used in preserving it.  Generally known as a tougher piece of meat since that area of a cow’s body gets quite a lot of exercise, early corned beef was essentially just a slab of meat that was rumored to taste more like salt than beef.

Commercial Cuts of Beef chart from the Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, 1967 edition

Because it was shelf stable, easy to prepare and came in bigger portions, corned beef became a popular staple in the diets of 18th century Englanders as well as sailors away at sea for long stretches of time. It even made its way into the diets of Early American colonists who were struggling to produce food for their new country. The only people who were not enjoying this salty slice of protein were the Irish, who, in a terrible twist of irony, couldn’t afford to buy the very product they were exporting.

Newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It would take one more century and a move to America before Irish immigrants were able to afford and enjoy the corned beef that made their home country famous. In the mid-late 1800’s, a majority of the butcher shops within the New York metropolitan area were owned and operated by Jewish immigrants.

The Lustgarten family owned a Jewish butcher shop in NYC in the late 1880’s. Photo courtesy of tenement.org

Living in close knit communities, both Irish and Jewish transplants bonded over feelings of displacement and discrimination experienced in their new world. Financial resources were a challenge for most city dwellers, but especially for these two ethnic groups in-particular, as they faced prejudices in work and social environments. Luckily, food brought them together via thrift and necessity and novelty.

Market shopping along NYC’s Mulberry Street in 1900

Upon arriving in America, Irish immigrants were delighted to discover that corned beef was much less expensive in New York then it was back home in Ireland. Likewise,  Jewish immigrants liked brisket because it was one of the least expensive cuts in the butcher shop and could feed a crowd.  Through experimentation in their New York City kitchens,  Jewish and Irish newcomers developed the low, slow cooking methods that eventually evolved brisket from a salty slab of preserved meat into a rich and flavorful meal.  Cabbage was often paired with it since it was the least expensive vegetable. Both cultures developed their own trademark dishes – slow simmered corned beef and cabbage for the Irish and smoked pastrami and sauerkraut for the Jewish community. Each specialty stemmed from the humble brisket cut.

Beef Chart from the Culinary Arts Encyclopedic Cookbook circa 1948

Today’s recipe focuses on the Jewish side of cooking, with a brisket that quickly browns in butter on the stove top before heading into the oven for a slow simmer in red wine. If you are not a fan of the saltiness of traditional corned beef, or are wary of the seasoning packet that comes in most store-bought brisket kits, this recipe is a great alternative, since you can control your own level of spices. It comes from Annie, an avid cook, and a world traveler who lived in New York for most of her life. A dear friend to my father, she’s proud of her Jewish heritage and is famous for many signature dishes including homemade horseradish (more on that in a future post).

Annie sent this recipe to my dad over email 15 years ago while she  was at sea traveling between Buenos Aires and Santiago.  The trip was rough with wild waves and cold temperatures but Annie was more than happy to take a few moments to share her way of making brisket. In our modern age, email letters aren’t quite as pretty as handwritten ones – but the sentiment is there nonetheless. My dad has hung onto her correspondence for over a decade and a half. I discovered it recently, tucked inside one of his favorite cookbooks.

Although it requires two days to make, it is very simple and involves just a few ingredients. I used grass-fed beef from the farmers market and a red wine blend called Sheep Thrills for the fun pun. Also, Annie cooks like James Beard recommends – with your intuition – so she doesn’t specify in her recipe exactly how much seasoning to use. In the directions, I share my method, but you may want to add more or less depending on your preference.

Annie’s Wine Soaked Beef Brisket

4-5lb beef brisket ( I used a 3.5 lb grass-fed beef brisket)

4 tablespoons butter (only necessary if using grass-fed beef)

6-7 onions

4 stalks celery

2 bay leaves

2 cups red wine

Onion Powder

Garlic Powder

Celery Salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the brisket from the packaging and let rest on the counter for 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you are using frozen grass-fed beef make sure that it has completely thawed in the fridge before beginning this recipe. Do not trim the fat from the brisket.

Seasonings with dots of butter on top before the flip to brown the other side.

In an ovenproof pan (preferably one that has a lid) over medium high heat, add the butter (but only if using grass-fed beef, otherwise omit the butter). Generously sprinkle each side of the meat with the onion and garlic powders and the celery salt (I did about five passes on each side with each of these seasonings). Brown the brisket, fat-side down, for 5 minutes on each side.

Roughly chop the onions and the celery and add them to the brisket pan.

Pour in the red wine and add the bay leaves. Cover and bake in oven for 2 to 3 hours or until the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees. (Note: Grass-fed beef cooks faster then grain-fed beef, so watch the temperature and time closely.  My 3.5 lb brisket came out exactly at the 2 hour mark.)

Let the brisket cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight it in the same pan that you cooked it in so that all the juices can soak back up into the meat.

The next day, remove the pan from the fridge and scoop off the top layer of fat.

Remove the onions and celery to a blender and mix until well combined. This will form a thin au jus style gravy which is delicious for dipping.

Transfer the au jus to a small saucepan and warm over medium heat. Next, thinly slice the brisket and serve cold or at room temperature alongside the au jus and/or with your favorite condiments like mustard, mayo or horseradish.

This style of brisket is perfect for French Dip style sandwiches served on crusty rolls. It also travels well for spring-time picnics and outdoor family gatherings. In Annie’s house it is a staple for many Jewish holiday celebrations.  Simple fare with a collaborative past, that’s the brisket in all its wonderful ways.

There is something lovely about Annie’s recipe that ties all the historical elements of the holiday into one tidy package. With its Irish and Jewish heritage,  its international transmittance and Annie’s New York roots, it feels like this recipe really embraces the spirit of the holiday. The parallels are endless. The recipe was written on a boat in the 2000’s featuring a food that was once eaten by sailors in the 1700’s. Annie lived in New York during the 20th century. The immigrants who helped perfect this style of cooking lived in New York in the 19th century. Annie is Jewish. The butchers who sold brisket cuts to the Irish in NYC were Jewish. Annie uses brisket to feed her family on Jewish holidays. The Irish-American community uses brisket to celebrate their national Catholic holiday.

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only for the Irish – it’s for everyone in America who hand a hand in building a country where people and food worked together to create new things and new traditions in a new land. Cheers to foods that continue to bring people together in surprising ways. And cheers to Annie for sharing her delicious brisket recipe.  Hope this St. Patrick’s Day is your most festive one yet!

Luther Burbank, The Reliable Russet and Everyone’s Favorite Way to Eat A French Fry {1970’s Style}

They come with names that sound like 1970’s rock bands… Bodega Red, Arran Victory, British Queen, Golden Wonder, Bellarosa.  Or like types of prize-winning chickens… German Butterball, Champion, Adirondack Red, Tyson.  Some even sound like certain breeds of dairy cows… Shetland Black, Royal Jersey, Blue Bell, Annabelle, Cream of the Crop.

But today we are not talking about chickens or cows or headliner music. Instead,  today we are talking about potatoes. All those names previously discussed are specific types of one of the most consumed foods on the planet- the noble and nourishing potato.  With more than 5,000 varieties in the world, you might think that it would be hard for one lone potato type to stand out in his vast tuber family of brown, round, knobby eyed dirt dwellers.  But there is actually one big-time celebrity in the batch – a spotlight stealer known around the world –  a superstar of the food and restaurant scene that represents the most frequently consumed potato on the planet.

It is my pleasure to present the story of the wondersously addictive potato variety known as the Burbank Russet. Haven’t heard of it, you say? Ah, but just you wait…you’ll know it. Maybe not by backstory but definitely by bite.

On Friday, it was National French Fry Day and we celebrated with a homemade batch of Russet potato french fries in honor of the guy who created them. Meet Luther Burbank, 19th-century American botanist extraordinaire…

Luther grew up in Massachusetts in the 1850’s playing with seed balls in his mother’s garden instead of playing with sports balls in his farm neighborhood. His interest in botany from the time he was a youngster fueled his curiosity for plant cultivation, a field of study that would eventually turn into a lifelong career. Throughout his childhood and into early adulthood, Luther tinkered around with seed starting and plant breeding.  Although it was a laboriously slow process, most often times ending up in disappointment, Luther came by this area of study naturally. His mother also shared his interest in gardening and the two of them would happily spend hours working in the garden, talking about the life stages of various plants.

The plant world was a playground to Luther, something that represented creativity and freedom from set rules and rigid disciplines. He had aspirations to one day have his own farm in California where he would grow vegetables and flowers for the retail market and try his hand at growing new breeds of plant life. In his early 20’s, he started experimenting with potatoes.  But developing a new variety wasn’t as easy as you might think.  Potatoes are peculiar things. They can be regenerated in two ways – through seeds or eyes. Either method produces similar results or slightly different results in the form of mutations or sports each time off-spring are generated.  It is difficult to determine at the onslaught of a growing project how the potatoes will turn out at the end of the project. More often than not the experimentation stage for Luther in trying to cultivate a new variety was long and finicky.

If you have never seen how a potato grows, this is a good illustration. Plant above the ground and lots of potatoes nestled together below ground. Image from the 1893 L.L.May & Company Seed Catalog featuring Northern Potatoes.

But in 1873 gratification came, finally, to Luther’s ruddy, soil-covered hands. One day in his 24th year, Luther went out into the field to dig his latest sample crop, half expecting to uncover the same old story of growing the exact same plant he started out trying not to grow. But this time, something was different.  Instead of digging up an ordinary round potato, Luther pulled a tuber out of the ground that was twice as big and twice as long. It was reddish-brown in color and hefty in weight. A totally different specimen than the parent potatoes he had started this most recent batch with.  Success at last! His first genuinely original new potato had emerged.

He christened this new masterpiece the Burbank Russet and immediately sold it for $125. Was that enough money for Luther to retire early to his California dream farmhouse and garden? Not quite yet, but that’s not important to this story.  Money never mattered to Luther, only the science that stood behind it. He made a new potato and that was pretty motivating stuff to keep his heart in the game and his hands in the soil.

Luther’s Burbank Russet was an exciting and innovative new addition to the agricultural market for its time because of its size. Almost twice as large as typical potatoes of that era, it also boasted an adaptable consistency (good for baking, mashing and frying) and was more disease resistant to common blights that affected many potato crops around the world. But after it was introduced in the late 1800’s, it took some time for the Burbank Russet to catch on. The US government initially started farming it in Oregon and from there it slowly spread to neighboring states and then the region and then the rest of the country.   Eventually, it became the best-loved potato cultivator in the US.

Russet potato farmers in 1940’s Idaho.

Farmers loved it because it was easy to grow and held up well in both shipping and storage. Once it became a successful and abundant crop, the food industry got on board. Its size, consistency and cooking adaptability made it an ideal food product for both general household consumers as well as commercial food companies and restaurants.

Although the actual cooking process of making French fries – cutting strips of potatoes and frying them in fat – had been around in France and Belgium since the 1700’s, it wasn’t until a valuable American discovery was made in the 1930’s that fries started to take hold as an American food staple. This important discovery was that french fries froze well and could be reheated easily while still maintaining the same shape, taste and texture.  In the early days of refrigeration, this was exciting!  This mere fact opened up opportunities for the retail, transportation and restaurant industries as french fries could now be shipped around the country in both frozen and fresh forms.

A midcentury newspaper ad for McDonald’s french fries.

By the time hamburger stands started popping up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, french fries became a main attraction at the drive-in burger stand as well as the family dinner table.

A vintage frozen french fry ad from the 1960’s. Photo courtesy of itsjustoldpaper on Etsy.

The novelty of enjoying french fries both at home and at restaurants offered plenty of potential in the form of culinary creativity.   In mid-century America, the common condiments for them were simple… ketchup (or catsup, however you prefer!) and salt.

A 1955 advertisement for French Fries featuring Hunt’s catsup.

But by the 1970’s, these little potato favorites were garnering more international gourmet attention. Common toppings and condiment companions of the disco-era included the following…

…paprika, cracked black pepper, parmesan cheese, malt vinegar, crushed herbs, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard,  salt and a special mayonnaise/mustard mixed combo variation. In addition to frying, it also became much more commonplace, especially in the latter decades of the 20th century, to oven bake freshly cut fries. This method of cooking was believed to be a “healthier” version since it involved less oil and a  tamer cooking experience (no vats of hot fat to contend with!) as opposed to traditional deep-fry methods.

Because a lot of people tend to think it is easier to go to a fast food restaurant and buy a serving or two of fries or grab a box of frozen ones from the grocery store, we made the oven-baked variation for this post to prove how simple, quick and easy it is to take a fresh potato and turn it into a delicious hot french fry  in less than 30 minutes. This recipe comes from the Joy of Cooking (1975 edition) cookbook and was a breeze to make. Literally, it took 5 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to bake,  which makes it a fast side dish for your summer burgers.

Oven “French-Fried” Potatoes (serves 1-2)

1 large russet potato (scrubbed)

1/8 cup olive oil

A generous sprinkling of sea salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice potatoes lengthwise into long  1/4″ sticks (you can do this by hand or by using the julienne setting on your vegetable slicer. Either way try to keep each stick as uniform as possible to ensure even baking. Lay the freshly cut sticks between a couple layers of paper towels and pat dry to remove extra moisture, then spread sticks out on an ungreased baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.

Using your hands, toss the potatoes and oil together so that all sticks are coated and spread them back out in the pan as flat as possible.

Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Then remove from the oven and flip the fries over and  return back to the oven for an additional 8-10 minutes.  They should look something like this when they are ready…

Remove fries from the baking pan onto a paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (or any of your favorite spices) and serve immediately.

Inspired by the 1970’s list of approved condiments, I kept thinking while writing this post how fun it would be to have a french fry bar party where guests could pick and choose their own toppings from a wide assortment. So many flavors pair well with potatoes, so the possibilities would be endless as far as dips and dredges, sprinkles and submersibles. The one element of homemade french fries that should always remain constant though is the potato – always use russet potatoes. They are the variety of choice in almost every fast food french fry you’ll ever eat – including McDonald’s whose fries are legendary. And besides, you’ll make Luther happy,  using his version over any other!

Luther never lived to see the ultimate french fry-loving success of his humble potato breed, although he did live a fulfilling gardening life up until the time of his death in the mid-1920’s. He did acquire that dream farm in California that he always wanted…

Luther Burbank’s house as it looked in the 1920’s
Now in 2018, his house is a city park and garden that is open to the public.
Luther Burbank House and Garden, 200 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, CA

And he built a garden where invented new varieties of fruits and flowers and vegetables. We have Luther to thank for cultivating these beauties…

Clockwise from top left: The Plumcot – a mix between plums and apricots, the Fire Poppy, the July Elberta Peach, the Spineless Cactus and the Shasta Daisy

So while he never did see his potatoes bubbling up in oil at the golden arches,  he did see his lifelong passion laid out in the golden hour light of each day into night. Satisfaction was never going to be found in fame or fortune when it came to Luther Burbank. He didn’t care about either of those two things. His happiness lived deep within the dirt – a vast canvas of potential fueled by creativity and curiosity that never ceased to inspire him.

Cheers to Luther for inventing one of the most delicious potatoes in the world. And cheers to all the farmers who keep growing the russets. May they continue to add a bit of indulgence to our diets and serve as a basis for inspiration in our culinary endeavors.

Find out more about Luther and his Santa Rosa, CA garden park here.  Find the vintage Joy of Cooking cookbook in the shop here. 

If you guys have any favorite toppings or condiments that you prefer on your french fries please post them in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!