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!

Bacon, Montana & The Family Pie Crust: It’s Tradition Time!

If you are looking for a fun dessert to make for Easter dinner or you are heading out to someone else’s house for the holiday and want to bring something new (but old) along, we recommend the little known but amazingly delicious Rhubarb Custard Pie.  It has been an Easter tradition in my family since the 1960’s when my mom first started making it with the help of her husband’s grandfather’s homemade pie crust recipe and Betty Crocker’s 1950 Picture Cookbook.

Rhubarb in its natural state.

Rhubarb is one of those quirky vegetables. Some people call it pink celery. Understandably, it really does resemble the green hued variety with its long stalks and tufted green leaves. But rhubarb is actually part of the buckwheat family and celery is part of the parsnip family so their similarities end at face value.  Unlike the subtle soapy taste of celery, rhubarb is tart like a Granny Smith apple and more spongey in texture than a crisp stalk of celery. It’s ideal baking consistency is soft like a ripe pear with a bright white interior and a pale pink exterior. The general rule of thumb when it comes to selecting rhubarb for purchase is the firmer and redder the stalk the tarter the taste.  Ideally, you want something in-between – slightly spongy to the touch and a 40/60 ratio of stalks ranging from deep red to pale pink for dynamic flavor.

Two important factors go into making this pie a repeat favorite year after year – the filling and the pie crust.  Most people (and pie recipes) pair rhubarb with fresh strawberries, which is a good Spring combo since both are usually in season at the same time.  Sometimes though, these two put together can result in a watery pie which makes the crust soggy and each bite extra drippy. The secret addition to the rhubarb custard pie is the eggs. They act like a binder holding everything in place, so that you get all the sweet-tart taste of the filling without the thin and liquidy consistency. Betty Crocker’s 1950’s version is easy to prepare and always delicious.

The second important factor to this pie (and to all pies, really) is the homemade pie crust. It only takes about 10 minutes and four ingredients to make no-fail pie dough and it cooks beautifully and consistently every time.  Passed down through the generations, this recipe is so good it has been in active use in my family for almost 100 years thanks to this guy who taught everyone how to make it in the very beginning…

Bacon & Dolly Day in Montana circa 1950’s/1960’s

Meet Bacon Day and his wife Dolly. Bacon (yes, that’s his real name!) first moved to Montana in the 1920’s where he married his bride, Dolly, in Missoula and went straight to work in the rural mining town of Gold Creek, as the train depot clerk for Northern Pacific Railroad. The railroad was so eager to have Bacon join the team, that they gave he and Dolly two railcars to live in and set up homekeeping. Bacon was originally from St. Paul and Dolly from Seattle, so this railroad life was a whole new and exciting adventure for the newlyweds.

1930’s Northern Railroad travel poster

We don’t have any pictures of Dolly and Bacon in their rail car housing but we can imagine that it looked something like these two (now serving as luxury hotel accommodations in Montana)…

Or maybe it looked something like the rail car library built in 1926 that serviced the reading needs of Montana’s lumberjack and logging communities…

Library rail car built in 1926 to serve the literature names of logging camps in early 20th century Montana. Read more about the library car here.

Either way, it must have been a pretty unusual first home for Bacon and Dolly, and a pretty unusual life for two people new to a state that was not quite yet developed. 1920’s Montana wasn’t for the timid or the faint of heart.  Interesting but also tumultuous, it was stunning in topography, erratic in business opportunity, progressive in gender equality and rebellious when it came to law and decorum. Especially when it came to train life.

Northern Pacfic Railroad Advertising 1910-1920’s

When the railroad companies first started building tracks out west with the ultimate goal of connecting the East coast to the West coast, Montana was marketed to new settlers as a land of stunning beauty and abundant farming opportunities. Homesteaders came from the East coast with intentions of building farms, raising livestock and growing food for commerce. But when these newcomers arrived they experienced a climate far different then what they knew back home. The winters were longer, the temperatures were colder, the open prairies were vast and resources were scarce forcing everyone to be immediately self-reliant. By the early 1900’s, livestock brought in from the East (mostly cows) had arrived in such excess they depleted the natural prairie grasses and upset the delicate balance of the natural eco-system, basically reducing the landscape to bare patches. Add-in an almost decade-long drought that occurred in the 1920’s, and the typography of Montana came to look more like a dessert of death than a lush and verdant valley of promise that all the postcards had been promoting..

Butte, Montana postcard from the 1920’s

The rail companies wanted to keep tourism and homesteading moving through the state though, so they would pay local homesteaders $1000 to grow the most attractive crop they could manage from the poor soil and then took those displays back East to show people how wonderful the agriculture was in Montana.

Montana Homestead Poster

This unscrupulous marketing ploy worked, and new settlers came by the train-full to start a fresh life in green and growing Montana. Only when they got they got off the train, they could see the landscape was devasted and the dry soil virtually unmanageable.  Bacon, in his train depot office, would have been witness to all the excitement and disappointment that came through his station, especially when he worked in Gold Creek which was known for its gold mining potential.

Eventually, all this agriculture business got sorted out once the rains came and residents were properly educated on how and what to grow in this new environment. Montana began to thrive once again. Leaving Gold Creek, Dolly and Bacon moved on to settle into another rural rail town, Phillipsburg, where Bacon worked as a train conductor on a transportation line for livestock and mining equipment.

Now an abandoned track, these are recent photos of the train line running through Phillipsburg with views that Dolly and Bacon would have seen on a daily basis.  Photos courtesy of D & D Travel.

From their wedding forward, Bacon and Dolly lived in Montana and loved it. Dolly often wrote poems about the natural beauty of her surroundings. They both mastered baking – Bacon with his pies and Dolly with her bread. Stories have been passed down that tell of breakfast at their house – often fresh caught trout and a homemade loaf of bread, served possibly with a slice of pie. For over 55 years, these two watched the growth and evolution of their marriage,  their state, their family and their landscape all from the vantage point of the railroad tracks that ran through their lives and their hearts.

In some future posts, there will be more stories about Dolly and Bacon and their wild Montana life, but in the meantime, we have a holiday to celebrate and a pie to bake so it’s back to the rhubarb custard.

I recommend preparing the filling first. It can sit off to the side for a little bit while you make your pie crust.

Betty Crocker’s Rhubarb Custard Pie Filling

Makes enough filling for one 9″ inch pie

3 eggs

2 2/3 tablespoons milk

2 cups sugar  (I use cane sugar)

4 tablespoons flour

3/4 tsp. nutmeg

4 cups chopped fresh rhubarb (about 8-10 long stalks)

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash, dry and cut the rhubarb into small bite-size pieces.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs slightly. Add the milk and then mix again before adding the sugar, flour and nutmeg.

Toss in the rhubarb and mix thoroughly. Then set aside while you make the pie crust.

Great-Grandpa Bacon’s Fool-Proof Pie Crust

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 cup butter or shortening ( I always use butter)

1/2 cup ice cold water

1/8 cup milk (reserved until the end)

In a bowl, mix the flour and salt. Roughly chop the butter and add to the flour mixture. With a fork press the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles course meal. If its easier, you can also do this quickly using your hands – jus don’t crumble the butter so much that it starts to melt from your body heat.

Once the butter is mixed in, add the ice-cold water (the colder the water the better). Mix until the dough clumps together and you can easily form a crumbly yet cohesive ball.

Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth, board or marble slab and cut in half with a sharp knife. Place one half of the dough ball off to the side. Roll out the remaining half of the dough with a wooden roller that has been dusted with flour. If you don’t have a wooden rolling pin you can use a wine bottle, or a cylindrical jar or vase (if you use either make sure to dust it with flour). Roll the dough out as much as possible without tearing it. Makes sure it is big enough to accommodate your pie dish. Once the dough is the right size, gently fold the dough in half on the cloth.

Line the crease of the fold line up with the center of your pie dish and gently lay the crust (still folded) down so that it covers just one side of your dish, then unfold the other half to cover the other half of the dish.  There should be excess dough hanging off the sides of the dish. It should like this…

Pour the rhubarb mixture into the pie dish and set aside.

Next, in the same fashion as before, roll out the other half of the dough ball. In order to make a basket weave design for the top crust, you’ll need a sharp knife to cut strips of dough.

Place the first strip of dough vertically on the pie and the second strip of dough horizontally so that it forms a cross. Next weave the remaining strips in an over-under pattern, alternating each slice as you go.

Next, cut away the excess dough along the sides, leaving a collar of about 1 inch of extra dough all the way around the rim.  Pinch the edges of the top and bottom crust together.

When finished dot the exposed holes with the remaining tablespoon of butter and brush the top crust lightly with milk.

Bake for 50-60 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the rhubarb custard is bubbling. Let cool on a wire rack before serving. This pie is very versatile in the presentation department –  serve it warm, cold or at room temperature.

Like pecan pie it is pretty sweet as it is, so you don’t need to add whipped cream or ice cream. Its ideal companion is a hot cup of coffee. And no one would look twice if you wanted to enjoy a slice for breakfast. Sometimes that’s the best time of day for a little decadence. If he was still alive, Bacon would be right there with you, enjoying a plate of breakfast trout.

If you get a chance to try this recipe, please let us know how you liked it. And if you have any questions on how to make your pie crust please comment below and we’ll get right back to you.

In the meantime, cheers to all the recipes that turn into traditions and cheers to Bacon and Dolly for always being a part of our most delicious holiday celebrations.