In Eastern Europe, most of the cattle in the region was raised for the dairy industry and not slaughtered until very mature and, therefore, much of the meat was tough. To further complicate the situation, beginning in the seventeenth century the authorities in many parts of Eastern Europe imposed a korobka (steep tax) on kosher meat. As a result, Eastern European Jews could rarely buy meat, particularly the more tender cuts. Instead, they made do with the tough, sinewy cuts from the lower part of a cow.
Brisket, a cut with a lot of connective tissue and a very grainy texture, is the meat covering the breastbone. Below the arm lies the chuck short ribs called flanken. Eastern European Jews discovered that these tougher and cheaper cuts could actually be very flavorful. The trick lies in tenderizing the meat by slowly simmering it in water, a process that breaks down the connective tissue by converting the collagen to gelatin.
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Yields 6–10 servings
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius).
Rub both sides of the meat with salt, pepper, and if desired, mustard.
Spread half of the onions over bottom of a shallow roasting pan. Place the brisket, fat-side up, in the pan and top with the remaining onions. Add a quarter cup broth. Bake, uncovered and basting occasionally, until the meat and onions begin to brown (about one hour).
Add the remaining broth and remaining ingredients. (Liquid should never reach more than halfway up the side of the meat.) Cover, reduce the heat to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius) or place over a low flame, and cook until meat is fork-tender and thickest part of the brisket registers about 175 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius) on a meat thermometer (two to three hours—allow about one hour total cooking time per pound).
Cover the brisket loosely with foil and let stand 20 minutes before carving. (Brisket may be prepared up to two days ahead and reheated.)
Slice the brisket diagonally against the grain about 1/8-inch thick. If desired, serve with horseradish sauce or whole-grain mustard.
Foil-Wrapped Brisket: Seal the brisket and seasonings in layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil, place on a baking sheet or in a large roasting pan, and roast in a 300-degree oven for six to seven hours. Let stand about 30 minutes before opening and slicing.
Brisket Tzimmes: Add 1 pound pitted prunes, 4 large peeled and quartered sweet potatoes, 3 carrots cut into chunks, 1/4 cup granulated or brown sugar, and 2–3 tablespoons lemon juice.
Brisket with Cabbage: About 20 minutes before the brisket is done, add 1 medium head green cabbage cut into 10 pieces.
Brisket with Fennel: About 20 minutes before the brisket is done, add 1 quartered bulb fresh fennel.
Yields 1 cup gravy
Blend the water and cornstarch. Stir into the cooking liquid and cook over a medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened.
Brisket with Mustard Sauce: Add 2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard.
Brisket with Lemon-Horseradish Sauce: Stir 1/3 cup prepared white horseradish, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste into the gravy and simmer for two more minutes.