Dear Reader, how would you describe your childhood? What memories do you have of those years? My main memories are of running down a driveway chasing a ball, being readily fed, being shown flash cards and doing reading comprehensions. Show me a flash card and instinctively I'll read out the word on it loud and clear as I was told to do.
Reading comprehensions were also regular work with my mother's red handwriting signalling improvements needed. And then there were the general knowledge shows that we used to crowd around the television watching. My parents would remain silent, my father picking from a jar of sunflower seeds, my mother click clacking the knitting needles while my sister and I shouted out the answers. If I walk past a game show on the television, I'll stop and answer the questions (if I can).
I recently switched on the studious part of my brain again. Friends and I decided that we wanted to make a beef brisket, just like the ones that we had tried in Texas. Beef brisket is the signature Texan dish (official or unofficial). Each state of America does their own specialty barbecue with different meats and woods but even in Texas, central, east and west Texas do barbecue slightly differently. We decided to go with central Texas as that is where Belinda and I had experience a wonderful day of eating barbecue. In central Texas, a dry rub and mesquite or pecan wood smoking is king.
Simply seasoned, the beef brisket is served with its distinctive mesquite wood smoke aroma, the meat so pullapart soft that you don't need a fork to eat it - eating with hands is common. The brisket is sold by weight with customers selecting how many slices of "fat or lean" brisket they want.
A Texan beef brisket is something that you don't see here that much, certainly not many restaurants want to take on the challenge of a brisket. For starters it's hard to actually get a brisket and as they're usually 5 kilos large, the cooking process can take up to 18 hours. This is a commitment that even the keenest barbecuer may retreat from. There are only two briskets per beast and it's generally a chewy, ornery cut that you need to cook low and slow.
Fortune intervened with the brisket when Jo Katz from Koolang Wagyu who contacted me offering me some of her family's full blood grass fed wagyu from their farm in the Southern Highlands. Her parents Michael and Frederique Katz came to appreciate wagyu after living in Japan and subsequently set up their own sustainable boutique cattle farm where the meat is available through FarmerButcherChef. Several conversations later, I was holding a beautiful dry aged 2 kilo portion of their wagyu brisket.
Jo asked me if I wanted the fat or the lean and I answered the fatty part. Not only is the flavour in the fatty part but it would be easier for a brisket first timer like me to make soft.
Also being wagyu, it was the ideal cut for the Texan beef brisket as wagyu is suitably marbled throughout the meat which means that cooking it beyond well done would show off the tenderness of the wagyu. The grass feeding would mean great flavour. I also asked her butcher to dry age it for me which also helps to tenderise the beef.
For the next few nights I turned into the student again. I studied Texan beef brisket as if it were my obsession (which it was). I read Amazing Rib's comprehensive article on how to make the Texan beef brisket top to toe as well as others worried because my brisket was half the size. When it came to buying mesquite wood, I visited BBQ Aroma in Leichhardt for some Pilbara grown mesquite wood chips where a 500g bag of mesquite chips was $10.
We planned a Texas style bbq but I was nervous about the beef brisket. Nick from BBQ Aroma had tried a 2 kilo brisket and it hadn't worked for him at all as it was dry. Just in case the brisket didn't work out, we had an array of Texan sides and ribs to round out the offering.
I was in charge of the brisket, grilled corn and the dessert which was a peach bellini cobbler. Belinda was making potato salad, Texan blue cheese coleslaw, corn bread and Texas toast while Tery and Ceri made ribs, beans and a layered dip. Nick brought American beers and vanilla ice cream for the cobbler.
Brisket is a waiting game. We also decided not to go for the bark for this brisket. Bark is a sweet, burnt looking layer on the outside of the meats usually formed at high temperatures and I didn't want to try out our 2 kilo brisket in pursuit of bark. I was nervous enough about not being able to feed five other people.
Belinda calmed me down. "Don't worry, we can give it another go, we can all chip in for a five kilo brisket and try it again." At 3pm, six hours after we started the brisket Belinda and I sliced off a piece. It was delicious and moist but tough. I bit my lip and my shoulders sagged in disappointment.
It was 4pm by the time that we took the brisket off the bbq when it reached 95C/203F, the temperature that it is said to be done. I prodded it - it sprung back bouncy which I expected and I was just hoping that the prolonged resting period would help relax it. We wrapped it in foil, placed it in the styrofoam container juice and all and took it to Tery and Ceri's.
At their house we grilled the corn in the husks and silks - the corn cooks at 300C/572F which was way hotter than the brisket so we couldn't do it alongside the brisket. We lay out the salads and drinks. Potato salad is de rigeur at a Texan barbecue and we added the grilled corn, two types of cornbread, Texas toast, Texan blue cheese coleslaw and dip to the already laden table.
Gingerly, I took the lid off the styrofoam box to see how the brisket was going. It was time to carve it and it was either going to be a disaster or delicious. I poked at it and it was soft and there was no longer any bounciness. It had changed texture considerably. Excitedly, I sliced the end off and then kept slicing and with every slice my smile grew. The brisket was perfect. It had the soft texture, hit of smoke and the unmistakable taste of Texas in every bite.
Belinda dipped it in the jus and her eyes rolled back. "Oh my god, it's so good dipped in the jus!" she said and we did the same. So in a touch that Texans don't do, we saved the jus gathered at the bottom of the tray and served it with that dipping each piece of brisket in it. The jus didn't obscure the flavour of the beef like a tangy bbq sauce would, it enhanced it. I was utterly relieved that it worked and like a newly introduced bbq addict a little voice in my head started saying "How about some bark on the brisket next time?". In a Texan accent of course.
So tell me Dear Reader, are you much of a barbecuer? What is your favourite thing to put on a barbecue? Have you ever studied or tried to perfect a dish and did it work out?
Texas Beef Brisket
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The process of barbecuing a brisket is intimidating the first time but if you do it once, you'll wonder what the worry was all about. You need to start with the best quality meat, if you go low quality, you may end up wasting your time. Wagyu is the best type of beef for a brisket. After that, it's really just a matter of being patient. Beef brisket is a labour of love or in fact patience.
I tasked Mr NQN with making sure that the bbq remained at a constant temperature of 107C/224F which is a task in itself. He was kept company by Coco the adorable 98 year old one eyed pug.
I can't tell you how relieved I was that the brisket worked and that it was every bit as good as I remember it to be. I'm not going to take on any of the long standing pit houses of Texas but in lieu of taking the 20 something hour flight there, it's a little bit of Texas at home.
Preparation time: 5 minutes (buy a dry aged brisket for a better flavour)
Cooking time: 7 hours (approximately)
Resting time: 1 hour
Feeds 6 along with sides
2 kgs wagyu beef brisket, fat part (you can also do the lean but the fat is where the flavour is)
1.5 cups mesquite wood chips, soaked for at least 1 hour in water
a few tablespoons of oil for smearing over the beef
1.5 tablespoons black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon onion powder (I used 1 tablespoon from a packet of French onion soup)
1/2 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (1 teaspoon if you don't like it too spicy)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup of beef stock
Step 1 - Dry age the beef if you can or at least buy a wet aged piece of beef. Ageing allows the enzymes to break down the beef making it more tender. I prefer dry aged for the flavour but wet aging will also make it tender.
Step 2 - Combine the pepper, salt, onion powder, sugar, cayenne and garlic powder to make a rub. Rub the brisket with oil and then smother it on both sides with the rub.
Step 3 - Preheat the bbq to 107C/224F. Create a packet out of foil and add a handful of soaked wood chips to it. Close up the sides and poke a couple of holes in it. When smoke starts appearing, place the brisket fat side up in a foil oven tray to the side or above the smoke. Smoke for 2.5 hours. Replace the foil packette once the smoke disappears - we replaced it once during the smoking time.
Step 4 - When the meat reaches 65C/149F pour the beef stock over the brisket and allow it to pool under the brisket. Cover tightly with foil and bbq still on 107C/224F until the internal temperature reaches 95C/203F. This "crutches" the brisket. This is a process that speeds up cooking the brisket and locks the moisture into the meat. A 2 kilo brisket is fantastic because it is manageable and cooks in a good amount of time but it also risks being dried out so we wanted to keep it moist. It will take up to five or six hours to reach the desired temperature.
Step 5 - Remove the tray from the bbq and wrap tightly in more foil. Place in a styrofoam container with a lid and rest for 1 hour. After an hour, it will still be warm. Slice against the grain and serve while still warm with the jus from the pan.
Although we absolutely loved the bbq in Texas, Belinda and I weren't as taken with the side dishes. They were very sweet and at times, we craved fresh salads to go with the coleslaw. We decided on two versions of classic brisket accompaniments, a Texan Blue Cheese Coleslaw and a fabulous potato salad - a staple at any Texan barbecue.
4 cups finely shredded cabbage
1/2 cup sliced green onions
1/2 cup diced red capsicum
2 tablespoons fresh dill
1 cup Greek natural yogurt
2 tablespoons sour cream
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
75g/2.65 ozs. blue cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Step 1 - In a large bowl combine the cabbage, green onions, capsicum and dill. In a food processor blend the yogurt, sour cream, vinegar, honey and blue cheese. Mix the dressing into the cabbage and then season with salt and pepper. Chill until serving.
Texas Potato Salad
Belinda's step mother made an almost identical version of this salad for her while she was growing up even down to the sweet pickle relish. It's a fabulous potato salad and one of the hallmarks of a Texan potato salad is said to be the addition of mustard.
6 large potatoes, skin on and cooked until tender in their skins and then peeled
3 eggs, hard boiled, cooled and peeled*
1 onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
1/4 cup chopped red capsicum
2 tablespoons American mustard
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 teaspoons sweet pickle relish
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
*Use older eggs for easy peeling, younger eggs will be harder to peel.
Step 1 - Cool potatoes and cut into bite sized chunks. Slice eggs and break up with a fork.
Step 2 - In a large bowl, add the potatoes, eggs, onion, celery and capsicum. Whisk together the mustard, mayonnaise and relish and add to salad and mix well. Sprinkle with paprika and season with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until chilled.
Grilled Corn in Silks
This was really an experiment with some corn. I bought some corn cobs with the silk and husk on at Woolworths one day and thought that we could try cooking it in the husk and silk. While it takes about 45 minutes (we learn this accidentally as we asked Tery and Mr NQN to do this and they kept forgetting about it) it is absolutely worth cooking it this way.
Once we sank our teeth into the corn we all tacitly agreed that this would be the only way that we would be cooking corn from now on. The husks and silks keep the corn moist while the barbecue intensifies the sweetness and natural flavour of the corn. And they're incredibly easy to peel once cooked and the instead of trying to catch flywaway bits of silk which you do when it is raw, the silks come away in great big clumps. Plus it looks great with the husks peeled back too ;)
Corn in husks or silk
Butter and salt to serve
Step 1 - Soak the corn in water in the husks for an hour. Preheat bbq to 300C/572F. Place corn on the bbq and grill turning it a few times during the process so that it cooks evenly. It took about 45 minutes in total but check that your corn is golden and fragrant by peeling back the husk a little. Remove the most charred outer husk layers as they will disintegrate easily and then pull back the silks and remaining husk layers. Serve with butter and salt.
Texas Toast is generally white bread toast sprinkled with garlic salt and buttered. Belinda decided to add cheese to her version in homage to one of her favourite items, the Sizzler cheese toast. Funnily, her daughter Mia was horrified when she picked up the white loaf at the supermarket, alarmed that it was destined for her lunchbox. It's easy but delicious and perfect to go with the brisket and jus!
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5-10 minutes
6 slices white supermarket loaf
Butter to spread (about 1/2 a cup)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
garlic salt to sprinkle on top
Step 1 - Butter both sides of the bread and add parmesan cheese and garlic salt to one side. Grill cheese side up. Turn over and add the parmesan cheese and garlic salt on the other side and grill that side too.
White Peach Bellini Cobbler
One afternoon Belinda and I were talking about what dessert to make for the bbq. We decided on peach cobbler as peaches are in season but wanted to do a twist on it. And that Dear Readers is how peach bellini cobbler was born. The peaches (which were quite underripe) were lightly browned and then cooked in a mixture of Prosecco, sugar and vanilla bean extract. You can stop right there and serve the peaches with ice cream or you can make a cobbler topping which is very easy. I even had six year old Ruby help me with it which delighted her.
Serves 8 people
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes plus 35 minutes
8-9 large free stone white peaches (I placed them in the tray that I was cooking them in to see if they would fit)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup Prosecco
6 tablespoons caster or superfine sugar
3/4 cup plain all purpose flour
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small cubes
4 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
Vanilla ice cream to serve
Step 1 - Preheat oven to 180C/350F and grease a medium baking tray (I used a 24x32cms one). Sliced peaches into eights leaving the skin on (you can peel them but the skin becomes soft once cooked) and removing the pit.
Step 2 - Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a large frypan on medium to high heat and add the peaches. Brown the peaches lightly on all sides and then add the prosecco and cook it off. Then add the other tablespoon of butter along with the sugar and vanilla and stir until the peaches are coated in a delicious sauce. Remove from heat.
Step 3 - Make the cobbler topping. Place the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl and with your fingers, rub the butter so that you get crumbs. You want to avoid really large lumps but small lumps are fine.
Step 4 - Beat the egg with the milk and then pour into the bowl and mix the batter until combined. Top the peaches with this batter and then bake for 30-35 minutes until golden. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.