Christmas dinner to me has always been an anomaly. Falling between Thanksgiving and Easter, it borrows from both traditions.
You might see a turkey or a ham on the table unsure of themselves, not sure if they are dressed right for the occasion. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese are all things I love but I’m kinda mashed out after a month of fall side dishes and looking for different textures.
Christmas and goose are words you often hear together but after the opulence of a brined turkey, a stringy, gamey goose is more of a downgrade than an upgrade. Italians have an official dinner of Christmas Eve — the seven mares — which is great when a friend makes it. But it takes a lot of work and who wants to wake up on Christmas Day and have fish stank under the tree?
Plus, after kids wake up at the crack of dawn, come down the stairs and freak out over gifts, who wants to do anything but watch a parade, a football game or a holiday movie. For me, it’s “Home Alone” or “Gremlins” — but don’t get me wrong, I love seafood and that’s why we start with shrimp cocktail. This crowd pleaser can be made in advance and put in the fridge with plenty of time to light pine-themed candles before people get there.
History’s influence on this holiday tradition
For my go to Christmas dinner, I like to follow in a different holiday tradition — one that has stood the test of time in the holiday season. One that is enjoyed by millions every December. It just so happens that this delicious cut of meat happens to have its origins in a different religion. I’m talking about our Jewish neighbors and their star of December, the brisket. This amazing cut of meat has its roots in Ashkenazi Jewish traditions. These traditions forbade certain fats and nerves that were dominant in the rear quarters. Growing in the front of the cow, the brisket was a perfect kosher meat but its toughness required long cook times. These long cook times kept the meat affordable.
I have always reflected on how these Jewish cooking traditions compared to African American cooking traditions of the south. Both groups were looked down on by the greater society and both groups had to be inventive to survive culturally. Part of that culture included food and both groups got pretty damn good at cooking the things no one else wanted. Maybe that is why Jewish food has always had such an appeal for me. Growing up a Black child in a white Irish household, few things could culturally connect the dots.
Indeed if anything connects my two cultures, it’s the fact that they were both thrown the castaways—the inferior cuts—the cheap starchy fillers to survive. The saying, “When life gives you lemon, make lemonade (in Leominster)” is a metaphor about alchemy and being able to make the most out of … whatever. Our cultures ability to turn the away dirty spuds into glorious mash potatoes, pig bones into smoked ribs or a tough cut of beef into a special holiday dinner is alchemy on the level of lead into gold,
Our oppressed past should bring us closer together not further apart. Every deli counter owes its existence to Jewish immigrants in New York City. They discovered with time and love that these tougher cuts could be transformed into a mouthwatering delicacy every bit as delicious as the more expensive cuts. Today a smoked cured pastrami — what every brisket hopes to be when it grows up — goes for as much or more than a cut of tenderloin, the most sought after cut on the cow.
History and tradition aside, the brisket is freaking delicious and it’s pretty easy to make, you just need time so it is the perfect dish for the day. We cook this one slow and low so you get to leave it alone for the most part. That being said, you can still use it as an excuse to go to the kitchen and get away from the chaos if that is something you need and every time you open the oven the house will smell of heaven no matter how you get there.
How to make this mouth watering meal
Christmas is a great day to open gifts and be a couch potato. Taters love taters so we will try to keep this dinner as simple as possible. Decadent desserts and drinks can round things out so you can still eat like a king of kings without working like a servant. Creamed spinach, roasted squash and gravy will turn this meal into a feast but we are saving room for dessert because that’s what we tell people to bring when they ask. It is more fun when everyone contributes, don’t feel bad about not making dessert, someone will be happy to bring it. If no one is coming later just buy a pie and you can save your baking skills for the new year.
Beef brisket with baby potatoes, green beans and horseradish cream
The beauty is the prep should be done the day before. Having everything ready to roll is easy. Friends or kids can help prep the day before and day of all you have to do is pop it in the oven.
Step 1: brisket. Keep the brisket super cold before prepping. A super cold brisket can have most of its silver skin removed by hand when super cold. Make Spice Mix: Fresh cracked black pepper, garlic and fancy salt. A mortar and pestle work great for this mix. First smash a bulb of garlic with the side of a chef’s knife. Toss the cloves in a bowl of water for 5 minutes to remove the skin easily. Put garlic and peppercorns I mortar smash together and add salt. Thinly slice 2 onions and place in baking dish under brisket. Rub mixture on brisket and place brisket over onions and put in fridge.
Step 2: Taters. For potatoes rinse and dry. Make olive oil mixture of garlic and herbs. Place in baking dish, add garlic, olive oil, herb mix. Cover and leave out, covered.
Step 3: For green beans, clean and put aside (This is a great job for kids, safety scissors work great on green beans). Zest and juice 1 lemon, add equal part cold butter.
Step 4: For horseradish crème, Mix Crème Fraiche with Horseradish. Nothing beats fresh horseradish but it quite the commitment. When buying store-bought try to buy the one with the least ingredients, it will taste the best. Add salt and peppercorns. If possible, add white, green or pink peppercorns to pepper grinder before adding to horseradish mixture. If crème fraiche is not available, use sour cream. Add a little heavy cream to cut the sour taste and thin out.
Step 5: Christmas morning remove brisket from fridge and preheat your oven to 300. Letting the brisket come to room temperature will help those flavors sink in a little deeper before cooking. Add 2 cups beef stock to help cook evenly.
Brisket will cook about 5 hours. Add stock as needed. Its ready when fork tender. Give a poke with a fork meat should be tender. After 4.5 hours pop in potatoes. Before cooking potatoes, remove brisket and pour approx. ¼ cup of brisket fat on potatoes. Toss green beans in lemon butter mixture. After 20 minutes, make room for potato dish for green beans. Cook for 10-13 minutes or until tender.
Let brisket rest 20 minutes. Pull onions from underneath and set aside. Slice beef in ¼ inch slices and serve with onions and crème fraiche.
Ask for help doing dishes. Chances are someone would love to escape the group discussion for a little. Heavy conversations are a little lighter after dinner and the distraction of dishes gives the eyes and the mind something else to do while making those uncomfortable but necessary questions about loved ones. Like Earthgang sing in their song “Strong Friends” “We all got our differences references preferences …Check in on your strong friends”
Shopping List: Brisket, potatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, butter, crème fraiche, horseradish, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, lemon, salt, pepper.
Kevin Williams is the head chef at Roots Natural Foods, located at 100 Crawford St. in Leominster.