As the first frosts are upon us, I admit my mind often turns to brisket, for there is no heartier, more savoury, ample and filling dish for a winter meal: on a par with that long-forgotten (for it goes back to the days when cooks were not afraid of boiling even the finest cuts of meat) crowning glory of pre-war British cooking, boiled silverside, the crown of the rump, delectably stewed and served with horseradish. Perhaps some reader will know whatever happened to it.
The trouble with brisket is that it is not all that easy to find. It is an unpopular cut and I suspect it often winds up, cut into bits, as 'stewing beef', when what you need is the whole magnificent slab of meat, weighing roughly seven or eight pounds, nearly a foot long and tapering from three or four inches thick at one end to an inch at the other. In the United States this will cost you a bit more than a fiver; in Britain, about twice that, but it is still very economical.
Do not be alarmed by the size, for when the meat is trimmed of its fat, as it must be, you will have thrown away half of it. Trimming fat is an important part of cooking and a sort of art. The technique is really quite simple and consists of separating the meat from the fat, not vice versa. Find your meat (in a brisket it often comes in two layers), insert a very sharp knife and start pulling, pushing your knife along as you pull the meat away. Do not worry about losing a little meat in the process: there will be plenty left.
Some years ago I gave a recipe for one of my favourite brisket dishes, the north Italian brasato di manzo con le cipolle, or beef braised with onions. This is simplicity itself. The beef is larded with pancetta, placed in the direction of the grain. A few cloves are inserted and the meat is ready. Thin-slice about four medium onions, lay them on the bottom of a heavy casserole, add the meat, cover tightly and cook in a medium oven (325F/160C/gas 3) for about four hours. Nothing else is required: above all, no liquid, which is what the onions are supposed to provide.
I say 'supposed' because onions vary. A fresh onion will throw off enough liquid; old ones will have lost some of theirs. Therefore check every half-hour or so, turn the meat, and make sure there is enough liquid so the brisket does not stick. If any onions caramelise you are in trouble, so just toss in the minimal amount of water.
But this is not my main point today. We had bought a brisket, had a guest, and I was in the kitchen. Asked to invent, I agree with Raymond Olivier in his splendidly readable and intelligent Classic Sauces (Robinson, pounds 4.99): innovation is at the heart of sauce-making, and many of the world's great sauces are refinements of accidents or happenstance, the presence of an unexpected ingredient which, on a whim, one will put into a dish.
When inventing, one should start with what one has to hand. One consults one's stomach and one's nose, one uses common sense. If you are not self-confident, you will never become a good cook unless you force yourself to try different things. If you are experienced, but your range is limited, it is high time you learnt how to improvise - though Olivier's term, to 'transpose', is one I greatly favour for, as in music, one is changing the 'key' of a dish or a sauce.
First, I decided I would boil the brisket. There was no stock in the house. All right: water - about an inch. And wine - about three or four glasses. To start with. An onion? Yes, that we had. In the fridge was a bowl of left-over black beans. Excellent, both for flavour and colour.
Tomatoes? We had one big one, but also, under foil, were the remains of a tomato sauce in which shrimps had been cooked. That sauce had garlic in it and an overtone of the shrimps. Good: fish and meat blend subtly (as in beef and oysters) when not exaggerated. I also found a bay leaf or two.
I have started the brisket simmering. My nose tells me how the juice is working. It smells mildly tame, it is cold outside, and I realise I want something a little stronger in it. What do we have around that can give the higher gamut of tastes? In the pantry is a jar of Indian, very hot, lime pickle. How much? Well, just enough. Not too much. Hmm. Simmer for six hours. Really simmer. At the end, remove the fat from the sauce and reduce. Some boiled potatoes to sop up the jus.
Accidental discovery, innovation, the joy of cooking. That is the heart of the matter. My wife was complimentary. Will I do it again? Sure, but not in exactly the same way. However, I have learnt a new flavour and I will use that lime pickle again. For instance, on mustard-coated roast chicken.