No Jive Turkeys

No jive turkeys

Holiday eating needn't be bound to the mighty bird.

By Karen Solomon

THANKSGIVING, CHRISTMAS , Easter … even the Fourth of July has come to be viewed by some as the terrain of the turkey. And sure, it's ubiquitous, it's cheap, it's relatively easy to prepare, and it has a heavenly aroma that just screams Charo and Underdog at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But, if I may say so in the wake of National Turkey Day, as a meat this bird has always left me dry. It's a bland and soulless flesh, cooked again and again more for tradition's sake than for appetite's. And dare I suggest that turkey is simply a vehicle for all the more interesting and buttery things that sit by its side?

But we needn't succumb to fowl monotony over the next month of holiday stuffing – there exist other options that create a level playing field for all cooks, whatever their level of confidence. And among the best of those is Eastern European-style sweet-and-sour brisket.

Brisket's large flanks of meat, slowly and lovingly braised for maximum flavor in a tangy sauce, are a wonderful way to feed a crowd and fill the house with a whole new tradition. Requiring less labor than a turkey dinner, the savory-sweet dish is always succulent and always popular. It comes with plenty of juice for a flood of mashed potatoes and will happily soak into any mild stuffing. There's nothing to carve, no gravy to make. And, unlike that oh-so-demanding poultry skin whose crispness is an essential, brisket actually tastes better when made ahead of time and left in the refrigerator overnight. It can be reheated in a pot on the stovetop – and more oven space when planning a massive dinner is always a welcome gift.

Whether you choose to replace the mighty bird, or let your brisket ride sidecar, complementing the turkey for the traditionalists at the table, I strongly encourage you to boldly carve out a new holiday dinner tradition. And in that spirit, alongside the beef brisket recipe that follows, I've included a vegetarian version using seitan and meaty portobello mushrooms that's just as easy, flavorful, and textured. Serve both with spaetzle, a noodley, herby side dish that's a break from the traditional potato, and a twist on seasonal butternut squash that takes its sweetness from apple and its savor from sage; both work perfectly with the brisket sauce's acidic edge. And for dessert, I present to you an entirely simple toffee sauce that, paired with your imagination, gives any meal a sweet finish.

Beef brisket

Roz Seiden, the queen of all things brisket, has graciously allowed me to share my version of her recipe.

3 Tbs. vegetable oil

2 lbs. brisket (or, if you're using Niman Ranch meat, use the bavette steak)

2 medium-to-large chopped onions

1 28 oz. can tomato sauce

1/2 cup loosely packed dark brown sugar

3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from about six or seven lemons)

2 tsp. good Hungarian paprika

Salt and pepper

Chopped parsley (optional)

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large pot with a lid over high heat, but don't let the oil smoke. Generously salt and pepper both sides of the meat and sear it on both sides until it's nicely browned, about 3 minutes on each side. Work in multiple batches if you need to, as you don't want to crowd the meat.

Once it's seared, remove the meat from the pan and set it aside. Turn the heat down to medium, add one more tablespoon of oil, and sauté the onions in the same pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape up the pan drippings. Add a little more salt and stir the onions occasionally until they're brown and limp, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Return the meat to the pan and add the tomato sauce, sugar, lemon juice, and paprika. Stir to combine, turn the heat down to very low, cover tightly, and let it simmer gently for two hours, stirring occasionally and making sure the meat is nestled into the broth.

Once it's entirely tender, remove the meat and slice it, then return it to the broth. Take off the lid, turn the heat to high, and let the broth reduce and thicken a bit, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes. Adjust the seasoning if desired.

Plate the meat and spoon thickened sauce on top. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley if you like, then devour.

Serves 4-6

No-beef brisket

I am a carnivore to the core, but this variation is admittedly delicious. It also requires much less cooking time and makes for great sandwiches.

4 seitan steaks, or seitan sliced into large, thin cutlets

6 portobello mushroom caps

4 Tbs. or more butter or EarthBalance

2 medium-to-large chopped onions

1 28 oz. can tomato sauce

1/2 cup loosely packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from about four or five lemons)

2 tsp. good Hungarian paprika

Salt and pepper

Chopped parsley (optional)

Rub the salt, pepper, and paprika into each side of the seitan steaks and salt the mushrooms. Melt 1 to 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large pot with a lid over medium heat, being careful not to let it burn. Fry each steak until it's brown, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Leave the mushrooms whole and sauté them on both sides until they've shrunk by about 20 percent – 3 minutes for small caps, longer for larger ones. Work in multiple batches and add more butter for each batch.

Once they're seared, remove the seitan and mushrooms from the pan and set them aside. Add a bit more butter (you can use 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil here, if you like) and sauté the onions with a little salt until they're brown and limp, about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the seitan and mushrooms to the onions and then add the tomato sauce, sugar, and lemon juice. Stir to combine, turn the heat down to very low, cover tightly, and let it simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not overcook.

Remove the seitan and mushrooms from the sauce and keep them warm in a 250 degree oven. Keep the lid off the sauce and turn the heat to high, allowing the broth to reduce and thicken, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper if necessary.

Serve the seitan and 'shrooms, spooning the thickened sauce over top. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley if you like, then devour.

Serves 4-6


Where a dumpling ends and pasta begins, we have spaetzle, a versatile noodley thing that can be prepared a number of ways. Spaetzle mixes together in a flash and cooks up quickly, and it's delicious on its own or soaking up brisket broth. Don't let the method scare you – just be prepared to make a bit of a mess.

2 cups flour

3/4 cup milk

1/4 cup sour cream or yogurt

3 eggs, beaten

2 Tbs. butter

1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro

Salt and pepper

Bring a very large pot of salted water to a boil. Have an ice bath – i.e., a large bowl of ice water to help stop cooking quickly – standing by.

Whisk together the first four ingredients, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt.

Pour half of the batter through a colander (a sturdy metal one wo
rks best, but a cheap plastic one will do) into the boiling water, using a spoon to push it through if necessary. Once the spaetzle floats to the top, give it a stir and let it cook for 1 more minute. Remove the spaetzle from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and quickly move it into the ice bath. Repeat with the second half of the batter.

Once the spaetzle has been cooked, drain it well. Heat the butter in a large frying pan and toss it with the spaetzle over medium-high heat. Cook them for 3 minutes. Add the cilantro, salt, and pepper to taste and toss again, cooking them for 3 more minutes, allowing them to just start browning.

Serves 4

Butternut squash with apples and carrots

The sweetness of this poultry sidekick stands up well to the acidic bite of the brisket, and other than some chopping, it's an easy dish to bring to the table.

4 cups cubed butternut squash, peeled and deseeded

2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces

3 Tbs. butter, melted, or oil

2 cups cubed tart apples (like Granny Smith), peeled and cored

1 Tbs. fresh sage

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the squash and carrots with the butter, sage, salt, and pepper to taste. Roast for 20 minutes.

Add the apple to the mix, and roast for 10 more minutes.

Serves 4

Toffee sauce

If you love Heath bars, you love toffee, and getting that flavor in a heavenly dessert sauce takes minutes, with ingredients you probably already have. And this quick-change artist can be served any number of ways. Try it over sliced apples, bananas, and toasted walnuts, over gingerbread or pound cake topped with sour cream or yogurt, on chocolate or dolce de leche ice cream, or as a dip for shortbread cookies. Stir some into hot chocolate with Frangelico. Serve it in the fondue pot with all the usual suspects – berries, marshmallows, pretzels, etc. Lick it off your lover's body. There is not a dessert you can think of that this sauce won't make more delicious.

1 stick butter

1 cup loosely packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 tsp. good vanilla extract

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar, cream, and vanilla and stir constantly until the mixture starts to bubble. Keep stirring until it thickens, about 5 minutes. Serve it warm. Save any remaining sauce in a glass jar and reheat it gently in the microwave.

Yields 1 1/2 cups