created at: 2013-03-19

Family recipes are funny. They’re not always the most detailed, having been passed from generation to generation, scribbled on a crumpled piece of paper that’s covered in fingerprints and grease stains. But they’re always the most significant, maybe because they remind you of your childhood, or make you think of a relative who’s been gone for years.

That’s the case with my Nana’s brisket recipe. My paternal grandmother—she of hidden bon bon notoriety—was, as I’ve mentioned before, a talented cook. And Passover was the holiday where she really shined. Every other dish played second fiddle to her piece de resistance: brisket that was so tender and juicy that my siblings, even at the height of their strict self-imposed tuna fish and hot dog diets, would fight over the last spoonful of sweet meat and glazey, caramelized sauce.

But because this recipe was passed on to my mom piecemeal over the years, there were some holes to fill—small details, such as quantities and actual instructions—when I asked her to dictate it to me over the phone a few days ago. We both shared our memories of eating the brisket at Passover, and gradually pieced together the amounts and procedure. And that’s the best part of family recipes: every time you make them, you’re recounting the people who made them so special.

Nana’s Brisket

Serves 6 to 8

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 pounds flat-cut brisket, trimmed of excess fat
5 onions, halved and sliced thin
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 10.5-ounce cans Rokeach Tomato Sauce with Mushrooms
2 2-ounce packets of Lipton onion soup mix (Note: Lipton soup mix is not kosher for Passover; if stricter guidelines are important to you, you can find kosher-for-Passover onion soup mix at The Butcherie in Brookline and most likely in the kosher section of your local supermarket)

1. Using paper towels, pat brisket dry. Then, using a fork, prick the exterior about 25 times on each side. Season with salt and pepper.

2. In electric frying pan or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add brisket to pan and leave untouched until brown, about 5 minutes. Remove brisket from pan and transfer to plate. Add 1 more tablespoon oil to pan, then return brisket to pan, brown side up. Cook until second side has browned, about 5 minutes, then transfer brisket to plate and set aside.

3. Turn heat down to medium. Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and heat until shimmering. Add sliced onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are brown and caramelized, 5 to 8 minutes.

4. Once onions have browned, add tomato paste and cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Stir in Rokeach and onion soup mix and bring to simmer, using wooden spoon or rubber spatula to dislodge all flavorful browned bits from bottom of pan.

5. Add brisket back to pan, nestling meat in sauce. Add enough water to bring sauce halfway up side of brisket. Cover pan and simmer until meat is tender, about 3½ hours. Check pan occasionally to make sure sauce is simmering (not boiling). Add more water if sauce reduces too quickly.

6. Once meat is tender, remove from pan and transfer to cutting board. When cool enough to handle, slice against the grain into ½-inch wide slices. Return to pan and bring sauce back up to simmer until meat is hot and sauce is reddish-brown, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve, spooning sauce over top.