Culinary Mishaps #1: Hell-brisket


Once, when I worked as a nanny, I was asked by the boss to cook a beef brisket for her family. No notice, no time for a market run, using only what was in the house. I said sure, I’d cooked many briskets before. I prepped pearl onions, a bed of celery and carrots, some chervil and chives from the garden. I grabbed the brisket from the ‘fridge and realized it was… frozen solid. Four hours to to dinner. A date on the plastic bag informed that it had, in fact, been solid for at least six months. I asked the boss what I should do. She told me to figure it out, because she was busy. I tried to thaw the brisket with cool-water baths. No dice. Warm-water baths. No luck. I threw it in the microwave, and six minutes later experienced something akin to success: the brisket was pliable and had, roughly, the texture of a deflated basketball.

This did not deter me. No. I beat the thing with a tenderizer (wine bottle), dropped it on the veggies and shoved the casserole in the oven. I picked up a timer and realized … I had no idea how the meat weighed. Three pounds? Six pounds? With or without the pint of pink juice that had leaked out in the microwave? I figured myself pretty good at estimating, guessed four pounds. I may have guessed wrong.

Then I went for a swim with the kids. I came in after an hour to check the meat. Thermometer read ninety degrees.

I took the kids and dog for a walk. Came in to check the meat. Two hours into cooking, the temp was about a hundred and fifteen degrees. I began to get a little worried. I didn’t risk turning up the heat — was at something like 350 already, but I moved the brisket closer to the source. I spent the third hour skewering lime and sweet potatoes, grilling ’em and caramelizing with mirin. I also whipped up a provisional succotash using canned hominy and a couple of ears of meek, aged corn I rescued in the crisper. Nothing great, but attractive enough.

Twenty minutes before dinner the family all arrived home, begun enthusing about the great smell. They rushed maniacally to the table. They told me they had high expectations for my food –– I had come recommended as a nanny and cook – and this was only my third meal for them. The first sit-down.

I knew the brisket was going to finish at a low (and potentially unsafe) temperature. I knew it couldn’t have climbed from 115 to something near the safe temp of 145 inside of an hour. And I didn’t have the option of delaying dinner. Feeling guilty, feeling hackish, I turned up the oven heat to 425 for the last twenty minutes of cooking. I didn’t know what else to do.

With the family gathered around, I pulled the meat from the oven. It looked ugly, brown and shriveled – nearly the way it had when I’d stuck it in the oven. I quickly slid the thermometer to its core (to reuse an analogy: like shoving the pump into a flat and truculent basketball) and watched hopelessly as it climbed, slowed, and stopped at 125 degrees. Given the age, storage conditions, weird cooking, I was a little reluctant to serve it to somebody else’s kids. A little embarrassed, I carried it to the table.
– It might be a little underdone, I said
– I’m sure it’s fine, my boss replied
– Looks great, one of the kids added
– I won’t be offended if anybody needs me to put it in for longer, I finished. Temp read a bit low. Anybody want to cut it?
The father of the house nodded. His paternal duty . He took the knife I’d offered, and began to hack at the meat. I really mean hack. The thing was uncuttable. It flaked, it stretched, it cracked, it did things meat is not known for doing. It made creaking noises. Juices spat. The fat hissed. The father’s first cut tore the brisket entirely in two, and flipped one half upside down on the plate with an inelegant and unmeatlike clatter. The bottom? Dead, charcoal black. Looked like a cinder, looked like the day after a campfire. Charred like Kosovo in ’98.
– I don’t think it’s underdone, somebody said rather meekly.
– But… I started. The thermometer …
– Remy, my boss said. What thermometer? I thought you knew how to cook.
– I do, I explained. But I still check the temperature.
– Hmm, said my boss, that is disappointing. If I’d known … I just thought you would know when to take it out. That thermometer is worthless, reads near fifty degrees low.

I was not asked to cook again.



One Response to “Culinary Mishaps #1: Hell-brisket”

  1. iheartbacon Says:

    oh, dear, and this is why I would never become a personal chef! 🙂

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