food ethics, recipe box

Texas Barbecue

There’s nothing like a few years of eating vegetarian to bring out the deepest seated affection for succulent steaks, burgers, bacon, and, of course, barbecue. I still like to distance myself from the whole this-is-the-flesh-of-a-real-animal thing but, then again, I always did even before I went vegetarian. In truth, I think the violence of eating is something that humans are alone in having to grapple with and it will always affect some more than others. It’s both the blessing and the curse of modern society that the majority of people in the developed world are detached from the way their food is grown. In the United States especially people don’t know and, I think, don’t really care where their food comes from.

My turn to vegetarianism in college wasn’t really as deep and meaningful as all of that though. I eased into a vegetarian diet slowly. There were a lot meats (and meals made with meat) that I simply didn’t like the taste of. The ones I did tended to challenge my culinary talents to the point that the list grew smaller and smaller. Plus, meat is expensive.

My trials in the kitchen and with becoming a financially independent adult coincided with an academic environment in which ethics, philosophy, and politics took center stage. And so, before long Luke and I decided we would be fine eliminating meat – – as well as our contribution to the bloody side of corporate agribusiness – – from our diet all-together. And we were.

While we never intended to approach our new dietary choice like zealots, the surprising resistance to vegetarianism by a handful of family members and friends did imbue our lifestyle with a certain degree of fervor.

And then, this last Spring after a long day’s work in the garden, we both ordered bacon cheeseburgers at The Cheesecake Factory like it was nothing at all. A very fitting turn of events given the nonchalance of our journey towards a meat-less diet years before. That was the spark too. Suddenly we craved burgers and bacon like it was no one’s business. We began a quest for the best burger in Durham and did our best to make up for all the cholesterol we had avoided in the previous 5 years.

I still dislike the same meats as before. Pork? No thanks. Rib-eye steak? Nah, that’s alright. Carnival turkey leg? Umm, eww.

But I digress. This post is about Texas barbecue. I. love. Texas. Barbecue. Yes, I had forgotten about it for a while there but the weakness is back in full force. Though I only discovered recently how important the Texas part is in Texas Barbecue. I’m a Texan and as far as I’m concerned barbecue means brisket. My understanding though is a regional one for sure because Luke didn’t even know what brisket meant. I’ve asked around at work too. Co-workers, customers, vendors… I’ve found a total of 2, yes two people who knew what brisket is.

I thought, surely these people have had brisket but maybe they just call it something different. So, I asked around and did my google-ing until I’d determined where the best barbecue place in Durham is and I gave it a go. There was only one option: barbecue. By the pint. Yes! I was ready. Imagine my surprise when I got home and saw this:

In case the picture doesn’t do it justice, let me say it looked gross. Very, very gross. Luke was all, “what did you get???” with a great stink-eye expression. To be fair, it was edible… we got it once again a week later. Buttt, not exactly gooood…. and not what I would consider real barbecue.

So, without my beloved Railroad Barbecue nearby, I had to take matters into my own hands. Its hard to make great brisket without a smoker or a grill but I found a great way to approximate the real thing in the oven. And because I believe in sharing the love, I’m gonna walk you through it here so that you can make your own.

Here’s what you’ll need:

2 tbsp ancho chili powder

1 tbsp salt, I like fleur de sel

1 tbsp garlic powder

1 tbsp onion powder

1 tbsp ground black pepper

1/2 tbsp brown sugar

1/2 tbsp white sugar

2 tsp Colman’s mustard powder

1 tsp cayenne pepper, optional

1 tsp oregano, optional

1 bay leaf, crushed up as finely as possible

a 4 pound-ish beef brisket with a nice layer of fat about 1/4 inch thick.

a big cast iron skillet with a lid or a dutch oven

a handful of carrots, optional

2 cups beef stock (or beer) and about a cup or so of water

3-4 tsp liquid smoke

3-4 tsp Worcestershire sauce

*This recipe can be easily expanded or reduced. The photos below are from a 2.25 lb brisket I made the other night and just halved the other ingredients.

What you’ll do:

1. Preheat your oven to 350.

2. Make a dry rub by combining the first 11 ingredients (the cayenne pepper and oregano are optional). You can buy barbecue rubs in the store already mixed together but I think this combo not only tastes way better but is super easy too.

3. I like to rinse the brisket under cold water and then pat dry before rubbing it well with the spice mix. Be sure to season the brisket well on both sides and on the edges and use your hands to really massage it in. You shouldn’t have any of the rub left over.

4. Transfer the brisket with the fat side up to your cast iron dutch oven or skillet and roast in the preheated oven uncovered for 1 hour.

*The fat on the brisket is really important here because it not only gives the brisket a better flavor it keeps it from drying out while you cook it.

5. By now you’re going to be enjoying the most incredible aromas wafting from your kitchen. Add the beef stock (or beer) and enough water to fill the skillet or dutch oven with about 1/2-1.5 inches of liquid. Add the carrots, if using. (I usually toss in a handful of baby carrots because its easy.) Use a little less water if you’re not using carrots. Add the liquid smoke and Worcestershire sauce.

* Beef stock makes the brisket taste a little more like pot roast, beer gives it a slightly different flavor. I haven’t tried using wine yet but I’ve read that some people like to use beef stock and then substitute dry red wine for the water.

6. Lower the oven to 300, cover your cast iron with a tight fitting lid, and continue cooking for 3ish hours. At the 3 hour mark you’re probably good to go but if you’re not ready to eat yet just turn the oven off but leave the cast iron inside for however long. I’ve left it for a few hours and it was still ah-mazing.

7. I like to scrape the fat off the top before cutting and serving but its really up to you. Be sure to cut across the grain and top with some of the juice from the pan.

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