Brisket Braised in Pomegranate Juice with Onion Confit
and Pomegranate Seeds

Yield: 8 Generous Servings

Cut open a pomegranate. Hundreds of juice sacs form a nearly perfect star, red as blood. Little wonder it is celebrated in myth and ritual by all ancient peoples--Chinese, Greeks, as well as Jews--as a symbol of fertility and abundance.
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews often eat the pomegranate, one of the miperi ha-eretz (seven choice fruits of ancient Israel), in fulfillment of the commandment to eat a fruit not yet sampled this season. For, according to kabbalistic tradition, the pomegranate contains exactly 613 seeds, the precise number of commandments a pious Jew must follow; eating this perfect fruit on Rosh Hashanah embodies the hope that we may perform as many good deeds and righteous acts as the pomegranate has seeds.

The pomegranate’s virtues are not merely symbolic. Latest scientific research suggests it may slow the aging process and fight diseases like cancer. For the cook, it adds a tart, complex fruitiness to foods, tenderizes tough cuts, and even reduces the amount of salt needed in meat dishes. In this recipe, the juice tenderizes the brisket and invests the amethyst-tinted gravy with a haunting depth. More beautifully layered autumn colors and flavors unfold slowly: a cushion of bronze caramelized onions cooked to a jammy confit or “onion marmalade,” giving way to a shower of tart-sweet pomegranate seeds. It’s a glamorous showstopper, worth every minute in the kitchen. [This recipe was included in The 150 Best American Recipes by Fran McCullough and Molly Stevens (Houghton Mifflin 2006).]

For a discussion of pomegranate substitutions, see Cook’s Note.

For the Brisket
3 tablespoons olive or canola oil (or 1, if broil searing)
A first- or second-cut beef brisket, about 5 pounds, trimmed of excess fat, wiped with a damp paper towel, and patted dry
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
2 leeks, washed well and coarsely chopped (include both white and pale green parts)
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 large carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 celery stalk with leaves, coarsely chopped
2 cups pomegranate juice (see Cook’s Note)
2 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade, or good-quality low-sodium purchased
3 fresh thyme sprigs or 2 teaspoons dried leaves
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
2 Turkish bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Confit
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 large onions (about 2 ½ pounds), very thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds (see Cook’s Note)

Prepare the brisket: Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large heavy-bottomed roasting pan, using two burners, if necessary, or in a wide 6-quart Dutch oven or flameproof casserole. Add the brisket, and brown well on both sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer the brisket to a platter and set aside.

Alternatively, you might find it easier to sear the meat under the broiler. Just cover the broiler pan well with foil to minimize cleanup. Preheat the broiler. Place the brisket under the broiler, fat side up, and broil for 5 to 6 minutes on each side, or until nicely browned. Move the meat around as necessary, so it sears evenly. Transfer the brisket to a platter and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of fat remaining in the pan (or heat 1 tablespoon of the oil if you broiled the brisket), and add the onions and leeks. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat, until the vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic, carrots, and celery, and continue cooking until the onions are golden, 7 to 10 minutes, stirring and scraping the pan to prevent scorching or sticking.

Add 1 cup of the pomegranate juice and bring the mixture to a boil, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon, until the liquid is reduced by about half. Add the remaining 1 cup juice, the broth, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves and bring the mixture to a simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Lightly salt and pepper the brisket on both sides, and add it to the pan, fat side up, spooning the vegetables all over the meat. Cover the pan tightly (use heavy-duty foil if you don’t have a lid for the pan), and braise the brisket in the oven, basting every half hour, until the meat is very tender, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours. (Turn the oven down to 300 degreesF, if the braising liquid begins to bubble rapidly.)

The brisket tastes best if it is allowed to rest, reabsorbing the juices lost during braising, and it’s easiest to defat the gravy if you prepare the meat ahead and refrigerate it until the fat solidifies. So cool the brisket in the pan sauce, cover well with foil, and refrigerate until the fat congeals. (The gravy can be prepared by skimming the fat in the traditional way, if you prefer. If you go that route, though, do let the meat rest in the pan sauce for at least an hour.)

About an hour or so before you are ready to serve the brisket, make the confit: in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet, warm the oil. Add the onions, season lightly with salt and pepper, and toss to coat with the oil. Cook, tightly covered, over the lowest heat, stirring occasionally so the mixture does not burn, for 1 hour, or until the onions are very soft and pale gold in color. Add additional salt and pepper to taste, the broth, and wine. Raise the heat and boil the mixture, uncovered, stirring, until all the liquid is evaporated and the onions turn golden. Taste and adjust the seasoning (it may take quite a bit of salt), and turn off the heat. Cover the mixture and keep it warm. Stir in the pomegranate seeds just before serving.

Scrape off all solid fat. Remove the brisket from the pan and slice thinly across the grain.

Prepare the gravy: bring the braising mixture to room temperature, then strain it, reserving the vegetables. Skim and discard as much fat as possible from the liquid. Puree the reserved vegetables and 1 cup of the defatted braising liquid in a food processor or a blender. Transfer the pureed mixture and the remaining braising liquid to a skillet, and reduce the gravy over high heat to the desired consistency. Taste for seasoning. Rewarm the brisket in the gravy until heated through.

Spread the onion confit over a serving platter and arrange the sliced brisket on top. Ladle the hot gravy over the meat and serve immediately.

Cook’s Note: This dish owes its distinctive character to both winy pomegranate juice and fresh, tart-sweet pomegranate seeds. Do try to get fresh pomegranates. They are usually available from the end of August through December. Look for large fruits, bulging with seeds, heavy for their size. The leathery rind should be smooth, with some sheen, not dull and dried out. Store them in the refrigerator. An easy way to remove the seeds: cut the fruit in half or slightly score the rind. Soak the fruit in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes. Gently separate the seeds under water; the seeds will sink and the membranes float. Freeze the seeds in an airtight container for an instant burst of color and flavor in a multitude of sweet and savory dishes. One large pomegranate will give you about one cup of seeds.

You will get 2 cups pomegranate juice by squeezing 4 to 6 pomegranates. Or, even simpler, buy bottled pure pomegranate juice at many supermarkets, health food stores, and Middle Eastern shops. Do not substitute pomegranate molasses for the juice.

Although the dish is not the same without pomegranates, I can suggest alternatives for a very good, if different, taste:

For the pomegranate juice, try unsweetened pure apple-cranberry juice, given complexity with either a couple of tablespoons of pomegranate molasses or about 1/4 cup prune juice and 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice. Taste and make adjustments according to the sweetness of the juice, until you have a good balance of tart and sweet.

And, if absolutely necessary, substitute 1/2 cup (about 2 1/2 ounces) dried cranberries for the pomegranate seeds.


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