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Elaine Corn

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Elaine Corn is a former news editor turned food editor and author. Her journalism career began with a bachelors of journalism from the University of Texas-Austin followed by jobs as a copy editor at the Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

While in Austin, Elaine became interested in food and created the paper’s first food section, becoming its first food editor. To learn more about food, she cooked her way from Europe to Israel and onto a private yacht sailing from Greece to Turkey as its only cook.

Back in America, she headed up food sections for the Louisville Courier-Journal and Sacramento Bee. While at the Bee, the paper won awards for Best Food Section and Best Food Reporting from the Association of Food Journalists.

Corn is author of six cookbooks. “Now You’re Cooking: Everything a Beginner Needs to Know to Start Cooking Today” won Julia Child and James Beard cookbook awards. Five years ago, Elaine began her conversion from print to radio journalism. Several stories have aired nationally on NPR. Elaine continues the search for food stories in every corner of life.

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An Heirloom Persimmon Cake Worth Discovering Image

If you want a moist autumn cake, put a persimmon in it. Or, in the case of this recent obsession I call persimmon pudding cake, make that four to six persimmons, depending on size.

This cake has been a project.

Many years ago while I was having dinner with friends, a dessert came to the table. It was humbly wrapped in the tin foil used by the woman who made it before she gave it to my host. He unfolded the protective flaps of crinkly tin foil away from treasure inside. It was a square the size of an uncut pan of brownies. Instead of the matte look of chocolate, this cake was dark as mahogany and glistened as if it had been dipped in honey.

Before me was persimmon cake. Of course I’d experienced persimmon fudge, persimmon pie and persimmon bread. But I was not to forget the taste reminiscent of gingerbread and a rich consistency firm enough to chew but soft and lush, like cheesecake meets mousse.

By persimmon season the next autumn, I tried to replicate the cake. The recipe was gone with the passing of the woman who had baked it. I hunted persimmon trees in my neighborhood that yielded the proper fruit, the Hachiya persimmon. This is different than the small persimmon eaten like an apple, which is the Fuyu. The Hachiya is big and heart-shaped and needs to be so fully ripe that to the touch it feels like there’s a loose gland under its thin skin.

When the fruit is ready, astringency should have yielded to sweetness. At this point, the Hachiya pulp can easily be scooped out of the skin, and the somewhat slimy neon-orange pulp can be puréed in a food processor.

I tried using the pulp in applesauce cake, but it was too runny. Then cider cake, which was too juicy. I tweaked gingerbreads. I made steamed persimmon pudding in an old pudding mold that I lowered into simmering water. With each effort, when I inverted the pan onto a serving platter, the dish drooled juices or fell apart. I added flour, cut back on liquid, increased leavening. Still, it was not right.

It wasn’t quite “CSI: Persimmon” at my house, but close. I knew that the woman who first made the cake I loved had come to California from West Virginia. Considering her age and regional traditions, I had a hunch. I went to an old “Joy of Cooking” and found the recipe for persimmon pudding that wasn’t steamed at all, but baked.

Again, results were too runny. I cut back on cream and some of the sugar. The trick was to change “Joy’s” one-bowl dump method to a technique typical of more structured cakes. For this, the butter and sugar were beaten first.

On my last try, I also had in the house a huge bag of home-dried pluots from my brother-in-law’s tree. He had dried them without citric acid, so they were dark and ugly. On impulse, he’d dusted his entire haul with chile powder. They were spicy!

I cut the pluots into small dice and added them to the persimmon batter, then baked it much longer than the “Joy” recipe and started it a higher temperature, hoping it would cook through while staying moist without being soupy.

Success is the recipe below. If you don’t have ugly dark home-dried pluots, which I’m sure you do not, use raisins, apricots, dates or dried plums (not prunes).

Persimmon Pudding Cake

Prep time: 45 minutes

Baking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes to 1 hour, 50 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 teaspoons chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho chile powder)

1 cup diced dried raisins, pluots, dates, apricots or plums ½ cup sugar

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 stick butter, soft

3 eggs

2 cups puréed persimmon pulp (from 4 to 6 very ripe Hachiya persimmons)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 1/2 cups cream

Directions

1. Butter a deep 9-inch square pan. To catch drips, prepare to set baking dish on a baking sheet or a large sheet of foil. Heat oven to 400 F.

2. In a bowl, toss the chopped dried fruit with chile powder; set aside.

3. Cream sugars and butter very well. Add eggs one at a time, beating only until each is absorbed. Stir in persimmon pulp.

4. In another bowl, sift baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.

5. With mixer on low speed, add flour and cream alternately to the persimmon batter in three helpings, ending with flour. Stir in chile-dried fruit.

6. Scrape batter into the buttered baking dish. To catch drips, set on a rimmed baking sheet or a sheet of foil.

7. Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 60 to 70 minutes more. Insert a toothpick near the center. If batter sticks to the toothpick, bake 10 to 15 minutes more. Center will just barely jiggle.

8. Cool in pan on a cooling rack no longer than an hour. Set a timer! Loosen by running a knife around the edges. Flip cake onto a serving platter. A bit of juice may pool around the cake.

9. Let stand until the cake cools completely. Serve with dollops of whipped cream on each piece.

Main photo: Persimmon Pudding Cake. Credit: Elaine Corn

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It’s Alive! For Probiotic Extremists, Kimchi Rules Image

Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, has been prepared, fermented and served as a daily tradition for more than 2,000 years. It’s served cold but is so spicy you take another bite to cool your mouth.

This extremely spicy recipe may be a side dish, but it has mythical standing at the Korean table.

“It tastes good. It will make you live long,” says Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu, owner of the gargantuan Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif.. His store doesn’t merely offer kimchi. It’s displayed in a refrigerated case so large you feel as if you’re approaching the Great Wall of Kimchi.

When Yu was growing up in Korea, he was served his mother’s homemade kimchi every day, Yu remembers. “It doesn’t matter how old the kimchi is. It’s good from the first day to as long as it lasts. You can eat it all the way — no waste.”

When it ages and the taste leans to sour, it’s served in soup.

Because Korea is a cold country, cool-weather-loving cabbage and radish (daikon) dominate the favored types of vegetables for kimchi, although there are nearly 200 versions.

What begins as a pickle morphs into a fermented dish. Koreans famously place new kimchi in big black pottery jars and bury them in the ground to keep the very-much-alive cultures in kimchi at an even, cool temperature.

Yu eats kimchi every day. “It makes your stomach comfortable.”

Yu may not know why he’s right, but he is.

“There’s been a real emergence in the public, and a real mystique, about the wonders of fermented foods,” says Maria Marco, assistant professor at the University of California, Davis’ department of food science and technology. “The flavor profiles change, because the microorganisms continue to grow. It’s nature’s way of making food taste different.”

Health benefits

Kimchi is a powerful vegetable probiotic, Marco says. It contributes health benefits in a manner similar to that provided by dairy probiotic foods, such as in yogurt.

And with many in the medical community now referring to the gut as the second brain, kimchi benefits that gut IQ by helping the body absorb nutrients.

“There’s a microbial zoo in there,” Marco says of kimchi. “The bacteria consume the sugars on the vegetable and they spit out the organic acids, which are easily digested by our bodies,” Marco says, all of which increases gut flora and aids digestion.

Kimchi is also nature’s way of preserving food.

Yu said that despite its ability to age, most kimchi is about a 3 months old or just-made. About a year is enough for the flavor to change from something fresh, spicy and cole slaw-like to what Yu describes as sour.

Byong Joo "B.J." Yu at his Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu at his Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

“Usually youngsters like the sour taste. As you get older, you prefer the fresh. I’m 57 and I still like it sour.” When kimchi is highly fermented, Yu says the best way to serve it is in cold soup.

At a Korean restaurant, kimchi is never ordered alone. It just shows up when you order your entrée along with lots of other side dishes called banchan. Restaurant kimchi is invariably fresh.

It’s not hard to make kimchi, but it takes time. Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage) is wilted in salted water several hours and rinsed well. Then, packed under each leaf, is a marinade of Korean red pepper powder, sugar, a good deal of garlic and fresh ginger, shredded daikon and tiny shrimp. This marinade may have soy sauce or fish sauce, anchovy or dried oyster or a combination.

The most obvious ingredient, at least to the taste buds, is Korean red pepper powder. It is not cayenne or paprika, but a member of the capsicum family called gochugaru that is incredibly hot. It’s called and sold under a variety of brands in flakes or coarse and medium grind.

For some, kimchi may be too spicy. Yu says for Koreans, there’s no such thing. “It’s not spicy to us.”

Kimchi is so readily available that it’s rarely made at home. At Koreana Plaza, it’s made on site every day. For beginners, Yu recommends picking up a small container of fresh kimchi either from a Korean or Asian store that makes it on site. Or, choose among a half dozen of high quality commercial brands sold in jars and kept cold in the produce section of many grocery stores.

Best temperature for kimchi?

Kimchi of any age sold cold is best. If the jar is shelf stable at room temperature, the heat from being processed has most likely destroyed kimchi’s best properties.

Kimchi is typically mixed with other foods on the table, such as rice, noodles and stews. Recently I thinly sliced prepared kimchi and added it to a batch of basic American cole slaw, mayonnaise dressing and all. This surprise addition of kimchi, which will stump guests trying to guess the surprise ingredient, keeps the cabbage theme while adding a vague sourness and an extreme hit of spice.

Main photo: Freshly made kimchi. Credit: 4kodiak / iStockphoto

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Grapefruit And Avocado Pair Up For A Fresh Seasonal Salad Image

As winter salads go, it’s a combination of two fruits you’d never think belong together — avocado and red-fleshed grapefruit. Not pink grapefruit — but red, redder, reddest. The cravings start now, as red grapefruit and avocado appear in stores at the same time, November through April.

The story of this odd combo starts in South Texas, a region with a year-round temperate growing zone and fertile soil enriched by the Rio Grande. The grapefruit and avocado pairing’s origin might be as simple as rhubarb and strawberries sharing a season and ending up in pie together. Or the now-cordial association of summer tomatoes with watermelon. Could it be that South Texas locals, faced with two major simultaneous crops, may have had an inevitable epiphany based more on the avocado than the grapefruit?

The evolution of grapefruit’s redness

Grapefruit isn’t all that versatile. But avocado lovers will stick an avocado into a chicken dish, on top of steak, inside an enchilada, a burrito or a quesadilla. They’ll add chunks of it to a zucchini salad, sneak it into tuna fish, and mash it and use it as frosting on a Jell-O mold. Why not section a grapefruit and toss it with avocado slices? At the very least, the acid from the grapefruit will prevent the avocado from turning brown.

There was plenty of time for the grapefruit and avocado dish to evolve. The first grapefruits in South Texas were white. They got there by Spanish missionaries. In 1929, an accidental sighting of a red grapefruit hanging on a pink grapefruit tree amazed growers. Its flesh was so gorgeous that growers raced to breed redder bud mutations. So many South Texans were naming red grapefruit varieties after themselves that to end the confusion the term “ruby” was adopted for all.

The Ruby Red Grapefruit was the first grapefruit to hold a U.S. patent. Its offspring are trademarked. The Rio Star, which I buy in California, combines the two reddest varieties, Rio Red and Star Ruby. It’s seven to 10 times redder than the original Ruby Red. The Ruby-Sweet is three to five times redder than a Ruby Red. (Sunkist also grows red grapefruit in California and Arizona under the names Star Ruby and Rio Red, among others.)

High time for avocado

As to the avocado, also coming into production in South Texas, the variety there is Lula. It’s much bigger than California’s or Mexico’s Hass, weighing nearly a pound. But the flesh is comparable — buttery with 15% to 26% oil.

Depending on where you live, you’ll use the avocado available. In these pre-Super Bowl times, avocados presumed destined to vats of guacamole are piled high in stores and priced low.

To offset grapefruit’s acid, the typical dressing for grapefruit avocado salad trends sweet. The dressing turns pink from red onion and red wine vinegar, a suitable color for a really red grapefruit.

Grapefruit and Avocado Salad With Pink Poppy Seed Dressing

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

½ medium red onion, in chunks

½ cup red wine vinegar (not too darkly colored)

½ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon dry mustard or prepared Dijon

⅓ cup vegetable oil

⅓ cup olive oil

¼ cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves

⅓ cup fresh chopped mint leaves

2 tablespoons finely minced jalapeño, divided

1½ tablespoons poppy seeds

3 red grapefruits

3 just-ripe avocados (not too soft)

Butter lettuce

Lime wedges

Directions

1. To make the dressing, in a blender or food processor, combine onion, vinegar, sugar and mustard. With machine running, slowly add all the oil. With one or two bursts, pulse in the prepped cilantro, mint, half the jalapeño, and poppy seeds. You should have about 2 cups.

2. Using a long sharp knife, slice off skin and all of the bitter white pith from each entire grapefruit. Holding the grapefruit in one hand and working over a bowl, cut in between the membranes to release the sections.

3. Squeeze the juice from the membranes into the dressing; discard the membranes.

4. Slice avocados ¼-inch thick. Arrange grapefruit sections and avocado slices on butter lettuce. Spoon dressing over the fruit. Squeeze lime juice over each salad. Sprinkle with remaining minced jalapeño and serve.

The dressing and the grapefruit may be prepared several hours ahead of serving, covered and refrigerated. The avocados and lettuce should be prepared just before serving.

Top photo: Grapefruit and avocado salad. Credit: Elaine Corn

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This Turkey And Gravy Kugel Has A State Secret Image

The once-in-a-lifetime mashup of the all-American holiday of Thanksgiving with the second night of the eight-night Jewish holiday of Hanukkah brings us to Thanksgivukkah.

So, what’s to eat? Sweet potato latkes? Too obvious. Pumpkin-spiced sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts)? Too weird.

With Thanksgiving leftovers lasting well into the remaining days of Hanukkah, what could better combine the two holidays than Turkey and Gravy Kugel?

What’s kugel? According to “Yiddish Cuisine” by Robert Steinberg, kugel is an Eastern European dish of privation for people unable to afford meat. Steinberg says kugel is a rich dish that American Jews typically serve as a side dish but that can be equally good as a main course. The best part of a noodle kugel is that the top gets very browned and crunchy.

Turkey meets kugel

As to Turkey and Gravy Kugel, I admit I’ve never had such a dish in my life. It never occurred to my mother or grandmothers to merge Thanksgiving turkey with wide egg noodles in a baked casserole, possibly because in their lifetimes — and mine — the two holidays had never intersected.

Calculations by Jewish genealogist Stephen P. Morse show that the last time Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlapped was more than 100 years ago. Based on the lunar Hebrew calendar, it won’t happen again in our lifetimes.

This year, the convergence has given me a new family tradition. To test the recipe, I stuck a turkey in the oven to harvest pan juices and meat for shredding into the gravy.

To make sure I had enough gravy, I took a cue from the second edition of “The Texas Holiday Cookbook” by Dotty Griffith. Her mother’s gravy was legendary. Best of all, it was always made a few days before the holiday to avoid the last-minute rush when all the dishes are set on the Thanksgiving table.

To keep the kugel a meat dish — meat combined with dairy is not kosher — I avoided butter in Griffith’s roux and instead used the congealed fat that rose to the top of the liquid the giblets boiled in. Kugel is like most dishes of Eastern European origin. The secret ingredient is onion, lots of it.

Turkey and Gravy Kugel

Serves 8

Ingredients

1 pound turkey and chicken necks

½ pound chicken and turkey gizzards and hearts

4½ cups water

about 1 cup of shredded turkey

3 tablespoons risen fat, vegetable oil or schmaltz

1 large onion, minced

½ cup flour

Reserved pan drippings from roasted turkey, if available

Salt and black or white pepper, to taste

12 ounce package wide egg noodles, boiled in salted water according to package directions

3 large eggs, beaten

Directions

1. To make the stock, start by rinsing the necks, gizzards and hearts. Place these in a large saucepan. Cover with the water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer. Using a large spoon, skim off foam until liquid is clear. Cook 2 to 3 hours, uncovered, until gizzards and hearts are soft and tender.

2. This should yield about 3 cups chopped, cooked gizzards and hearts, plus shredded meat from the cooked necks. Add some shredded meat from your Thanksgiving turkey until you have 4 cups.

3. Strain stock into a storage container, reserving cooked gizzards, necks and hearts in another container. Refrigerate both several hours or up to 2 days.

4. To make gravy, begin by carefully lifting the layer of congealed fat off chilled stock. You should have about 3 tablespoons. (If there is not enough, add vegetable oil.)

5. In a large saucepan, heat the 3 tablespoons fat over high heat. Add onion, reducing heat to medium. Cook until very soft, but do not allow onion to color, about 10 minutes.

6. Add the chopped gizzards and shredded meats, stirring with a wooden spatula to coat with fat. Add flour, stirring over medium high heat until meat becomes thick, pasty and tan, about 3 to 5 minutes.

7. Add the stock, stirring well to prevent lumps. At this point, add pan juices from your Thanksgiving turkey. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat so sauce simmers and becomes thick, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat; leave in pan.

8. To complete the kugel, first cook the noodles. Drain but do not rinse them.

9. Heat the oven to 375 F. Generously oil a 9-by-12-inch baking dish, or an attractive oven-to-table serving dish of similar size.

10. Take about a cup of the hot gravy and stir it quickly into the beaten eggs. Pour this egg mixture back into the gravy, stirring.

11. In a large bowl, combine the cooked noodles with all the gravy. Pour the noodles into the prepared baking dish.

12. Bake 1 hour, or until the noodles form a dark brown crunchy top. Serve with cranberry sauce.

Top photo: Turkey and Gravy Kugel for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. Credit: Elaine Corn

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A Foolproof Rosh Hashana Brisket With A Perfect Sauce Image

When brisket is served on a special occasion, it had better be special.

I’m not talking everyday barbecued brisket, but an entire brisket made as the centerpiece for a traditional Jewish New Year meal when a family is of Eastern European extraction and most likely entered America on the East Coast.

A brisket of such proportions might show up at other celebrations, too. In the case of the best Jewish-styled brisket I’ve ever tasted (sorry, Mom), it turned up in Tulsa, Okla., in a rehearsal dinner buffet at the home of the bride’s parents, my cousins David and Michele Schwartz.

It’s a long story of how David Schwartz of New York City and the former Michele Steinberg of Pittsburgh got to Tulsa, where I experienced this magical meat. It was presented in a deep serving vessel swathed in a lush dark red sauce. The slices were easily retrieved by tongs. Getting at the sweet-sourish sauce was helpfully aided by a big spoon. The meat melted in my mouth.

This was kosher meat. The Schwartzes keep a kosher home. Michele’s father once owned a kosher slaughterhouse in Pittsburgh, so my cousin grew up familiar with meat cuts. Michele, 67, orders kosher beef, lamb, chicken and turkey from St. Louis.

Michele’s mother made whole briskets the same way Michele makes them to this day. This recipe is more than 80 years old.

Original Heinz from Pittsburgh

Suspend your impulses for purity. The main ingredient is also from Pittsburgh and one of the city’s most famous products — Heinz ketchup, begun in 1869. Before Heinz turned to making ketchup with high fructose corn syrup, the product used by Michele’s mother during the World War II years most likely resembled the recently introduced retro ketchup Heinz is now making with regular sugar, called Simply Heinz.

A typical entire brisket can weigh up to 15 pounds. Considering a brisket takes up the volume of an average turkey, Michele bakes it in two aluminum turkey-roasting pans nested together for doubled strength. “When you’re finished, the oven’s clean and I just throw them away,” she said.

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Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce for Rosh Hashana. Credit: Elaine Corn

Instead of an enormous whole brisket, I used what is called a brisket top flat or a single brisket, depending on the part of the country in which you’re buying meat. This smaller piece comes right off the top of the whole brisket, as if the whole brisket were a sandwich with nothing between the two slabs, and the butcher gives you the top piece of bread. My brisket flat weighed 6.22 pounds and fit nicely in a lasagna pan. Count on 20% shrinkage during cooking.

Preserving a family recipe

Obtaining the recipe took about an hour on the phone with Michele.

“I never measure,” she said. “My mother just showed me, and I’ve shown my kids. I look at it and think it could use a little more seasoning or ketchup, like Julia Child.”

This recipe is nearly foolproof. My first trial came out great. And like Michele, I’ve already stashed the leftovers in heavy-duty plastic zip bags in the freezer.

I’ve named this recipe Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce. I plan to serve it for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown Wednesday, Sept. 4. Luckily, I already have plenty in the freezer.

Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce

From my cousin Michele Schwartz of Tulsa, Okla., whose father once owned a kosher slaughterhouse in Pittsburgh, comes this recipe from her mother for brisket in a lush gravy.

Michele uses only kosher meat in her home. For that reason, she begins with a small amount of seasoned salt, as kosher meat goes through salting during processing. If you use regular brisket, you’ll have to salt your way through this, starting small and adjusting along the way. Not to worry, there are plenty of opportunities to taste and fix. The sauce should be gravy-like with lots of body and hints of perceivable garlic.  

Ingredients

1½ pounds onions

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon granulated garlic (not garlic powder)

1 teaspoon Lawry’s Seasoned Salt

Ground black pepper, to taste

1 (5- to 6-pound) single brisket, sometimes called top flat, fat trimmed as desired

2 cups Heinz ketchup, such as Simply Heinz made without high fructose corn syrup

Splash sweet red wine, such as Manischewitz Concord Grape

Directions

1. Heat oven to 400 F. Slice onions in rings.

2. Spread two-thirds of the onions on the bottom of a disposable aluminum roasting pan or a large baking dish, such as a lasagna pan. Sprinkle with half the granulated garlic, seasoned salt and black pepper.

3. Lay the meat on top of the onions, fat side up. Scatter remaining one-third of the onions on top of the meat. Sprinkle with remaining seasonings.

4. Pour the ketchup into a 2-cup measuring cup and then pour it over the meat. Fill the ketchup’s measuring cup with about 1 cup water, swish around to pick up any ketchup still in the measure, and pour this water over the meat. Add a splash of the sweet red wine.

5. Using your hands or a big spoon, combine the elements together, making sure some slides off the meat and down the sides. You should have the beginnings of a sauce.

6. Cover the roasting pan with heavy duty foil, crimping sides to seal. Bake for 45 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 F and bake 30 to 40 minutes more.

7. Open cover and prick the meat with a fork. If the brisket resists the puncture and still feels tough, return to the oven for 30 minutes more. The idea is to stop the cooking when the meat is about three-fourths of the way cooked; more cooking will ensue after slicing.

8. When satisfied with the cooking progress, remove the pan from the oven. Uncover and cool on counter, saving the foil cover. When cool, recover the roasting pan and refrigerate the meat in the sauce overnight. The next day, skim solidified fat that has risen to the top (Michele leaves a tiny bit of fat, for flavor.)

9. Lift the brisket out of the sauce and place on a cutting board, leaving sauce in the baking pan.

10. Starting at the pointed end, use a long sharp slicing knife to cut slices about a quarter-inch thick, cutting across the grain. When this portion is sliced, turn the brisket to finish slicing across the grain for the rest of the cut.

11. Taste the gravy. Correct seasonings, adding more ketchup if you prefer it to be thicker. Return sliced meat to the sauce, turning meat to coat it. You may do this in advance and return it to the refrigerator, or proceed to the next step.

12. Closer to serving, reheat the meat in the sauce, covered, at 350 F for 1 hour. Bring it to the table hot with a serving fork to pick up the meat and a big spoon for the gravy.

Top photo: Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce for Rosh Hashana. Credit: Elaine Corn

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Consumers Still In The Dark: 6 Tips To Buying Better Olive Oil Image

Have you ever wondered what exactly you’re getting when you purchase a bottle of olive oil? Extra virgin? Pure?

“Pure,” explains Dan Flynn of the University of California Davis Olive Center, “which is such a great word from a marketing standpoint, indicates to a lot of consumers that they’re buying the very best olive oil. But in fact, it’s a lower grade.”

Extra virgin is the highest grade for olive oil.

Flynn, the olive center’s executive director, and his associate Selina Wang, its research director, recently released a study called “Consumer Attitudes on Olive Oil.” It revealed problems with consumers’ notions of this product that would make lovers of great olive oil, or those knowledgeable about it, cringe.

Only one in four of us understands olive oil grades, the report found. Eighty percent cited flavor as an important factor in buying olive oil, yet earlier studies have shown that a majority of imported oils have off flavors or are already rancid. Rancidity negatively affects the human body by forming free radicals and depleting certain B vitamins. If you’re using olive oil for your health, ingesting a rancid one will not bear the valuable antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and viable polyphenols.

Consumers also did not think that the terminology olive oil professionals used to convey positive attributes, such as “grassy,” “peppery” and “fruity,” made the product sound tasty. They were also confused by the term “refined.”

“It doesn’t mean elegant or high class,” Flynn said. Typical of labeling that intends to mislead, refined means just the opposite. Refined olive oil has been processed with solvents to mask off odors and flavors. This do-over is done because the oil might have started out with olives of questionable quality, or it’s a blend of low-grade oils gushing around the Mediterranean from Turkey, Greece or Spain, or it’s been cut with other oils, such as hazelnut or safflower. In these cases, that’s all got to be covered up.

Wang designed the consumer study. She is originally from Taiwan, where olive oil is not so familiar. “It probably took me several months to figure out all the terminology and nomenclature,” she said. “It’s very confusing.”

olive oil label

Olive oil label. Credit: Elaine Corn

The conclusion is there is much work to be done to better communicate what’s in the bottle instead of focusing on devising language that masks unscrupulous practices.

So how do you read an olive oil label to make sure it’s the best extra virgin you can afford?

There are six things to do. With advice from Orietta Gianjorio, a UC Davis Olive Oil Taste Panel member who grew up in Rome and is familiar with these terms we’ve inherited from Europe, here are some clues about how to read a label. In general, look for the term extra virgin. But don’t take it for granted.

Turn the bottle over. Where is the oil from? Just because it was packed or produced in Italy doesn’t mean the oil’s Italian. Oils come from all over the Mediterranean — Tunisia, Spain, Greece and Turkey — to Italy just to be packaged. That’s a lot of traveling. To impress you, the label may even brag that the oil has come from many countries. But now that you’re becoming an expert, you’ll know that the longer the time between harvest and processing, the better the chance the oil has of degrading.

Look for the harvest date. Remember that olive oil is the opposite of wine. It is not meant to age. Think of it as fresh fruit juice. Olive oil is good for about two years if stored in optimum conditions, which means in a dark, room-temperature cupboard. “If the back of the label doesn’t have the harvest date, you may consider putting that bottle back on the shelf,” Gianjorio advised.

Look for seals of approval. Many California olive oils are sent, for a fee, to the California Olive Oil Council’s panel of trained tasters. If the oil passes, the producer is given permission to place the COOC seal on the label. Most often, this is placed on the back of the bottle. However, many fine California oils from small producers are never sent to the COOC because of costs. Usually, these bottles show a harvest date.

Smell it and taste it. Because you can’t very well take a swig at the store, Gianjorio said that as soon as you get the olive oil home, smell it and taste it. Ideally you won’t encounter the off odors, which Gianjorio described as wax, bad salami, old peanut butter, baby diaper, manure or sweaty socks.

Take it back. “This is America. You take everything back,” Gianjorio said. Tell the store manager that the oil is rancid and return it. If the manager is unable to lead you to a better product, find a shop that specializes in fine olive oil, or look for good olive oil online.

Favor domestic oil. First, this is not an us vs. them: There are high-quality producers all over the world. Olive oils made in the U.S. consistently score higher in quality than imports. California furnishes 97% of the olive oil produced in the U.S. If there’s a shorthand way of looking for quality, reach for olive oil from the Golden State.

Top photo: Olive oils line shelves at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

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