Willa’s Brisket

What did Willa want for her 9th birthday?

It certainly wasn’t a slow-smoked Texas-style brisket. That was what her dad wanted.

Willa and her birthday posse — whoa, that's a lot of girls!

Willa and her birthday posse — whoa, that’s a lot of girls!

While planning birthdays for my children, I like to remember that were it not for me, they wouldn’t be here. So in some ways, it’s a day to celebrate me, too!

Imogen got to go to Fenway Park and watch the Red Sox play the Orioles on her 5th birthday. She was initially disappointed when I told her, until I informed her should could have any kind of sweet she wanted. “Yayyy!” she said. Go Red Sox.

Willa’s main concern was mochi.

“I want it to be a mochi-theme party,” she told me. Mochi is a sticky Japanese sweet rice paste, often used to wrap little ice cream balls. I wasn’t certain how you create a themed party out of that. A piñata filled with mochi balls? Mochi take-home gift bags? A visit from the Mofutans mochi bunny? (No one outside of 9-year-old girls in Japan will know what this is.)

Mofutans mochi bunnies

Mofutans mochi bunnies

“Do you mean you want mochi instead of cake?” I asked, hopeful. Yes, it turns out, that was what she meant.

Relieved that I would not be asked to use mochi in my party food, I set about thinking what to make. There would be a lot of people here, and I wanted to keep it relatively simple. I landed on the idea of a Texas-style smoked brisket, which I hadn’t made since the previous year’s Memorial Day.

One of the best parts about cooking a brisket is that it takes all day. It’s the definition of slow food. You have to wake early, get your fire burning and then smoldering, set up your smoker, put the meat on. And then wait. And wait. And wait wait wait wait.

Brisket on the smoker

Brisket on the smoker

Even though it’s still morning and the brisket has been smoking already for three hours, you may feel like having a beer. I encourage you to follow that feeling. It’s what that ol’ dude in Texas waiting on his porch would do.

The brisket was still smoking when guests arrived, and removing it from the smoker and carrying it through the hushed crowd into the kitchen was a moment of triumph.

I served the brisket sliced on soft rolls with pan drippings and a spicy pickle cole slaw.

Another of the best parts of cooking a brisket is the leftovers — and, in particular, brisket tacos. I pre-slice the leftover brisket and freeze it. And then whenever the mood strikes, I chisel off half a pound or so and make some brisket tacos. If I was a food truck kinda guy, I’d strike it rich.

The final cut

The final cut

Willa saw me working on my post, read the title, and said, “Dad, it wasn’t my brisket!” She pointed out that she didn’t even eat any of it.

I reminded her that she wasn’t the only one who got to take credit for the glory of her existence. I was there at the conception!


*    *    *

Texas-style smoked brisket
serves a whole bunch,
and takes about 10 hours

1 brisket, 8-12 lbs.
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup ground dried pasilla chile
3 tbsp. paprika
3 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. onion powder
1 tsp. cumin
1 bottle lager beer

hardwood charcoal
chunks of hardwood like cherry, hickory or oak

The night before, mix together all ingredients except brisket and beer to create a rub. Sprinkle the rub all over the brisket until it is well covered, and brush it lightly with your hands to evenly distribute. Place in a large dish, cover with foil and set overnight in the fridge.

In the morning, place the chunks of hardwood in water and heat hardwood coals in a smoker or a deep barbecue. (You can also smoke your brisket in a gas grill at a very low temperature, but you will need to add wood chips frequently to get smoke flavor.) You want a temperature of about 200-250.

When coals are hot, place the brisket on the grill, place a chunk of soaked hardwood on the coals, and cover. You want the brisket far enough from coals that it is not getting direct heat — if you are using a barbecue and not a smoker, push the coals to one side and cook the brisket on the other. You will continue to monitor, adding coal and hardwood (or wood chips for a gas grill), for the next 8-9 hours, keeping a constant temperature between 200-250, until the brisket is fork tender.

For the last hour, place the brisket on a large sheet of heavy duty foil, and pour a bottle (or can) of lager beer over and around it. Wrap the foil up around the sides (use a second sheet if you need it) and tuck over, enclosing the brisket with the beer inside as a marinade. Smoke for another hour and remove, catching beer/brisket juices in a bowl as you remove the brisket.

With a very sharp knife, thinly cut the brisket across the grain into slices. Drizzle beer juices over the top. Serve in sandwiches, sliced white bread and cole slaw, or as tacos in toasted corn tortillas with onion slices and a tart smoky salsa.

Two Takes on Passatelli

My ever-generous big sister, Andrea, sent me two cookbooks for my birthday. One was a simple and useful book on tacos and Mexican snacks; the other, a coffee table volume of the most complicated Italian cooking on earth called “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.”

Mossimo Bottura

Mossimo Bottura

I love cookbooks from the art press, Phaidon, of which the latter is one. They are beautifully designed, with full page spreads of food you would never cook, as they tend to honor the world’s most daring chefs. Such is the case with “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.” The subject is Modena chef Massimo Bottura and his acclaimed restaurant, Osteria Francescana, which inevitably lands in the Top 5 of the world’s best restaurant lists, though never seems able to unseat previous #1 El Bulli and current #1 Noma (both subjects of multiple Phaidon titles). More

OMG! Omakase!

In Japan, “omakase” means “I’ll leave it to you,” or more precisely, “I trust you.” It’s a common phrase in fine sushi bars, when you put your meal in the hands of the chef and let him make you whatever he feels inspired to moment by moment.


In Topanga, “omakase” means my pal Don Schneider shows up at my house at 10 a.m. to drop off seven or eight different seafoods for a sushi dinner that evening, before he and family leave for a month to Israel to visit an ailing mother. He trusts me. More

A Vermont Roadtrip Dinner

Though it would get bumped off the itinerary of our recent Northeast vacation due to logistic issues, we would have our chance to see Vermont after all, on the drive between the Adirondacks and Boston.



Our pal Jon’s brother, Charlie — who went to college in Vermont and has a cabin there — gave us his recommendations for two different routes. The first was slightly more direct and passed through Middlebury, which was supposedly quaint and scenic; the second wound around a bit more and featured some nice waterfalls and a swimming hole. Both passed through the beautiful Green Mountains. Having gotten a late start from the Buck Summerhill Camp and it being well after lunch time when we crossed Lake Champlain into Vermont, we opted for the first. More

I Left My Heart in Poutineville

It began with our first meal in Quebec City at a joint across the street from the loft where we were staying called Poutineville — our love affair with the uniquely French Canadian comfort food called poutine.

Poutine with smoked meat and jalapeños

Poutine with smoked meat and jalapeños at Poutineville in Quebec City

I had heard about poutine and read more about it while researching for our trip — it is, in its simplest form, french fries, gravy and cheese curds. As you travel through eastern Canada, you will see all manners of creative and — in some cases — obscene variations.


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