November 1, 2011
Island Cooking: Crazy Johnny Conner’s beef brisket and other fall recipes

By LYNNE FOSTER


It seems everyone is talking turkey now but for me the magic word is brisket!    A visit with Crazy Johnny Conner led me on a quest for a recipe and a method to cook this less than prime cut of beef to perfection.  Four briskets later, I achieved a moist, tender, truly beefy roast.

It all began at this year's annual Bucket Party in honor of the island’s late, beloved nurse practitioner Carey Lesieur.  In addition to long tables full of potluck dishes, the big Conner's Supermarket cooker was there spewing tempting aromas of, and piling huge serving dishes with, eastern North Carolina pork barbecue and brisket.

My editor and many other islanders love the Conner’s beef brisket, so she suggested a column on the topic as she extracted from me a promise of samples!

Crazy Johnny was happy to show me his technique and offer tips for home cooking.  During a visit to his well-equipped outdoor cooking area, he gave me a tour of the different cookers, including the custom star of his stable, a mobile barbecue grill the size of a city apartment kitchen (and more efficient) that he and his father designed and built.  

In addition to a cooking area that easily accommodates a butcher shop's supply of meat, there is a large storage compartment to carry the product, condiments, and tools.  Its cover is a huge cutting board and on the opposite side is a sink.  Several propane tanks complete the work station on wheels.

Conner explained that the brisket is a tough, chewy cut that requires a "long and slow" cooking procedure to extract its big flavor and eventual tenderness.  It also needs generous seasoning.  He coats the raw cut with loads of black pepper and doesn't skimp on kosher salt.  In fact, he "salts it like you want to give someone a heart attack!"

No other seasoning allowed.

It goes on the grill at 200-250 degrees for two hours to develop its "bark," a tasty, crunchy exterior coating.  Maintaining the correct low temperature is important.  Hence, the gas grills.

The next step is what he calls a "Texas crunch."  The brisket is sealed, not just wrapped, in aluminum foil in which it steams on the grill for another three hours, for a total of five hours of cooking time.

The last part of the process is equally important.  Open the foil packet very carefully so you don't lose the luscious gravy that has accumulated in the bottom.  Remove the brisket to a cutting board and allow the meat to rest and retain its juices until cool and then slice thinly against the grain.  Serve with its gravy, of course!

Conner cooks a whole brisket that can feed 20 people and he "always cooks enough for leftovers."  Cooked, sliced brisket freezes well and can be reheated for a later feast.  You should reheat the juice separately.

I, on the other hand, was not prepared to feed 20 people four times in one week so I got four pieces of brisket at about 3 to 4 pounds each.   Conner gave me instructions for home cooking, but I also tried other recipes.  I wanted to try them in the oven, too, since our grill is small and it is impossible to move the meat around to ensure it gets the right heat.

Only one was a disappointment and that was because I did not follow his instructions to the letter.  My confidence in my cooking skills led me to believe I could adjust the directions to cook it in a Dutch oven, but I was wrong.  

It produced no juices and was bone dry.  So, I contacted Conner again to discuss my failure, got new instructions, and tried one last brisket his way, and voila!  Success -- a moist, juicy brisket that I was proud to bring to my editor.

However, it still wasn't as delicious as Conner's.  If you want to feed a group -- not just feed, but wow them -- call Crazy Johnny Conner and you can be sure of a superior brisket.  He will cook special orders and caters full spreads, including pork and chicken as well as brisket.   He can be reached at 252-996-0711.

And keep your eye out for his family's possible new venture to complement the catering business and Conner’s Supermarket in Buxton.  They are bouncing around the idea of a barbecue restaurant in Buxton.  We need to encourage that plan!

The first recipe was one I had made before, Haina's Surefire Brisket, from Molly O'Neal's “New York Cookbook.”  It really is an easy, reliable and flavorful one pot recipe but it isn't as purely beefy as Crazy Johnny's.  I added a few root vegetables to the pot.


HAINA’S SUREFIRE BRISKET

1 brisket (3-4 pounds)
2 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon peanut oil
3 cups ginger ale
1 packet Goodman’s or Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix
6 potatoes, quartered
3 large carrots, chunked
3 parsnips, quartered
1 rutabaga, quartered
1 medium sweet onion, quartered

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Coat both sides of the brisket with the paprika.  In a Dutch oven over high heat, heat the peanut oil to smoking.  Add the brisket and sear on all sides.  Remove from the heat.

Stir in the ginger ale and onion soup mix.  Cover the pot and place into the oven to roast for one hour.

Turn the meat over and cook for an additional hour.

Add the vegetables and return to the oven for 45-60 minutes or until the vegetables pierce easily but are not mushy.

When the brisket is tender, remove it to a cutting board and allow it to cool slightly.  Slice the brisket thinly across the grain.  Serve, with the vegetables, on a large platter and drizzle the pan juices over it.


Later that week I made a very spicy version, and the recipe worked very well but it was far too fiery to enjoy and overwhelmed the other seasonings.  So I cut the amount of pepper and substituted chipotle for chili pepper for a bit of smokiness.  

This next is from About.com on barbecues and grilling and is called oven barbecue brisket.  The recipe calls for a 4-5 pound brisket but I kept the quantities for the other ingredients the same, even though my brisket was slightly smaller.


OVEN BARBECUE BRISKET

1 brisket (3-4 pounds)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons Worcestershire
4 cloves garlic minced
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chipotle powder
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Combine everything but the brisket in a bowl.  Mix well.  Rub mixture over the surface of the brisket and wrap tightly in aluminum foil.  Refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Place brisket in a roasting pan on a roasting rack and poke a few holes in the foil on top.  

Cook for 4 hours.  Carefully remove the foil so you do not lose all of the juices.  Remove roast to a cutting board to cool before carving and serving.

Serve with potato and zucchini chips for a cool contrast.


POTATO AND ZUCCHINI CHIPS WITH HERBED YOGURT

Herbed Yogurt

1 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. (If you have a specialty Eastern pepper like Aleppo, Urfa, or Marash, that would be perfect.)
Ground sumac for sprinkling
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling (optional)

In a bowl, stir together the yogurt, garlic and mint, and season with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle with sumac and drizzle with olive oil.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.


CHIPS

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon plus 1 lemon cut into wedges for serving
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley (flat-leaf)
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 teaspoon ground sumac
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 zucchini
2 golden potatoes

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, eggs, milk, lemon zest, and juice.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the garlic, parsley, mint, and sumac, and stir the batter until well combined.

Slice the zucchini and potatoes in long thin ribbons.  If you have a mandoline slicer, this is a good use for it.

In a 10-inch frying pan over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the sliced zucchini to the batter and gently stir to coat.  Add one slice at a time to the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pan.  Cook until golden brown on both sides.  Transfer to a serving plate and keep warm.  Continue with the remaining zucchini and then the potato slices.  (If necessary, add the remaining olive oil to the pan and allow it to heat before adding the vegetables.)

Serve with the dipping sauce and lemon wedges.


CRAZY JOHNNY’S BRISKET COOKED AT HOME

1 brisket
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper


Preheat grill or oven to 200-250 degrees.

Cover the entire brisket with plenty of kosher salt and ground black pepper.

Place directly on the pre-heated grill surface or in an aluminum roasting pan if cooking in oven.

Cook for 2 hours.

Remove and enclose the brisket in aluminum foil being very careful not to pierce the foil or tightly seal the aluminum pan with foil.  Return to grill/oven for an additional 3 hours.

Carefully remove from the foil/pan, reserving the pan juices and placing the brisket on a cutting board once it is cool.

Serve with seasonal hot buttered poppy seed noodles and Portobello mushrooms for a warming  autumnal supper.  


PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS

I carton baby Portobello mushrooms, wiped clean and thickly sliced
3 scallions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
White wine, about 1/2 cup
1 cup fresh parsley
Olive oil

Pour enough olive oil into a wide skillet to just cover the bottom.  Heat and add the scallions and mushrooms.  Do not stir the first few minutes.  When the mushrooms turn brown, stir in the garlic and 1/2 the parsley and continue cooking for a few more minutes.

Take the pan off the heat and pour the wine into the mixture.  Return the pan to the heat and cook until the juices reduce to a very thick sauce.  Add a little of the juice from the cooked brisket and continue cooking a few moments more to meld all the luscious flavors.  

Sprinkle on the rest of the parsley and serve.


The next day, you can make a sandwich from the warmed over slices and gravy on a Portuguese roll.  Add horseradish to your leftover herbed yogurt and use for dipping the sandwich.  Yum!

Finally, what better finish to a fall dinner than a ripe, sweet and juicy fresh pear poached in a spicy wine sauce?  It looks very elegant but don’t be intimidated.  It is not at all complicated.

To add to its appeal is the availability of the perfect red wine for this dessert.  Lee Robinson’s carries a selection of very inexpensive wines from Lost Vineyards, an importer that searches out small vineyards and bottles their wines under their own label.

I used the Shiraz/Cabernet blend, and it is ideal.  I certainly don’t want to add spices to an expensive wine.  This was heady enough to stand up to the added flavorings and fruity enough to complement the pears.

There are a few other red grapes from Iberia and South America featured and a white from Italy.   Some are surprisingly drinkable, too, so don’t be a “wine snob” and miss out on a great deal.

SPICED WINE PEARS

from Laura Calder’s “French Food at Home”

6 pears
1 strip orange peel
1 bottle red wine (yes, the whole bottle)
3/4 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 cardamom pods
2 cloves
2 star anise

Peel the pears, leaving the stem.  Remove any white pith from the back of the orange peel with a sharp knife.

In a large saucepan, gently heat the wine and sugar.  Once the sugar has dissolved, add the orange peel and the spices and bring to a boil.

Using a slotted spoon, slowly lower the pears, one at a time, into the wine and simmer, turning once or twice, until tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove the pears from the heat and let the pears cool in the syrup.  They can be refrigerated and served cool or served warm.

Remove the pears to plates, cutting a sliver from the bottom so they will stand straight.

Strain the liquid into a wide saucepan and boil down to a light syrup, about 10 minutes.  Spoon over pears and serve, garnished with small pieces of orange zest.

As I was cooking the wine syrup, I found myself unexpectedly transported to Europe at Christmastime!  

The colorful and festive Christmas markets, particularly in Germany and Austria, always offer Glähwein to warm up freezing fingers and the taste and aroma scream the holidays to me.    

So, here’s a bonus recipe.  Skip the pears and forget the boiling.  Just simmer the wine and spices until warm and well blended and there you are --  Glähwein!


(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)




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