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Cooking for Hugo: Debbie Koenig's Barbecued Brisket

Parents Need to Eat Too
Way back in the early days of food blogging, when there were only about six people doing it, a woman named Debbie Koenig started a blog called Words to Eat By. Long before I started this site, I read hers and loved it. Debbie lived in New York, like me, had worked in publishing, like me, plus her recipe for chocolate chip cookies really was so good. It's not a big leap to say that she certainly helped inspire my own jump into food blogging.

When Debbie and her husband had their son in 2006, she realized, as most of us then do, that cooking with a baby is a whole new universe to navigate. Where once you thought nothing of spending an afternoon in the kitchen to make an elaborate dinner, you now have a screaming baby attached to your body, in desperate need of your full attention, to the detriment of your ability to shower, pee or even just make a sandwich. Bit by bit, Debbie figured out her way back into the kitchen and was inspired to help other mothers get their sea legs cooking again.

Parents Need to Eat Too, her book and the name her blog has since taken over, is a compendium of all the wisdom she gained over the years since then. By teaching cooking classes to new mothers and keeping the conversation alive on her website, Debbie found herself with scores of recipes and tips to share with other sleep-deprived, harried and hungry new mothers. Parents Need to Eat Too holds all of them, plus a glut of information on freezing big batches of food, foods to promote milk production and soothing reassurances that one day things will feel normal again, even if right now your world is one big mess of burp clothes, peanut butter eaten out of a jar and multi-night wakeups.

I first read Parents Need to Eat Too when Hugo was a few weeks old. I hadn't though it possible before, but just like they tell you, in those days I couldn't figure out how to do anything but nurse Hugo. I barely found time to shower and dress and fixing myself a bowl of yogurt (as in, open fridge, get yogurt, find bowl, pour yogurt into bowl, get spoon and eat) seemed so remote and difficult that the one time I managed to do so I felt a level of achievement I hadn't had since learning how to tell time in the third grade. Oh, early motherhood! You are a kick in the teeth.

Debbie's book was a breath of fresh air. The few parenting books I had scattered around the apartment filled me with dread (nap schedules? infant character profiles?), but reading Parents Need to Eat Too was the soothing distraction I really needed. It didn't matter that I actually was in no position to cook again just yet. Debbie was telling me that I would be again, in time, and that it was just a matter of being patient and resourceful until then. At a time when everything I knew about my old life was gone, it was deeply comforting to know that.

I've, of course, long found my way back to the kitchen, but these days I find myself reaching for Debbie's book all the time. Because now is the time that I'm really cooking for my family. Max is living at home again (praise be!), Hugo no longer needs his little pots of puréed veg (glory be!) and getting food on the table for all of us is my job. Along with everything else I do. So what I'm looking for these days is help in preparing dishes that all of us will eat, as well as stocking the freezer for those days when I just don't have the time to cook and finding recipes I can make with one hand tied behind my back.

Parents Need to Eat Too has all of that, but is tailor-made for those of us who love to cook anyway and don't want Hamburger Helper to get dinner on the table. The recipes are relatively sophisticated despite their supreme easiness and there are lots of delicious things to get excited about. (Big-Batch Adobo Chicken is next on my to-do list.) Currently, I'm having a delightful love affair with the slow cooker chapter even though I don't own a slow cooker. (Debbie says that a cast-iron pot with a lid in a low oven mimics the heat of a slow cooker pretty well.) So the other day I decided to try my hand at brisket.

I bought a big slab of brisket meat after a hilarious back-and-forth with the German butcher who, despite my having researched this exhaustively online beforehand, had no idea what I was talking about and a bottle of apple juice (I already had barbecue sauce in my fridge leftover from this).The prep was almost comically simple: First, I preheated the oven to 200 degrees F (about 90 degrees C) and put the slab of meat in my biggest cast-iron pot. Then I poured in a cup of apple juice and a cup of barbecue sauce. Then I put the lid on the pan and put it in the oven for about 6 hours. And That Was It.

Sliced brisket

When I removed the pot from the oven and took off the lid, the brisket - shrunken from its impressive girth in its raw state - was dark brown and fragrant, swimming in a pool of mahogany cooking liquid. I sliced it thinly and spooned the liquid over each portion. The meat was wonderfully lean and flavorful, pleasing both Hugo and his daddy. (Hugo loves chomping away on the meat for a while, then spitting it out once he's leached all the good stuff out, so while I can't guarantee that your child will have quite the same delightful table manners as mine does, the recipe is definitely kid-friendly.) We had a big dinner, the three of us, and I packed the freezer full of leftovers, my biggest thrill these days.

Along with Dinner: A Love Story for people with children over 3 and which I wrote about here, Parents Need to Eat Too is the best parenting resource for cooks.

Barbecued Brisket
Serves 6 to 8
From Parents Need to Eat Too

1 3-4-pound brisket, trimmed of as much fat as possible
1 cup barbecue sauce (if store-bought, then as natural as possible)
1 cup apple juice

1. Put the brisket in the slow cooker or a large cast-iron pot (if using the pot, preheat the oven to 200 degrees F). Pour the sauce and juice on top, making sure some of the liquid ends up underneath the meat. The meat should not be fully submerged.

2. Cook on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or, if using the pot, for 6, checking once at the 5-hour-mark. The brisket is done when a fork pierces the meat easily. Slice the meat against the grain thinly, then serve with the cooking liquid. Debbie suggests rounding out the meal with these beans and cornbread.