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Washington Post
Stacey Bran and Jason Adolf get an energetic lesson in sautéing green beans from chef David Scribner as the two non-cooks learn how to make a large dinner.

No skills? No problem

Non-cooks learn basics for potluck

A little brisket, a nice slice of homemade challah, some red wine, maybe. What’s not to like?

For Stacey Bran and Jason Adolf, the cooking, that’s what. After all, the couple’s combined skills in the kitchen max out at peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tacos. Those are not exactly appropriate offerings for the Friday night potluck dinners they’ve been invited to since getting engaged. So they just bring the wine instead.

“HELP!” Adolf, 30, wrote in his plea to us. “We’d like to host a Shabbat dinner for 20 people but have no idea what we’re doing.”

Adolf particularly wanted to learn how to cook brisket, and we already knew the go-to guy for that: chef David Scribner. We enlisted Scribner, chef/partner at Washington’s Surfside, to go to the couple’s apartment to help them get over their fear of cooking.

Scribner updated the succulent version of the pot roast that was just like the one his mother used to make. The cooking bug didn’t hit Adolf until he met Bran, 31, on JDate, a Web site for Jewish singles. She had been an interior designer for restaurants and luxury hotels until getting laid off recently, meaning the time was right for her to learn to cook, too.

Her way of doing things and Scribner’s are opposite: She likes rules, and Scribner eschews them.

“I need the finite,” she said. “I don’t like guesswork.”

Scribner, 40, started with the challah and pretty much broke every rule.

“You’re not really supposed to wing breadmaking, but there it is,” he said nonchalantly. Scribner left the dough to rise, uncovered, and moved to the next task.

He took a whole brisket, easily 12 pounds, cut it in half and opted to prepare the second cut, with its extra flap of meat (interspersed with fat), instead of the leaner first, or flat, cut. He trimmed it and seasoned it liberally with salt, pepper and garlic powder as he extolled the virtues of searing in a super-hot pan.

The deep-sided braising pan Scribner had brought was bowed on the bottom and barely made contact with the ceramic cooktop it rested on, so it did not get hot enough. No matter. He switched to a sauté pan he had also packed.

He seared the meat and then the cipollini onions and put garlic in it; returned the lot to the braising pan with water, tomato paste and bay leaves; then covered the pan and relegated it to the oven to braise.

Meanwhile, the challah dough, against all odds, had ballooned. Scribner turned it onto a floured granite countertop and encouraged Bran and Adolf to work it over.

“You feel it has some lumpiness to it?” he asked. “That’s not good. It’s because I stopped halfway and added more milk.”

No worries; the chef kneaded the dough into submission, pulled off three knobs, rolled them into strands and braided them. In minutes he had made three small loaves and then taught his students to make more.

Off went the pan to another corner of the kitchen so the loaves could rise.

The couple had the same question many students have: How do you get the dishes to come out at the same time?

“It never works out,” Bran said.

Scribner had a refreshingly honest answer.

“It doesn’t for chefs, either. It never works out for anybody like that,” he said. “You have to sort of judge it. What things you’re going to cook on the fly, like the green beans, that are just going to get sautéed in very hot oil at the last minute. What things can retain heat, like the brisket, and can be held in a low oven for a long time.”

He was finishing that conversation while everyone was inhaling plates full of brisket and creamy gratin, and eating lemon- and garlic-tinged green beans with their fingers.

And then there was the bread. When had he even put it in the oven? The loaves had baked into each other like Parker House rolls. They were crisped and brown on the outside, sweet and soft on the inside.

Braised Beef Brisket With Onions

Make Ahead: The brisket can be made a few days in advance. Its flavors tend to deepen with a few days’ refrigeration, and the meat is easier to slice when it’s cold (especially with an electric carving knife).

1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable oil

6 to 7 pounds beef brisket, preferably second cut, fat trimmed to 1/4 inch (see note)

Kosher salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

Granulated garlic powder

2 pounds peeled cipollini onions (may substitute peeled pearl onions)

4 to 6 whole cloves garlic

6 cups water, plus more as needed

1 bay leaf

3/4 cup tomato paste

1 to 2 tablespoons flour (optional)

Heat enough of the oil to coat the bottom of a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. (A large, heavy roasting pan can be used instead; it will need to be tightly covered with aluminum foil during cooking.)

Season the meat on both sides with equal parts salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste. Add to the Dutch oven and sear (uncovered) on both sides; this will take about 12 minutes total. Transfer the meat to a platter.

Add the onions to the Dutch oven. Brown them for 8 to 10 minutes, turning them as needed. Add the garlic cloves to taste and cook for a few minutes, just until they pick up some color.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Return the meat to the Dutch oven, fat side up. Add the water, tomato paste and bay leaf, stirring until the paste is incorporated. Add water as needed to make sure the brisket is just covered. Bring to a boil over medium-heat, then remove from the heat. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, then place the lid on the Dutch oven.

Transfer to the oven and cook for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, checking the tenderness of the meat after 3 hours. When the meat is done, it should be mahogany-colored and easily pierced with a fork. Uncover, transfer the meat and onions to a platter to rest while you make the (optional) gravy. Discard the bay leaf.

If the liquid in the Dutch oven seems too thin to use as a sauce, place the Dutch oven (uncovered) over medium heat. Add some or all of the flour, depending on how much sauce there is, whisking until well combined and the sauce has reached the desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

To serve, cut the brisket crosswise into thin slices. Place the onions on top, then spoon the sauce on and around the meat. Serve hot. Makes 8 servings.

Note: To remove the fat from the sauce, strain the cooking liquid into a fat-separator cup. Let the juices settle for 5 minutes, then pour the liquid back into the Dutch oven, leaving the fat in the cup.

Challah for a Crowd

Chef David Scribner likes to bake small challah loaves on a large rimmed sheet so that the loaves have to be pulled apart after baking, leaving their sides tender.

He also lets the dough proof for the first rise in the same bowl it was mixed in.

2 cups whole or low-fat milk, or water (do not use nonfat milk)

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1 1/2 tablespoons active dry “instant” yeast

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup honey

6 cups flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt, such as Diamond brand

4 large eggs, plus 1 egg for brushing the tops of the loaves

Combine the milk or water and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally until the butter has melted and the milk has warmed through (to no more than 120 degrees); remove from the heat. Add the yeast and a pinch of the sugar, stirring to incorporate. Then add the remaining sugar, along with the honey, whisking to combine.

Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (Alternatively, the dough can be mixed by hand using a wooden spoon.) Add half of the liquid-yeast mixture and start mixing on low speed until combined, then add the eggs and mix well. Add the remaining liquid-yeast mixture; beat to incorporate.

Increase the speed to medium and beat for several minutes, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl to form a smooth but slightly sticky ball.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and cover with a clean dish towel; place it in a warm spot in the kitchen and let the dough rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until it has almost doubled in bulk.

Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough to the work surface and knead vigorously for several minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic; add a little flour to the work surface as necessary.

Use oil to lightly grease a large rimmed baking sheet.

Use a bench scraper or large knife to separate the dough into 6 to 8 pieces of equal size. Working with one piece at a time, divide each into 3 equal sections; use your hands and the floured work surface to roll each of those pieces into thick ropes about 8 inches long. Braid the 3 pieces into a small loaf, tucking the ends under neatly. Place on the baking sheet and repeat to use all of the dough. (If there is a small wad of dough left over, place it on the sheet next to the last shaped loaf.) There should be at least a 1-inch margin between the loaves.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly beat the egg in a small cup.

Cover the dough with a clean dish towel and place in a warm spot in the kitchen; let rise for at least 20 minutes or the sides of the loaves are touching. Brush the tops of the loaves with some of the egg. Bake for about 45 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and sounds slightly hollow when tapped. Use a knife to cut the loaves apart; let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving. Makes 6 or 7 small loaves (12 to 14 servings)