It’s easiest to describe Jon as a contrast. He’s a vascular surgeon who loves grease, garlic and salt. He’s a rock-n-roll drummer who lives in a tidy upscale home. He’s bald with a goatee but could save your life or build you a car. He’s an agnostic Jew. There’s no question, one word cannot describe Jon, nor should it. Neither is his cooking contained by one tradition. Jon grew up eating his great grandmother’s latkes prepared by his mother. The recipe is so outstanding, it was published in a food magazine years ago. Like many of us do when it comes to family traditions, Jon has tweaked two recipes he grew up with: latkes and brisket. He explains his updates create a place “where modern meets tradition with a twist to make [the food] more relevant.”
While he primarily sticks to his great grandmother’s latke recipe, Jon asserts one change has made all the difference making his latkes “light in the middle and crispy on the outside, fluffy not cakey.” As he smashes potato shreds in a potato ricer and oil sizzles in the pan, he explains salt is the game-changing ingredient. Jon has affinity for nostalgia even though he does not practice Judaism and suggests topping the latkes with sour cream, capers and smoked salmon. He makes them because they are “good,” not as a part of his religion, but one wonders if by good he means they take him back to a time when life was simple and family was family no matter what.
While Jon updates his traditional foods, it’s clear his taste in music isn’t quite so fluid. The Rolling Stones croon over snapping oil engulfing latkes. Jon’s education and impressive intellect suggest a reserved, successful person, but Jon is a rocker who challenges the labels one might try to pin upon him. As he flips a latke in the pan, he shares a core belief; “You can divide the world into people who like the Stones and like dogs [and those who don’t]. Either you’re in [the former group], or we don’t really wanna know you.” Those who take offense to Jon’s stance wouldn’t hold a grudge for long; hang with Jon for a few hours and you find yourself infected by his engaging conversation and quick wit.
Because Jon challenges the norm, it makes sense that he would take another cultural tradition and explode it for the benefit of the taste buds. He grew up eating “stringy” brisket and, after a lucky invite to his friend Bob’s house about six years ago, Jon discovered a new way for an old tradition. Bob had learned the recipe on a visit to west Texas and chose that fateful 4th of July to make it for the first time.
After many attempts at the recipe, Jon’s got it down—grinding fresh dark-roasted coffee beans on an espresso setting and rubbing them along with brown sugar, garlic, onion and cajun seasoning into a hunk of brisket with a “crown of fat over the top” in order to create the perfect sweet spicy combo. But the coffee’s not the secret ingredient. He also soaks his wood chips in wine, sugar and lemon—or in apple juice or even whiskey (as his friend Bob does). But soaking the chips is not the secret to this recipe. The secret lies within both Jon and Bob; the camaraderie and the love of exploration and risk they share pushes each man to better his recipe, not to compete with his friend but to please his friend.
In between bites, sharing memories and discussing the the balance of science and art in the brisket recipe, Bob tells Jon this is the best brisket Jon has ever made. Jon tries to play it down, but the slight pause before a bit of banter begins, tells us Jon is moved, maybe even a little proud. For Jon, Bob’s brisket was a “life-changing experience—like [his] children’s births, like [his] circumcision.” What matters here is sharing good food and friendship. The fact that Jon is one hell of a cook is important; many of us would drive to Jersey non-stop to savor this meal of latkes and brisket, but without the mutual exchange and affection Jon and Bob share, the meal is just a plate of tasty food quickly consumed. It’s likely you’re ready to scroll down, note the recipe and begin shopping for ingredients. But there’s one more secret Jon and Bob held onto until the last: “In order to make [the brisket], you have to be bald and have a goatee.” If you’re not blessed with baldness and facial hair, do what you can to remedy that. In the meantime, I’m gonna fry me up some latkes!
Grandma Sadie's Potato Latkes
(adapted by Jon's mom Sandy and then further by Jon himself)
Makes about 36 2-inch latkes (10 to 12 servings)
Here are Grandma Sadie's secrets: Use only russet baking potatoes -- they're drier and yield a better texture. Grate the onion first, then add grated potatoes. The onion will help prevent the potatoes from turning gray. Press out as much of the water from the grated potato mixture as possible; it's the excess moisture that makes the latkes soggy. Also, use a skillet that conducts heat evenly for best frying results.
Corn or canola oil, enough to come about halfway up the skillet 1 large onion, cut in half 6 large russet baking potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks and placed in cold water 2 beaten eggs 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste (more if you love salt like Jon) About 2 tablespoons flour, or more as needed
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet. Have ready a baking sheet lined with paper towels.
In the food processor, pulse to coarsely grate half of the onion. Add half of the potato chunks to the onions and pulse to coarsely grate the mixture. Place mixture in a sieve (or potato ricer, as Jon does) and press repeatedly until as much water as possible has been removed. Transfer mixture to a large mixing bowl. Repeat with remaining onion and potato. Add to bowl. Add eggs, baking powder, salt, and flour to potato mixture, mixing well; add slightly more flour if mixture does not stay together. When oil is hot enough (test by dropping a few strands of grated potato into oil; the oil should begin to bubble around them immediately), drop heaping tablespoonfuls (or more if you like Jon's huge latkes) of latke mixture into the oil. Fry for about 4 minutes, turning them over when bottoms are golden brown. Fry for 3 to 4 minutes on the second side. Transfer to the paper towel-lined sheet as you work. Adjust heat and remove browned bits from the oil as needed. Serve hot.
To freeze cooked latkes: Place on baking sheets covered with aluminum foil and put in freezer. When completely frozen, place them in large freezer containers or resealable plastic food storage bags, with wax paper between layers of latkes. When ready to serve, defrost them on the baking sheets and then bake for 5 minutes in a 500-degree oven until they begin to sizzle. If the oven is only moderately hot, they will be soggy.
Texas Style Brisket
Jon says....."You may need to double the rub recipe depending on the size of the brisket"
Whole Brisket (12-15lbs). Usually needs to be special ordered. Tell butcher you want the WHOLE brisket with the flap (they usually trim that away)
1/2 cup ground coffee or chicory 1/2 cup kosher salt 1/2 cup dark brown sugar 1/4 cup paprika 2 tablespoon ground cardamom 2 tablespoons ground ginger 1/3 cup chopped garlic 1/2 cup vegetable oil 4 Granny Smith Apples 2 Russet Potatoes 2 lb Mesquite wood chunks 2qt apple juice
1) Prepare disposable roasting pan by slicing apples and potatoes into 1/2" slices to line the bottom of the pan (this helps keep the brisket moist during the long roast). Place rack on top of vegetables and into the rack place the brisket, which should be clean and dry.
2) Mix coffee, salt, brown sugar, paprika, cardamom, ginger, garlic in a small bowl. Add vegetable oil to make a paste and apply to all sides of the brisket.
3) Cover tightly with two layers of tin foil. poke a couple holes in the tin foil with tines of a fork here and there and place into refrigerator, allowing it to marinate overnight.
4) Pour apple juice and a few cups of water into large bowl or container and soak wood chunks overnight.
5) Using a smoker, or Big Green Egg, set it to 225 degrees for indirect cooking (with a platesetter or by arranging the coals appropriately). Once the temperature has stabilized, add two or three pieces of mesquite over the fire.
6) Cook brisket for total time equal to one hour per pound of meat. Every few hours, remove and add a couple pieces of mesquite if it seems the smoke has dissipated, taking care not to allow the temperature to vary significantly. After six or seven hours of cooking, remove foil for an hour. Replace the foil and repeat the process during the last hour or so of cooking (this allows a crust to form and also allows the meat to pick up more of the smoke).
7) Remove and serve immediately. Take care when removing from the roast pan as the meat is likely to fracture. Cut against the grain.