The lure of luscious pastrami

Traditional, dry-cured, smoked and steamed pastrami at the Monterey Cookhouse.

Part of the authentic New York City experience requires a visit to a Jewish deli to order a pastrami on rye — with a giant kosher pickle on the side.

Like the bagel, and smoked salmon and cream cheese, pastrami is a food that has become a touchstone of the New York experience. It is a comfort to both Jew and non-Jew, male and female, black and white, Asian and Latino.

In Monterey you can’t really find that same salty, smoky, perfectly fatty meat with a peppery kick, piled high and still warm from the steamer. Once a year, Temple Beth El (424-9151) in Salinas puts together its Kosher-Style Take-Out Lunch and Bake Sale, and stacks up thousands of pastrami sandwiches. The 56th annual event takes place Thursday, Feb. 2.

But when I heard that the Monterey Cookhouse was reserving some of its beef brisket to make in-house pastrami, I called owner Linda Cantrell to get the scoop.

“Buying pastrami is so expensive, so we wanted to see how cost-effective it was to make it,” she said. “It’s turned out really well.”

Indeed, ordering sliced pastrami from an authentic source can cost up to $25 a pound. It requires hands-on labor and a lot of time. We’re talking a rubbing, curing, pressing, smoking and steaming over a period of a few weeks.

Pastrami isn’t a cut of meat, but a process (you can make pastrami out of any meat, really). It’s the act of preserving, or curing, meat with salt, spices and smoke. Both the dish and the word originate from the Romanian delicacy pastramă, which comes from the Turkish word pastirma (pressed meat).

The Romanian specialty was introduced to the United States in a wave of Romanian Jewish immigration from Bessarabia and Romania in the second half of the 19th century. Among Jewish Romanians, goose breasts were commonly made into pastrami because they were inexpensive. Beef navels (lower end of the brisket) were cheaper than goose meat in America, so the Romanian Jews in America adapted their recipe.

Traditional New York pastrami is cured in brine, or with a dry rub, coated with a mix of spices such as garlic, coriander, black pepper, paprika, cloves, allspice and mustard seed, and then smoked. Finally, the meat is steamed.

A dry rub with curing salt is applied to start a two-week process.

Cantrell starts with the navel (she recommends the home cook buy all-natural, Angus brisket at Costco and use the thinner end; barbecue the rest), and dry cures it (“that’s what the purists do,” she said) by rubbing it with Morton Tender Quick Cure Salt (1 T. of salt for every pound of meat). After the salt rub, she adds a handful of black pepper, crushed bay leaves and granulated garlic.

Place the meat in a pan and leave in the refrigerator for two weeks, flipping it daily. “This is when some of the moisture is drawn out, and is reabsorbed deep into the meat through osmosis,” she said.

After two weeks, the meat is soaked in water for a few hours to draw out the salt. When done soaking, pat excess moisture and replace the pepper and add ground coriander (from whole), to help create that tell-tale crust. Smoke the meat for 6-8 hours (best use a kettle grill with indirect heat and pre-soaked hickory chips).

“At this point the smell drives you crazy,” said Cantrell. “I wish we could make it all the time, but there’s a lot of labor and time involved.”

After smoking, it goes back in the cooler, topped with a heavy object to “press” the brisket (this will produce a more dense pastrami that is easily sliced.)

In order to achieve maximum tenderness by breaking down the connective tissues within the meat, steam the brisket for 6 or more hours (do not boil). Then put it back in the cooler (pressed again) for another 24 hours.

Finally, it’s ready to slice. Tradition dictates that you pile high the hot meat between two slices of rye bread slathered with deli mustard. A kosher pickle on the side.

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One thought on “The lure of luscious pastrami

  1. Hello Mike,
    Thanks again for all your support in the past. I’m sure you would have been surprised if you hadn’t heard from me on this pastrami blog. As you know our pastrami is available every day of the week.. We have taken our brisket pastrami to a new level. We exclusively use only 100% natural Wagu Beef brisket. This is American grown Kobe style Beef. Our local meat dristibutor (Del Monte Meats in Marina) reserves the brisket for us from the whole steer. So far they have managed to keep up with our demand. We are now offering MARY’S100% natural Organic chickens. You haven’t tasted chicken until you eat one of MARY’S chickens. Keep up the great work.
    Many thanks.
    Lenny & Valentina

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