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). Continue reading