While on my ongoing journey to try and do just a little more each year ourselves, meaning, cure, ferment, prep, and grow foods that we can now easily get at the supermarket, I found a book that gave me the confidence to cure more and more of my own meat, at a fraction of the cost. And although it takes quite a bit of time, mostly waiting (the good kind), it has become worth it.
Playing with meat has probably been my favorite of the big three (bread, brewing and meat). I think it is because it so universal. Cooking meat, over fire in some form or fashion is probably the only thing that goes back further than brew and bread.
Pastrami was one of those items that as I read the “how to” I felt that I could and if I got it right (or wrong), I would know because I was familiar with how it should look and taste.
The book that I have gone to most consistently is called Charcuterie and was written by Michael Pollan and Brian Polcyn. The book is easy to read, has easy to follow the directions, goes deep but not too deep on the history, everyday uses, and traditions of the meats they teach how to smoke, cure, ferment, stuff, etc. I guess you could say it is approachable but not so entry level that you feel like it is a waste. Every chapter goes further and more and more challenging, meaning, I personally probably will never learn or certainly make all of the items in the book, even if I REALLY pushed myself (liver pate may never be on the menu, frankly).
I have gotten pretty good at making my own bacon, pancetta, guanciale, corned beef, and pastrami. Each of these recipes have made it into the “little black book” my sons keep asking who will get when I die…
A Short History Lesson on Pastrami
This slightly sweet, tangy and peppery deli-style meat comes to us via New York from Jewish immigrants that probably came from Lithuania or somewhere near there and was first served in a uniquely Jewish-American store, called the delicatessen. Hundreds of “delis” sprang up around New York and the surrounding boroughs as Jews came by the millions to the big cities of the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Jewish-American food is unique, meaning, it doesn’t come from the Old Testament or in Orthodox traditions, rather, it comes from the Jews who moved into Central and Eastern Europe, blended their “kosher” lifestyle with local food, accessible ingredients, etc. Bringing items like lox, bagels, corned beef, knish, latkes, matzo and so forth is deeply rooted in this tradition. As Jews melted into the societies in Central and Eastern Europe, their religious eating traditions became something that we would now recognize. For example, there is no mention of latkes in the Torah and certainly not pastrami but since beef brisket (the base of pastrami and corned beef) was a cheaper cut, required a long time to prep, became a mainstay in the Seder meal throughout Europe and eventually the US.
So that beautiful but tough cut of the cow, brisket, that is now celebrated not only during Passover but around BBQs all over, developed into what we would recognize as corned beef and pastrami, most likely as a way to preserve the meat to make it last longer (since there is some slight pickling done – certainly in corned beef).
Pastrami has the same basic heritage. Note: this was a super-skimmed version of Jewish-Euro-US history that is missing a few points…but you get it.
These delis became world-famous and while there were thousands over 50 years ago, there are only a fraction left, and even fewer still who do a great job. So…why not try and do it at home? Who doesn’t like a stacked and steamed pastrami sandwich on rye? Me and so should you! One of the very best sandwiches EVER, especially if you include their close cousins, the Reuben.
Home Cured Pastrami (adapted from Charcuterie)
1 gallon water
1 1/2 cup kosher salt
1 cup white sugar
1 1/2 oz pink salt
1 T pickling spice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
5 garlic cloves
Combine all above in a stock pot, bring to a boil, let cool completely.
1, 5 pound brisket with big and heavy fat removed.
Place brisket into 2 gallon ziplock bag and dump cooled brine, seal and set for 3 days, rotating each day. After 3 days, discard brine, rinse brisket, pat dry (I like to place on a cooling rack over a cookie sheet) and then sprinkle equal amounts of coriander seeds and black peppercorns ( 1 T, smashed with mortar and pestle or something) over the entire brisket.
Smoke on your grill (150-200 degrees) or in oven at same temp for 2-3 hours or until internal temperature is 150 degrees.
Once smoked, place in 1 inch of water in a pan that a lid can fit over top (or if you don’t have you can eventually cover with foil) bring to a simmer and then place into oven at 275 degrees for another 2-3 hours. Ready to slice and serve!
At this point you can wrap tightly and store (I take to my local butcher and have them cut it “deli thin” for me).
Hot Pastrami Sandwich – Two Ways
“Katz Deli” Style
Steamed pastrami (stacked high!)
Rye bread (caraway, marbled, brown, whatever you like or can find)
Spicy brown mustard
“West Coast Style”
(not sure why I am calling it this way, except that I guess I read somewhere that in LA someone is making it this way and it is awesome)
Rye – same as above
2-4 T Russian dressing
1/4 cup cole slaw
For Both –
Enough pastrami to make however many sandwiches you want placed wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in a steam basket over simmering water for 15-20 minutes or until all pastrami is cooked through.
Either toast your bread slightly (my preference) or wrap your sandwich slices in tin foil and place in oven at 300 degrees for about 15 minutes.
Assemble however you like!