Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Pastrami Saga

Please don't mention the word "pastrami" to me.  I have heard it so often and have put up with pounds of it in the fridge for more than a decade.  Yes, a decade!  Myriad pastramis over those years, starting in 2003.  A five pound piece of beef marinating in the fridge for two to three weeks takes up a bit of space.  I have complained about that for some time but a deaf ear heard and hears nothing.  Hans is determined to get it right.  I doubt he ever will, at least not to his satisfaction.  To mine, yes!  I have had it with pastrami or, as it is referred to in Canada, Montreal smoked meat.

Hans bought the book, Save the Deli, over the internet hoping to get the original Jewish recipe. No such luck. It has several interesting stories of smoked meat and pastrami from both Montreal and Toronto as well as New York.  A good read and well written.  The author, David Sax, grew up in Toronto and now lives in Brooklyn. His parents emigrated to Montreal after the second world war.

Hans has combed the internet for recipes and has taken this and that from those.  He has also tried producing it without a recipe and when it comes down to it, I think his own was best.  As I write, there is another marinating or curing in the fridge.  The cook is now on his 19th version and I do hope it will be the last for some time.

This really started when we visited Hans' son in Montreal in 1995, but Hans did nothing about it until spending summers in Nova Scotia where he started to buy packages of Montreal Smoked Meat.  There is always a package of that in the fridge in summer.  He then began taking enough back to Germany to last a while.  I even brought some back for him.  The slices were put between two pieces of rye bread and then the meat was slathered with Canadian style yellow mustard. By then he had the bright idea that he could make it himself.  Thus the saga began.

Back to that Montreal trip:  Heiko and Heather took us to a famous smoked meat restaurant, one known by many smoked meat lovers from Montreal to Toronto to New York.  All these cities are renowned for pastrami or smoked meat.  In Montreal, we went to Ben's.  If you love and know smoked meat, you likely know about Ben's--or knew about it.  It closed in 2006 after many decades of serving Jewish cuisine, includng Montreal Smoked Meat sandwiches.  Ben's was a great place, filled with interesting history shown on the walls.

I took the picture of Ben's in 1995 before the era of digital cameras.  This was taken from a print, thus the inferior quality.  Hans is shown on the right and his son, Heiko, is on the left just in front of him.

This sandwich, of course, is not one of Ben's, but it is a pastrami sandwich

Thankfully, Hans didn't start looking for recipes for pastrami or smoked meat until eight years later.  In 2003, he tried making it:  five times in a row!  After try # 1, he said, "Not like Montreal Smoked Meat!"  Try # 2, the same.  Try # 3, "Better, but not great."  Try # 4 (by this time, I was fed up with beef in the fridge marinating):  "Not bad," he said.  Try # 5 and the last one for that year:  "Pretty darn good but not exactly pastrami or smoked meat as it should be."

So on the hunt he went for information.  First, of course, as German and European cuts of meat are different than in North America, he was unable to get the same cut of beef.  Pastrami and smoked meat start with a beef brisket.  So he went to a butcher here in Germany and talked to him about it.  He came up with a facsimile.  Then, when at a Vesper Stube in Rhinau, in the Alsace, just a half hour from us, he talked to the owner there who does his own butchering.  The Alsatian told him that he should cook it at a very low temperature, 60C to 70C (140F to 160F).  He did not know what pastrami was, but he knew what Hans was trying to do.  Another important point Hans learned from him was that the proper nitrate salt is required.  That makes the taste, breaks down the meat and gives the typical red colour.

After receiving that information, Hans said, "I am going to make it again."  I said, "Hopefully not five times!"  Little did I know about the years ahead and all his many tries to get it right.  Prussian stubbornness!  I wish he loved chicken as much because then I would be quite happy trying his various efforts at producing the perfect dish.

I do like pastrami or smoked meat sandwiches, but only occasionally.  Hans is fanatic about it.  He bought a smoker just for that purpose, as after curing or marinating, it is then smoked.  He also bought a steamer for the same reason.

The smoker on the right is new and our 2nd one.  He used this one for his latest pastrami effort.

Curing is a way for preserving meat that was used before we had refrigerators.  Before the 20th century rolled in, you preserved meat by salting it.  The salt killed the bacteria in the meat and preserved it for quite some time.  The same for fish, as I remember my mother buying salt cod (which I hated and still do) from the fish monger who came around every week in Charlottetown.  (I do like unsalted fresh cod, especially for deep-fried fish and chips.)

For smoked meat or pastrami, you start with beef brisket.  It should be of an even thickness across the width of the meat.  You especially do not want it too thin at the edges.  The brisket is then marinated in brine (the curing) with brown sugar, nitrate salt and spices for two to three weeks in the fridge.

Not quite a brisket but a close facsimile
Hans has come up with his own spicing and ingredients but did get some ideas as well from various recipes he found on the internet.

Here is Hans' method for pastrami

Curing:  He removes much of the fat from a 2 kilo (4 lb) brisket.  He washes the beef and then pats dry spices all over it (on all sides) before placing it into a large zip lock-type bag.  He sometimes adds 1/2 cup of water to the bag, the wet method.  (The last time he used just the dry cure; the previous time, the wet one with water.  He says he didn't notice much difference in taste.)  The closed bag is set in a dish in the fridge for about 3 weeks, turning the bag once a day.  The curing then begins.

At left, a wet brine.

The Brine:  The meat is marinated in brine (the curing) with brown sugar and spices.  The spices and ingredients he uses have varied over time as he keeps making changes and adding or deleting some of them hoping to get it right.  In the brine shown, water was added.

 Here are the ingredients with amounts he used on this last effort:

5 Tbsp nitrate salt, 4 Tbsp brown sugar (these two ingredients are always used), 1 Tbsp crushed juniper berries, 4 Tbsp crushed black peppercorns, 5-1/2 Tbsp whole cloves, 1 Tbsp garlic powder (without salt in it), 2-1/2 Tbsp coriander, 4 crushed bay leaves, 1 tsp paprika, 2 Tbsp meat tenderizer.  He has used on occasion mustard seed, mustard, thyme.  His note at the end this last time:  too salty and not enough cloves.  According to me, the salt wasn't over-the-top salty.

The brisket in a wet brine below right

Curing makes a more intense flavour and it also gives the meat the pink colour and salty taste.


Rinsing:  The cured brisket is then put into cold water to cover it (in the sink or a large pot) for about 4 hours, changing the water every hour.  This leaches out the salt.  He then pats it dry with paper towels.  Picture at left shows the brisket in water.

Rub:  He mixes together ground coriander, paprika, 1 Tbsp crushed black peppercorns and 1 Tbsp garlic powder (without salt in it).  He then pats it around the entire piece of beef.  It is then put into the smoker.

On the right, a piece of brisket covered with the spices and ready to go into the smoker.

Smoking:  The meat is smoked for 1-1/2 to 2 hours.  On this occasion, the old smoker was used.  You can see the cured brisket being smoked on the left side of the smoker, with the smoke rising.  The finished smoked meat on the left, below.

You'll notice that the pictures of the beef are of different cuts at times.  These pictures are from the various different occasions that Hans made pastrami. 

Steaming:  After smoking, the meat steams for 4 hours or longer depending on the weight and size of the meat.  The steamer is shown on the right.

Slicing:  The pastrami should be sliced as thinly as possible.  Hans uses the electric slicing machine occasionally but he usually just uses a very sharp knife, the thinner the slices the better.

Sandwich:  Finally, after all that effort and time, one places several slices of pastrami, about 1 inch high (2.5 cms) onto caraway rye bread.  Cover it with Canadian-style yellow mustard.  You now have a pastrami or smoked meat sandwich.  Along with it serve Kosher dill pickles and/or cole slaw.
To drink:  Hans likes a good beer.  I am not a beer drinker so I stick to my Weissherbst wine, a type of rose.

There are, of course, other ways to cook beef brisket.  I remember having it for dinner with friends, Joan and Barry Lapointe, in Lahr in the mid 1970s.  I thought I had her recipe, but I was unable to find it.  I got in touch with Joan in British Columbia.  She could not find it either.  The one thing I remember is that she marinated hers for 14 days and put a heavy brick or similar object on top of it.  It wasn't pastrami, but it went through a curing process.

My mother had a standby for supper when unexpected company stopped in.  Hers was a potato scallop and corned beef casserole, using tinned corned beef.  This was surely a 1950s/1960s recipe.  It was fast, easy and ready in no time.  Mom took it to various family get-togethers.  This is a recipe that none of my sisters and I will ever forget.

These recipes weren't pastrami but they did use corned beef which begins with a brisket as does pastrami and Montreal Smoked Meat.

Recently, Hans made corned beef and cabbage for dinner, using one of his cured briskets that he said didn't have a strong enough flavour for pastrami.  The dinner itself was excellent, including the cabbage, something I am not usually fond of as a cooked vegetable.  It was the best cooked cabbage I have had.

 On the right, cabbage ready for cooking

 The corned beef 

Hans' Cooked Cabbage - It seems too simple to be tasty, but it had a lot of flavour.  Slice a cabbage and put it into a large pot (he quarters it and then slices it).  Add vegetable broth or water with powdered vegetable flavour or a vegetable cube or two and enough liquid not to burn the cabbage.  Add caraway to taste, at least 1 teaspoon.  Simmer it until it is tender, about one hour.  About 15 minutes after it starts to simmer, add a large piece of corned beef atop the cabbage; cover the beef with raw, peeled potatoes (halved if wished).  Continue cooking until the cabbage and potatoes are tender, about 45 more minutes. Since the beef may be rather salty you have to go easy with any added salt.
Corned Beef, cabbage and potatoes for dinner

Hans continues to try duplicating the famous Montreal Smoked Meat which we had in Montreal at Ben's and which we now buy vacuum-packed in Nova Scotia.  The original Jewish recipe cannot be found anywhere as it is a safely guarded recipe. Even David Sax, the author of Save the Deli, who is Jewish himself, admits that.  The proper and exact proportions/ratios of the various spices, nitrate salt and brown sugar are the secret.  So the never-ending quest for the perfect pastrami goes on.  If any of you have found the original pastrami brining recipe PLEASE let us know!  Any information or suggestions on how to make REAL Pastrami are most welcome. Hans is not getting any younger--and neither am I!

I shall now reiterate that I would prefer no more pastrami.  I know, though, that more will come.  This last one, which was curing when I started writing this some time ago and is now finished, was good, but Hans is still not satisfied.  I hope the next one will be perfect, with the typical taste we associate with pastrami or Montreal Smoked Meat.  That will be # 20 and the last (I hope!).