Here in Austin, I've noticed that some customers go to the grocery store and get all excited about cold, water-logged Boar's Head pastrami. It pains my soul. I wonder if they don't know what it's like to go to Katz's Deli in New York City and order a pastrami reuben. The old guy behind the counter heaves a huge pastrami out of the steamer and hand carves off a pile of thin slices for your sandwich, wielding a massive knife. If you tip him he'll give you a couple of extra slices on the side to sample. The beef is sweet, salty, and melt-in-your-mouth-tender. You also sense some garlic, mustard , and smoke while the coating of coriander and black peppercorns adds another layer of flavor.
When I left New York for Austin, I feared I'd never have access to legit pastrami again. So when I read about the Charcutepalooza brine challenge for March, I betrayed my Irish heritage and went for the pastrami challenge instead of the corned beef. Pastrami is essentially corned beef anyways, but there are more herbs and spices in the brine. Most importantly, it is traditionally cold smoked and then steamed instead of boiled.
Making pastrami is no small task; it took a 5 pound brisket from Richardson Farms, 3 days of brining, and 4 hours of smoking. I made big plans to brine the beef before work. Upon reading Ruhlman's recipe from Charcuterie more closely that morning, I realized it called for some emotionally prepared pickling spice made ahead of time. In a rush, I improvised and threw in pinches of whole spices called for in the recipe, maybe throwing in a little extra of my favorites like mustard seeds and black peppercorns. I submerged the brisket in the brine, and placed the pot in the fridge.
Ruhlman's recipe explained that the final step was to smoke the brisket as long as possible until the center reached 150 degrees. My inexperienced smoking partner and I were afraid we'd overcook the meat with our make-shift smoker grill set up, but we actually managed to keep the fire low and smoke the meat for 4 hours until it reached the correct temperature.
The result was everything I dreamed it would be! A beautiful pastrami that was delightfully smokier than anything I've had before, and the coriander peppercorn crust was pleasantly crisp and crunchy. Right out of the grill/smoker the meat was a little too salty, and I vowed to make a weaker brine next time. Over the past few days, however, the saltiness has become less pronounced, and I wonder if it's all part of the pastrami-making process since it's a preserved meat product afterall.
So I'm thrilled to know I can make a suitable substitute for Katz's Deli pastrami whenever I get the craving, and it's a fun activity too. Now I'm sort of inspired to try making the other New York foods I miss: bagels, Polish dumplings, and Shanghai soup dumplings. We'll see.