Not Quite Katz’s (but darn good pastrami)

April, I have decided, is a lovely time to visit New York. When my husband, Les, and I traveled there for our honeymoon trip a few years ago, I realized that being in the city with someone who grew up in the city is the best experience of all. When you are traveling with a “native son,” you don’t feel as much like a tourist, but you quickly get used to the idea of walking—a lot. Les and I walked, on average, about 6 miles each day, and I was free to enjoy the scenery along the way. In New York, in April, there were tulips everywhere.


The city was abuzz with the sounds, sights and smell of spring, and I was positively in love—with N.Y., of course, but especially with my husband of only a few days. His confidence in navigating the city of his youth gave me even more reason to appreciate being with him. I didn’t have to worry about a thing! Les knew instinctively which subway trains to take for various planned excursions, what time to leave and (most importantly) where to go for the best food, including John’s on Bleecker Street for pizza, which became the gold standard in my own effort to achieve the perfect N.Y. pizza dough.

One of our day trips included a visit to the Freedom Tower, now the tallest building in N.Y., at the site where the North Tower of the World Trade Center once stood. We had visited the landmark and the memorial earlier in the week, and merely seeing the names of the people who died on that dark day of history was truly devastating. I cannot (and don’t want to) imagine what it must have been like to witness those events.

There are not enough words.

We had intended to ascend the Freedom Tower on that first visit, but were offered a reschedule on our tickets because of heavy fog that apparently made visibility from the top almost nil. We had better luck on the second visit, and the view from the One World Observatory was jaw-dropping.

I wondered how many people down there might have been looking up to where we were standing.
And how about that dreadful smog?

All that walking left us feeling pretty hungry, and our steps (and appetite) led us to the Lower East Side, to the most iconic eatery in all of Manhattan.


From the outside, Katz’s Delicatessen is pretty unassuming—just an old-school corner building with a neon-letter sign—but inside, the joint was jumping! We squeezed into line with all the other hungry tourists and locals, pulled our tickets and shouted our orders to the sandwich makers behind the counter, who were generously offering samples of the deliciousness to come. It was the most exciting lunch I’ve ever eaten, in a place you’ve probably seen, even if you have never visited New York. Katz’s Deli was the setting for the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in the film, When Harry Met Sally. And if you do visit the city—you know, when the world reopens—I highly recommend a visit to Katz’s, and I highly recommend that you have what I had—the $23 pastrami on rye. Worth. Every. Penny.

My pastrami in the foreground; Les’s corned beef in the back. It was a collective mountain of food!

When business is booming, Katz’s reportedly sells 15,000 pounds of pastrami a week—and as you can see, most of that ends up on one sandwich. I did my best to stretch my jaw onto that thing, and my city-savvy hubby had to show me how it’s done, face-first and with both hands.


We had a ton of leftovers, of course, so we wrapped up the remains of our sammies and took them back to our room. It was on this trip that I learned cold leftover pastrami on rye is fantastic for breakfast.

I’ve had a hankering to try making pastrami at home ever since that trip, and although we cannot match what they do at Katz’s (at least, not without giving up our full-time jobs), Les and I were pretty darn excited with the results of our first pastrami effort. When we began our corned beef adventure this year, we had purchased two large, grass-fed briskets, knowing that both would be brined at least a week, and that one would travel on to the smoker with a spicy dry rub to become pastrami. My inspiration came from Katz’s, but my recipe is drawn mostly from The Gefilte Manifesto (Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern), the same book that inspired my pierogi with potato, leek and spinach last fall. Jeffrey’s pastrami recipe instructed a 7-day brine, followed by extensive rinsing, a generous rub-down with copious amounts of spices and, finally, several hours in the smoker.

Our driveway, where the smoker was set up, smelled like the stuff deli dreams are made of, and our first pastrami was fabulous! I will not torture you with three pages of ingredients and details, because you probably just want to see the pictures, anyway. So, here you go!



In reviewing all my notes and looking back at the instructions offered in The Gefilte Manifesto, we realize that we made a couple of missteps, primarily with the finishing of the pastrami. We should have waited to cut into it, pending an overnight in the fridge and a two-hour steaming. But the aroma caused us to lose our minds a bit, and so we just charged in and cut the thing. Fantastic flavors, and we will steam the slices as we go. We’ve got nothing on Katz’s Delicatessen, but our pastrami was pretty darn delicious. We will absolutely do this again, and by that time, we hope to invite all of our meat-loving friends to join us for a pastrami feast, fresh and hot off the smoker. Who’s bringing the potato salad? 😀


DIY Corned Beef—Done!

It has been a fun week of St. Patrick’s Day-themed food prep at our house. As I’ve chopped and cooked, hustling from one recipe to another and digging into the history of the foods associated with Ireland, I’ve felt an almost spiritual connection to the Irish people. Theirs is a rich and layered culture, and my background music of choice, the Springsteen album Live in Dublin, gave me additional inspiration. Here’s a taste, for your listening pleasure as you tag along for the rest of my corned beef adventure.

It has been a deliciously rich week, too. We’ve shared these tasty recipes, including two versions of mashed potatoes, a no-yeast bread, a no-bake dessert and some bangin’ sausages. By the time we finish the leftovers, I expect I will have sweet Irish butter flowing through my veins. Wow!


The Irish food party started last week, when I detailed our adventures with making our own corned beef. Whether or not you jumped on the DIY wagon with us, I thought you may appreciate seeing the end result. As mentioned, we avoid meats processed with nitrates and nitrites, so I certainly do not go out of my way to find or use them in our homemade version of this St. Patrick’s Day classic. The ingredients we do use to brine our grass-fed brisket—kosher salt, pickling spices, brown sugar, Irish ale, celery juice and sauerkraut brine—add layers of flavor, and we don’t care about the pinkish color the added nitrates would have otherwise lent.

Let’s pick up where we left off, from the point of pouring the brine over the briskets and sending them to the refrigerator for a nice, long nap. I noted that we would finally make good on our goal of making pastrami from one of the briskets, and we have done that (I’ll share it tomorrow), but corned beef is the guest of honor this week, and the post-brine process is very simple. I turned the briskets each day to help them brine evenly, and the corned beef got an extra day’s soak on Sunday—a total of eight days, which is about right for a nearly 6-pound hunk of meat. I rinsed it thoroughly, nestled it into the slow cooker on top of celery and onion chunks, and sprinkled it with about half a bottle of fresh pickling spices. We have done corned beef nearly the same way for several years, so I decided to try a twist that I saw in my news feed, though I cannot for the life of me remember the source. Anyway, the suggestion was to use white wine in the brining liquid. This makes perfect sense to me, given that I use wine to roast so many other meats, so I tried it. This will become a new standard for us.

This may well be the best batch of homemade corned beef we have ever made. The meat is perfectly tender and easy to slice, and the flavors are richly entwined with every fiber of the meat. The flavor is richer and more complex than any store-bought corned beef I’ve had, and my husband, Les, suggested that it rivaled the delicious corned beef we enjoyed a few years ago at Katz’s delicatessen in New York!


Instructions

  1. Remove brisket from brine and brush away as much of the picking spice mixture as possible. Discard the brine, and I’d recommend that you pour it through a colander to strain out the seeds, berries, bay leaves, and chunky solids that might otherwise clog your kitchen drain.
  2. Rinse the brisket. Cut up a whole yellow onion and a few stalks of celery. Scatter the aromatic vegetables into the bottom of a large pot or slow cooker. Place the brisket, fat side-up, on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle about half a bottle of fresh pickling spices over the brisket.
  3. Pour in 1/2 cup dry white wine, and enough water into the pot to completely cover the meat. Bring pot to a slight boil, then reduce heat and simmer about one hour per pound of meat, until brisket is desired tenderness.
  4. Carefully remove brisket from the cooking liquid and rest on a cutting board for 15 minutes before cutting.
  5. If you are cooking cabbage and carrots to accompany the corned beef, but them on to boil now, and use the brisket braising liquid to echo the corned beef flavors.
  6. Slice brisket against the grain—opposite the direction of the meat fibers.
  7. You’ll find that the corned beef slices particularly well after chilling. To reheat slices of corned beef, place slices in a steamer basket over simmering water. Or, strain more of the braising liquid into a jar and keep it in the fridge for steaming the leftovers. Why waste that flavor? 🙂

You don’t have to be Irish to love it!

Want to print this recipe?


DIY Corned Beef? (yes, you can!)

Today is March 9, and we need to talk about St. Patrick’s Day. Why the urgency, you may ask, with eight days to go? In our home, the food preparation for this fun holiday has already begun, in that we have started the brining process for our annual home-cured corned beef. Several years ago, I swore off meats processed with unnecessary nitrate and nitrite chemicals, and though it’s easy enough today to find commercially prepared “uncured” versions of corned beef in supermarkets such as Whole Foods, I get a kick out of doing it myself. This year, my husband, Les, and I purchased two large grass-fed briskets for this purpose. One will be a traditional corned beef preparation, and the other will travel an extra mile to become pastrami. The brining step takes anywhere from seven to 10 days, so we started ahead accordingly.

If this sounds exciting to you, then hightail it to the market today or tomorrow to procure the necessary supplies, and you’ll find directions for brining at the end of this post. Otherwise, sit back and relax for a brief “did you know” lesson on some of the dishes we think of this time of year, and a sneak peek at what I’ll be preparing in the week ahead. For many Irish-Americans, this mid-March holiday is usually a time for lively street parades (especially in Boston and New York), the wearing of the green (lest ye be pinched), toasting to good health with a pint (green or otherwise), and feasting on corned beef and cabbage, colcannon, bangers and mash, or Irish soda bread. But how authentic are these “St. Patrick’s Day” foods, really?

I’ve done some research this week, and honestly, it’s hit-or-miss. But in searching out stock photos from the internet, I’m drooling a bit, just thinking about these delectable foods!


Corned beef is associated with Ireland, but it originated in the U.S., where Irish immigrants found beef to be plentiful and more affordable than in their native land. Traditional Irish cuisine leans more heavily on proteins that are native to the land, including lamb and fish.

Colcannon, a mixture of cabbage and mashed potatoes, is an authentically Irish food, but is traditionally made around Halloween, not St. Patrick’s Day. Playful (or superstitious) cooks might still hide coins or lucky charms (not the cereal!) inside, giving dinner guests a chance at good fortune, though it sounds more like a good shot at a trip to the ER, or perhaps a ruse to convince children to finish their vegetables.

Bangers and mash is a rustic dish of sausage (usually pork or lamb) on top of mashed potatoes with onion gravy. This dish is definitely original to Ireland, as well as other parts of the U.K., and it earned its nickname because of the sound the moisture-heavy sausages made when they “popped” during cooking. I love bangers and mash with Guinness-based gravy, and the immature side of me just thinks it’s fun to say “bangers and mash.”

Finally, soda bread, long considered to be an original Irish food, technically isn’t. Culinary historians credit Native Americans as the first to use soda ash as a leavening agent in bread, but Irish immigrants to the new country quickly recognized the technique as a means to enjoy bread during yeast shortages. When baking soda became available in the U.K., the Irish adopted the chemical leavening trick to make breads from the stuff they had on hand—soft, low-protein wheat flour and sour or cultured milk.

I love food history, and even though some of these foods are questionable in their authenticity to St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be making (and sharing with you) some version of all of them between now and next week.

Our corned beef is already underway, and if you’d like to play along at home, here’s how to begin. As I mentioned, I do not use the nitrate chemical known as “curing salt,” and it is not necessary for home-cured corned beef. The intended purpose of curing salt is to inhibit growth of bad bacteria while the meat is brining, but between modern refrigeration and the natural nitrites that occur in another ingredient I use, my brisket is well protected. One noticeable difference in nitrate- and nitrite-free corned beef is the color; mine will not have the rosy hue you see in commercially processed corned beef. The flavor, however, is exactly the same (or better).

Essential gear

You will need a container for brining the corned beef. It should be large enough to hold your brisket, plus about a gallon of liquid brine mixture. Choose a non-reactive, sealable vessel for this purpose—in other words, do not use a metal pot! A plastic container with a tight lid is fine, as is a food-grade plastic brining bag (plus a container large enough to hold it). Depending on your container, you may also need a non-reactive bowl or plate heavy enough to weigh down the brisket so that it is fully submerged at all times. For cooking the brined brisket, any slow cooker, roasting pan or Dutch oven will do, but you won’t need that until next week. You will also need enough space in your fridge for said container.

Essential tips

Prepare your brining liquid in advance, and allow time for it to cool completely before adding your brisket. I’ve seen some recipes that begin with cold water, and that may be OK, but the coarse salt and sugar will dissolve better and more quickly over heat, so I usually warm the liquid to incorporate those grainy ingredients, then cool it down (usually with ice cubes) before adding the rest. Do not pour warm brine onto the brisket—this would promote bacteria growth.

Essential Ingredients

These are the must-haves for making corned beef at home.

4- 5 pound beef brisket, preferably flat-cut, trimmed of excess fat

3 quarts filtered water

About a cup of kosher salt or coarse sea salt* (see notes)

About 1/2 cup dark brown sugar

1 packet or bottle of pickling spices*

Optional Ingredients

These are the must-haves PLUS the extra stuff I add to my brine. Isn’t it funny that all the extras have GREEN labels? 🙂

12 oz. bottle Irish ale*

12 oz. bottle celery juice*

1/2 cup real fermented sauerkraut brine*

*Notes

Kosher salt and coarse sea salt are about the same by volume and can be used interchangeably here. You can also use canning and pickling salt, or fine-textured sea salt, but because the crystals are much smaller, you should use slightly less (somewhere between 3/4 and 7/8 cup). Do not use table salt containing iodine.

Pickling spice is a blend of dry ingredients, usually including peppercorns, mustard and coriander seeds, allspice berries, ginger, garlic, bay leaves and sometimes chile peppers. You could whip up your own blend if you so desired, but the simplest thing to do is purchase a jar of spices ready to go. McCormick makes a good one that you will find in the regular spice aisle of just about any supermarket. You will use the entire bottle, and you may as well pick up two of them so you’ll have extra spices later for cooking your corned beef.

The remaining ingredients are optional, but I’ll explain here why I use them. A few years ago, a guest at our big Super Bowl party had left behind a growler jug of a local IPA that was much more “hoppy” than beers we usually enjoy. Not wanting to waste it, I glugged about a pint of it into our corned beef brine, and it was fantastic. Every year since then, I’ve put a bottle of Irish ale into the recipe and it always turns out great with that little extra layer of flavor. I think a bottle of Guinness would be great, too.

Celery juice powder is a natural source of nitrites, one of the same chemical additives in commercially processed corned beef. I haven’t yet seen the powder available anywhere, but my supermarket carries celery juice in the same refrigerated section as kombucha and probiotic drinks. Check the ingredients of any celery juice product you choose. This one I use is only celery juice and a hint of lemon juice. I don’t want to know who is actually drinking this stuff, but I’m glad it’s available. 🙂

Real sauerkraut is a naturally fermented product, containing loads of healthy probiotics. Good bacteria threaten bad bacteria, so a few splashes of the brine from the natural sauerkraut is my extra security measure during the brining process. I would not recommend using the brine in canned sauerkraut, as it likely contains vinegar and who-knows-what else. But if your kraut came from the refrigerated case, and the ingredients listed on the package are only cabbage and salt, and it says “naturally fermented” or “live cultures” somewhere on the jar, you’re good to go. Hang onto the sauerkraut for all the yummy Reuben sandwiches you’ll make next week.

About the pink color:

I’ve tried a few other tricks to get the reddish color that is typical of commercially produced corned beef, but most did not work and others were only nominally effective. If you feel inclined, try adding about a cup of pure beet juice to the brine (more seems to affect the flavor), or try some beet powder if you can get your hands on it. But if you can overlook the idea of artificially enhanced color, I promise the flavor of home-cured corned beef is even tastier than the pink version you grew up with. It’s a good trade-off.


Ready? Let’s do this!

  1. Heat about 3 quarts of filtered water to a near boil, then turn off the heat.
  2. Add kosher salt and brown sugar. Stir until dissolved, then toss in a couple of cups of ice to cool it down.
  3. When the brine is fully cooled, add the Irish ale, celery juice and sauerkraut brine.
  4. Place your brisket into the non-reactive container. Sprinkle the pickling spice over the top of the meat. Carefully pour the cold brine over the meat.
  5. Use a heavy, non-reactive plate or dish to hold the brisket under the brine liquid. You don’t want the top or any edges exposed to air while the curing takes place. I usually use a flat-bottomed Pyrex dish to press it down, and when I seal the container, it becomes sort of wedged to keep the brisket from floating to the surface.
  6. Refrigerate on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator for at least 5 days for a smallish brisket, or up to 10 days if your brisket is on the larger side. Check on the brisket each day, and turn it so the brine and seasonings make their way into every fiber of the meat. Keep it submerged.

If you don’t have room in the refrigerator, you can do the brine step in a cooler. Be sure the container holding the brisket and liquid is fully sealed, and refresh the ice as needed to keep it cold for the duration of the brining process.

When brining is complete, rinse the brisket under cold running water for several minutes, then proceed with cooking as usual.

Are you gonna try it?

Later this week, I’ll post my recipes for Irish soda bread and “bangers and mash.” Stay tuned!