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Though it may seem daunting, homemade pastrami is a great introduction to the basic techniques of curing meat at home -- which is why I decided to include it in The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook. It’s simple and easy -- and produces such a rich flavor. Since we wanted to share the essence of our beef program, I chose a recipe that feels deeply connected to New York, past and present.
Pastrami is amazingly delicious and we use it in several ways on our menus. We’ve served it as a sandwich with pickled peppers and arugula on grilled potato and onion rolls, as an amuse bouche with garlic aioli, and even as charcuterie with house-made pickles.
The method for making pastrami was originally used to preserve beef from spoiling in a time before modern refrigeration (in fact, the word “pastrami” comes from the Romanian “pastra,” to preserve). The first versions of this preparation date back to the Ottoman Empire, where Turkish people salted and dried beef. Beef plates are the traditional primal cut for making pastrami, but these days it is more common to see brisket, and sometimes beef round and turkey.
How did pastrami become central to New York’s culinary identity? When Romanian Jews began immigrating to New York in the late 1800s, they brought over the preservation methods that they had used to cure goose breast back home. In New York, beef navels were cheaper than goose meat, so they adapted their recipe and began to make beef pastrami as we know it now.
A great pastrami always begins with excellent-quality beef. At Gramercy Tavern, we have created a meaningful connection to three producers from whom we buy our whole sides of beef. If you're making pastrami at home, make sure to get your meat from a butcher you trust.
The brine for making pastrami at Gramercy Tavern includes salt, peppercorns, coriander seeds, red pepper flakes, allspice, cloves, mace, ginger, bay leaf, cinnamon, pink salt, brown sugar, honey, and garlic, all of which add flavor and create the red color for which many cured meats are known.
The meat is first corned, which involves letting it sit in the brine solution for five days, which turns it into corned beef.
After it's brined, the meat is rubbed with more peppercorns, coriander, mustard and fennel seed, and left to sit in its spice-crust for twelve hours.
Finally, the meat is smoked and/or steamed for 3 to 4 hours to infuse it with flavor, tenderize it, and preserve it. Smoking gives it a dark crust and smoky flavor, while steaming creates a cleaner taste and fall-apart texture. If you still want that smoky flavor at home without a smoker, you can use shiro dashi -- a Japanese product that gives it that smoky richness.
In our kitchen, curing pastrami is a celebration of craftsmanship from another time period and simply a necessity to thoughtfully utilize the entire animal. The fatty end of the brisket is transformed by salt, smoke, and time into something magical.
Makes one 4-pound pastrami
3 1⁄2 tablespoons black peppercorns
3 1⁄2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1⁄2 teaspoon allspice berries
1⁄2 teaspoon whole cloves
1⁄4 teaspoon ground mace
1⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 bay leaf, crumbled
1⁄4 cinnamon stick, crushed
1 1⁄4 cups kosher salt
2 2⁄3 tablespoons pink salt (sodium nitrite)
1 cup granulated sugar
1⁄2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1⁄4 cup honey
5 garlic cloves, minced
One 5-pound beef brisket from the fatty end (point), untrimmed
1 1⁄2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1⁄2 cup shiro dashi
Photos by James Ransom