I was never much of an adventurous person when it came to food until I was an adult. I kind of stuck to what I knew and turned my nose up at anything outside that norm. That’s how my Mom was (is) so it must have been ingrained in me. That changed, thankfully, and now I’m usually always up for trying something new; this quest being a daily test of that. But because of this, I don’t think I tried pastrami until I was in my twenties. I actually remember the occasion. I was living in a duplex house with me on one side and my cousin and his family on the other. One day, kindly enough, they invited me over for lunch after we had been working on something in the yard. There would be many more lunches and dinners at their house, but this was one of the first. Paula, my cousin Charlie’s wife, had everything ready for us as we finished up chopping down some tree or other odd yard job. We walked in and there, waiting for me, was a pastrami sandwich.
I could feel my nose turning up but I took a breath and gave myself an internal pep talk. “You’re an adult. It looks good. Be polite. You can eat this.” As I looked at it though, I realized this would be stretching my boundaries. First, it was pastrami. My deli meats were only ever turkey, bologna and roast beef. What is a pastrami? What kind of animal is that? But, ok, it smells good; I can eat this. Then I saw that it was served on rye bread. I’m a white bread kind of guy. Rye bread is not my thing. Alright, don’t panic. You can muscle through that. It was topped with Swiss cheese. Swiss? I’m an American Cheese guy! Swiss is full of holes. Ok, ok. The cheese will just wash down with the rest of it. No worries. Wait what’s that on the inside? Grilled onions? I hate onions. Aw man, this is getting worse. Ok, ok. Suck it up. Be neighborly. She is making you a really nice sandwich. Eat it with a smile. Then, as if the final straw, I peeked inside and there on the inside of the rye bread was mustard. That was the deal breaker. I couldn’t eat it. I had to politely decline on the basis of mustard. That’s my line in the sand. What a little shit I was. Such a nice offer. Just eat the sandwich. In the end, Paula was both nice and resourceful, because she made me a new sandwich without mustard. And you know what, that was an awesome sandwich. Turns out pastrami is pretty good.
Pastrami is simply a meat product that is brined, partially dried, seasoned with herbs and spices, then smoked and steamed. It’s usually made with beef, although you can find turkey pastrami at the deli counter too, and I also hear that you can make it with mutton (if that’s your thing – I would call that Baaa-strami). It hails from Eastern Europe and was brought to the Americas by the wave of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century (immigrants, they get the job done). Then it was featured in the kosher delis that started popping up throughout New York City where it took off. A giant pastrami sandwich is almost a New York institution. Sadly, the authentic Jewish deli is a dying breed (even the famed Carnegie Deli just closed its doors), but there are a few stalwarts of the business still keeping the tradition going. As far as my research goes (limited as it may be), I only found one authentic Jewish deli in Rhode Island (which happened to be closed on Saturday). The closest one to me would be in Brookline, MA (Zaftigs). That seemed like a long way to travel, even though I never mind a field trip.
Pastrami is very much available outside a Jewish deli and in fact you can usually find a good pastrami sandwich at any decent sandwich shop. They also sell pastrami at your local deli counter, so having a pastrami sandwich was not much of a challenge. I just had to give up on that vision of an authentic Jewish deli experience. I decided to make my own. I have some experience here. I worked for a few years in a pub restaurant as a cook and there was a pastrami sandwich on the menu (I believe it was called the Pastrami Nightmare). I would make them all the time on the flattop grill, so I had a vision of how this would go. I got my supplies and then waited until after the Atlanta game to start making it.
I started by grilling some onions. I just cut them up into thin half circles, tossed them in some butter, sprinkled in a little sugar to help caramelize them, and then just let it cook. They take the longest so the more time you give them, the better. Then I took out my griddle pan and coated it in butter before plopping down the bread (rye bread, the only way to have pastrami – Paula knows best). I let that cook a little so it would get nice and toasty on the outside. I put some cheese down on one of the pieces so it would melt as the bread heated up. I used American cheese because that’s my favorite and it melts the best, but a purist would use Swiss. On the side, I heated up the pastrami. It doesn’t take long because the pastrami is already cooked and it heats fast because it’s so thin, but warming it up unleashes some of the spices and flavors. When it was warmed, I carefully stacked it on top of the cheese. On top of that, I placed some grilled onions and on top of it all, I placed a slice of tomato that I grilled for about a minute to take the chill out of it. Then I topped it with the other slice of rye bread and let it cook until the outside was sufficiently toasted. Yes, no mustard was used in the sandwich (although I did put some on Lola’s per request).
I don’t mean to boast, but this was one of the best sandwiches I have ever made. It just came out perfectly. The bread was toasted, the cheese melty, the pastrami nice and hot. Good flavor in the pastrami as well (I went with the Boar’s Head brand). I could serve this at Katz’s deli and not be laughed out of the building. I love making a good sandwich. There is an artistry to it (even though those bastards at Subway stole that moniker). The key to any good sandwich is love. Take your time and put a little TLC into every step of the construction. You’ll taste the results.
I have to again thank Paula for showing me the joy of pastrami all those years ago. Life would be missing something without this in my life. It’s especially good because it’s not a sandwich on my usual rotation. It’s special and eaten on rare occasions. It made me miss those times we have gone to authentic Jewish delis and feasted upon that whole culture of food served within. It’s worth the trip always, and I really hope the tradition of Jewish delis does not fade away. It seems to be a dying breed which would be a great loss to the food community. That’s the food for thought that comes along with my pastrami sandwich today. And boy, is it delicious.
Next Up: National Strawberry Ice Cream Day