Pastrami Comes to Those Who Wait

A fellow culinarily-curious friend recently gave us the very inspirational book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese of The Tipsy Baker fame. While there are so many things that you might never make at home, we shouldn’t lose sight that the tastiest foods have always been made at home: dishes that are cultural heirlooms, or legendary recipes, or inadvertent standbys that have just stuck around, being made for generations. Many of these things are surprisingly easy to make, and then there are the other items: things that you should make… once. Just to see how they’re done. Because your curiosity got the better of you. Because you thought, “This will be fun!” until you realize that fun left the building hours ago. Things that made you think, “This will be culturally significant”, until you discovered that nobody else even considers making such a thing at home, in their spare time, because making these things are insane. Totally and completely insane.

Jennifer Reese, who has soldiered through a number of these “what-if-we make-it-at-home recipes,” does an amazing job of corralling all of her experiences into an easy to read and helpful cookbook. It’s written much like a blog, with a narrative story that describes the time, effort, cost, and hassle of making various things – mayonnaise (make), vermouth (buy), pizza (make), chicken – as in, hand-raising live chickens in your backyard (buy – “Alas, our backyard chicken was bony and sinewy with stringy, chocolate-colored flesh”). I had been enjoying reading it cover-to-cover: I was amused and sympathetic, from a detached “light reading” point of view, to many of her reasons for making or not making something from scratch. But then I came to page 180: Pastrami.

WHAT? You can make PASTRAMI at HOME and nobody told me? This changes everything!

Well, you know what happened next.

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Gentlemen, start your engines.

Let’s do this! Lamb pastrami, here we come!

It’s the one of the last ingredients that we need to make a completely homemade Reuben. We’ve made rye bread, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, mustard, all from scratch. What else could we possibly make? How about the keystone of the sandwich – the meat?

Wait – we’re going to make the meat? What sane person would make the pastrami at home? (Hint: us. And we might not be that sane.)

Disregarding Reese’s warning that the Hassle Level would be “Prodigious”, we got to work. In went a 4.5 lb lamb shoulder into a brine containing salt, sugar, pickling spice, brown sugar, honey and garlic powder. After simmering everything enough to meld the ingredients, it was transferred to the refrigerator for three days.

Three days. Though we are often guilty of trying to prepare a multi-day recipe for the same night’s dinner, we managed to pull this week-long recipe together through the radical process of “reading ahead”.

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Pastrami garage.

After the brining period, it was time to do the smoking. We used retired oak barrels that had housed wine – I think Merlot – and our grill for this task. Low heat and heavily soaked wine barrel staves did the trick, after a day of gentle smoking.

I realize that not everyone has wine barrel staves at the ready. Really, any hard wood will do, if it has been soaked in water so that it smokes instead of burns.

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Vroom vroom!

3 hours and 150 F internal temperature later, the smoking process was complete. Frankly, our house smelled amazing. Truly amazing. When’s dinner?

Not quite yet. Next, a spice rub was applied to the smoked meat and it was ready to braise. Yep – after smoking it, there’s yet another cooking process to be done.

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Insert meat A into casserole B. Simmer.

Not only do we smoke the lamb, we have to cook it gently in a light liquid broth until it’s tender.

What do we have to do to get a decent sandwich around here?

2.5 hours in the oven, cooled to room temperature, patted dry and sliced, it was now ready to join our homemade rye bread, homemade sauerkraut, homemade mustard, and homemade Russian dressing.

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Not homemade: granite countertops. Maybe next time.

I think at this point, after all of this build-up, what you really want to know is, “How was the sandwich?”

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I believe the appropriate words are "Om nom nom".

Amazing. Dude, we made that sandwich up there. All of it. The bread, the kraut, the dressing and now the meat, all from scratch. The only thing that we didn’t make was the cheese – and don’t be surprised if you see that in a future blog post.

The other big question is, “Was it worth it?”

I’m not saying that everyone should go through this effort to get an acceptable Reuben. I do think, however, that everyone should go through this once, if they have the chance, to get an awesome Reuben. Unless you know A Guy In Downtown Manhattan, you’d be hard pressed to buy a sandwich like this. We will be doing this again. Some time later. When we’ve had a chance to forget all the effort involved.

We have a tendency to fall on the side of making more from scratch than is really advisable – our version would be called Make the Bread, Make the Butter, Because Why Not Go Crazy? but Make the Bread, Buy the Butter does an excellent job of identifying what things are worth the time and money to make yourself. We’ve yet to find a better resource to answer the question, “Is it really worth it?” when making things from scratch. Sometimes it is, sometimes it ain’t, and Jennifer nails it.

Plus, if you’re as crazy about culinary challenges as we are, you can always just flip through to find the hardest of the hard items for your next cooking project.

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