Do you know why Neil Armstrong went to the moon?
Oh, I’m sure his desire to make history played a role, as did a thirst for adventure and a deep sense of patriotism. According to my Grandpa Morry, though, there was another reason: Neil had heard there was a deli up there that served the perfect pastrami.
Yeah, Grandpa Morry had a talent for rewriting history — and finding ways to make it more Jewish. (He also swore to me that the whale in Pinocchio was really named “Moishe.”) If there’d been a great deli on the moon, though, I have no doubt he would have found a way to get there.
Nonnie’s husband had a thing for pastrami, and insisted that everyone around him feel the same way about it. He’d take my siblings and I to Nate’n Al when we visited him in L.A., ordering us enormous sandwiches we’d only manage a few bites of. (If they’d been chicken fingers, it might have been another story.) I’m pretty sure he’d end up finishing those sandwiches himself — which, come to think of it, might have been his plan all along.
Given Morry’s passion, I was initially surprised that Nonnie didn’t have a recipe for pastrami in her cookbook. When I poked around online, though, I understood why: Pastrami is a gigantic pain for a home cook, a multi-step, multi-day process that calls for trimming, brining, desalinating, dry-rubbing, smoking, and steaming a brisket. This recipe probably puts it best: “Preparation time: Oy!”
Nonnie did, however, have a recipe for pastrami’s deli case cousin, corned beef — or, more specifically, for preparing beef that’s already been corned.
I considered buying a brisket and corning it from scratch; I quickly realized that would be madness when I found out that it would entail buying my own nitrates (either special curing salt or saltpeter; you know, the same stuff that’s in gunpowder). So I took the same sort of shortcut Nonnie almost certainly did, buying my meat from a reputable deli and taking things from there.
According to Nonnie, you could make this recipe with short ribs instead of corned beef. But I think you know what Grandpa Morry would say to that. (Hint: It’d be Yiddish, and probably very rude.)
Boiled Beef or Corned Beef; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
2-3 lbs. short ribs or corned beef [I split the difference and bought one that was 2.5 lbs; it was enough to serve four people, but we didn’t have much in the way of leftovers]
6 small carrots
2 small onions, halved
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon whole pickling spice [Don’t have pickling spice? I didn’t either, so I made my own, using this recipe as a guideline]
3-4 small potatoes (optional) [I opted against them, because I wanted to make a more interesting potato. More on those later]
Place all ingredients (except potatoes) in large pot, and add enough cold water to cover. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer (do not boil) for 3-4 hours, or until meat is tender. [Great corned beef is actually steamed rather than simmered, so you really want to be careful with the temperature here — mine took just about four hours to get fully tender.]
You can add potatoes about one hour before serving and wedges of cabbage about 20 minutes before serving. [You know, if you want to do this the Irish way — which, fun fact, is actually an American invention that came about from Irish immigrants cooking meat they bought from kosher butchers. Fusion!]
If cooking corned beef, remove from pot and allow to cool before slicing while potatoes cook. Serve with horseradish sauce. Serves 4[, assuming you’ve got sides. You do have sides, right?].
1/2 cup dairy sour cream
2 tablespoons white horseradish
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
Mix all ingredients together, chill and serve. [Lick the spoon; shh, nobody’s watching.]
The verdict: Not as tender as Katz’s, of course — but I was surprised by how much this tasted like, well, corned beef. I know how dumb that sounds, but you know what I mean: So often, homemade versions of foods you’d typically buy from a third party fall short. This, though, is pretty much the real deal, even if it was slightly stringier than I’d ideally want. Next time — and yes, there will be a next time — I’ll see if there’s some way to rig a steamer, and whether that changes the result.
The horseradish sauce is definitely good — creamy, tangy, spicy — but I’m also not sure I was totally on board with Nonnie’s serving suggestion. Her corned beef tasted fine on a plate; it tasted even better, though, when I spread that horseradish sauce on a roll and stuffed it with the few shreds of beef we had left over.
Oh, and speaking of leftovers: Cooking corned beef using this method will leave you with around nine cups of cooking liquid, which is salty and beefy (surprisingly so, considering it isn’t made with bones) and extra-aromatic, thanks to the pickling spice. The cinnamon and allspice especially give it a distinctly phở-esque aroma.
So I decided to go with it, straining the broth, chilling it overnight, de-fatting it, then eating it with scallions, greens, tofu and shirataki noodles. Boom: two meals for the price of one. And even though the second is far from traditional deli fare, I like to think Grandpa Morry would approve.