Friday, September 18, 2009

Oh Pastrami, My Pastrami

Most folks hold up the pastrami at the great deli's as the gold standard - Katz's or 2nd Avenue if you're on the right coast, Langer's if you're on the left.  None of the commercial store-bought stuff comes close - Hebrew National, Boar's Head, etcetc... just tasteless, in comparison.  They're especially bad when made "wrong", as it often is here in Boston - sliced thin on the machine, then boiled en masse, drained insufficiently and plopped on a soft, white bread bun.  But even if you treat it right - buy the whole piece, steam or braise it, hand slice, serve on a decent rye bread (something else that doesn't exist in Boston, but let's not go there today) - even then, it just isn't very good.

There's a marketing distinction between the "standard" or Hungarian style, which is typically coated with paprika, and the Roumanian, which is coated more with black pepper.  In truth, the main dry rub element that makes pastrami what it is, is coriander.  The style differentials are infinite, and one set of spices doesn't make something better than another - although the marketing folks would like you to think so.  Lean is another topic - they often market the Roumanian style as "lean" pastrami - as if that were ever meant to exist in this universe.  Just about any meat can be made into any style.  If you start with a leaner cut, you'll get a leaner (and dry) pastrami, regardless of the spices.

The problem with the commercial stuff is a) the preparation, and b) the cut of meat.  Pastrami is done in three steps - corning (pickling, brining, whatever you want to call it), smoking, then steaming or braising.  After corning and smoking, it can be (and almost always is) packaged and can be kept in the fridge or even frozen for a long time, but the final steaming or braising must be done just prior to eating.  Boiling sliced meat is not an option - it is a shame.  Most American deli's don't keep the whole meat on steam and slice it as you order it.  The real problem with the vacuum sealed Hebrew National type of commercial pastrami is that they use the flat of the brisket.   It's the leanest part, which means that it's the least tasty and the most dry.  You don't have to eat all that attached fat to have a good pastrami sandwich, but you have to leave it on while cooking and trim it at the end.

You can corn just about any cut of any meat.  But for pastrami, it's said that the navel is best.  Some deli butchers insist that navel isn't brisket, they'll tell you it's "higher" than the brisket.  Others say it's lower - from the belly.  But what is it?  Higher than the brisket/forearm is chuck, as far as the USDA and meat cutters are concerned.  The belly area breaks down to skirts (inner and outer) and flank.  Navel is not discussed under any IMPS/NAMP definition.  I have found a web site that will send you a navel - but I still don't know what it is, and I can't find a local butcher to explain it to me.  I will try it one day when I have some money and time, but for now, I'm trying to find something more ubiquitous and readily purchasable.

Another term used a lot for pastrami is deckle - unlike navel, deckle is discussed in the USDA IMPS definitions, although it doesn't have a specific number defining a cut.  The deckle is the coarse fat and lean located between the ribs and the deep pectoral muscle, which is the entire brisket.  By IMPS definition, it is supposed to be trimmed off of boneless retail cuts of brisket (IMPS 120=whole brisket, 120A = flat, 120B=point, 120C=split brisket), but in reality, most retail point cuts include much of the deckle.

And that brings me to the conclusion that for the home Pastrami enthusiast, given the unavailability of the mysterious navel, buying the point cut Brisket is going to yield the best results.  The attached deckle includes a lot of fat, which keeps the meat moist and delicious through the cooking.  The fat can be trimmed away after the entire process is done, but not before.  There is a lot of loss - the fat accounts for a significant part, by weight, of what you buy.  But the final result is much better than using the flat, which can be dry.

You can buy a point cut brisket and corn it yourself.  Michael Ruhlman has a great recipe in his book, Charcuterie, written with Brian Polcyn.  If you do this, remember to buy some pink salt, sodium nitrite - and follow directions carefully.  Not that this stuff is particularly dangerous or difficult to work with, but a little goes a long way.  And don't even think of corning without it - i.e., salt and sugar and spices alone.  That can make a decent grey corned beef, but as a pastrami, it's horrible.  It takes anywhere from 5-8 days in brine to corn a piece properly.  Nitrite works much faster than nitrate, found in Potassium or Sodium Nitrate - Saltpeter, used since days of antiquity.  (Nitrate actually has to turn into nitrite first, so it takes even longer - up to a month.) But even with the sodium nitrite in pink salt, you're still corning from the outside-in, so you have to have some patience.  If you can find the room to keep it in the fridge, it will take longer, but be safer and insure a more even outcome.  Otherwise, keep it in a cool area, in a crock or plastic bin.

Now here's the shortcut.  Go buy a commercial point cut corned beef.  But, it isn't that easy, I'm afraid.  These things are so salty that if you make it into a pastrami straight from the store, it will be inedible.  So you need to soak it the same as if you were corning - but in this case, you're soaking it in water to remove the salt they put in.  I soak my commercial corned beef for 4 days in the fridge, changing water 3-4 times the first day, then at least twice a day.

Once you get the meat ready, whether corned from scratch or desalinized from store bought, let it dry on a rack, then dry rub.  The rub needs to include ground coriander and black and white pepper.  I use a spice mill to grind these plus some yellow and brown mustard seeds and a some cumin seeds, and then add granulated garlic and onion powder, paprika, and a touch of brown sugar, before thoroughly coating the meat and rubbing in with my hands.  I let this sit for several hours, even a day - something I do before any smoking.

I smoke it in my smoker for about 6 hours, getting the inside to 165F.  The smoker temp is kept at 225F.  I use Hickory and smoke almost the entire time - at least 5 hours.  In general, for low and slow cooking, I find that you need to get to about 180F for decent slicing and at least 195F for pulling.  But since the pastrami is going to get steamed before final slicing and eating, it works best at 165F coming out of the smoker.  After pulling from the smoker, I'll let it rest until cooled, then seal up with my Foodsaver.  It will go into the fridge or freezer depending on how far out I intend to eat it.  Typically, I'll make 2 at a time, eating one right away, and storing the other.

When ready to eat, I'll put it in a dutch oven and braise (water about 1/2 way up, low temp), or put it in a steamer basket (I use the pasta pot with strainer), also on a low simmer after initial boiling.  I'll do this for 2-3 hours, before taking out and serving.  The internal temp should be about 185F.

As good as Katz's?  Perhaps not, but better than any of the commercial stuff?  You bet.

Here's a couple of great reference sites for meat: 

And don't forget the current bible of preserving meat in all its glorious form:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bob Baker's Cornell Chicken

The original recipe is used as a basting sauce for 10 halves of chickens. I use pieces – I prefer breasts or thighs, I prefer with skin, but I’ve made it with skinned pieces, and they come out moist and tender, albeit with no crispy skin (what a shame). Instead of just basting while cooking, which is what the original recipe calls for, I marinate for about 30 minutes – not too long, as this is vinegary and salty. I place on the grill over low to medium heat and baste every time I turn (about 4 times over 15-20 minutes).

My version – a little bit pepperier than the original:

1/2 cup cooking oil
1 cup cider vinegar
1 TBS salt
2 Tsp poultry seasoning
½ Tsp black pepper
½ Tsp white pepper
½ egg (Crack an egg into a measuring cup or small bowl, beat, then pour out about half. Use the other half for the recipe.)

Add the oil to the beaten egg, and beat. Stir in other ingredients.

This ain’t no shit. (What’s the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? The fairy tale begins, “Once upon a time”. War stories begin, “This ain’t no shit.”) In the 1970’s, I was stationed in Germany atop a mountain in the Black Forest. The site was shared by three small contingents from the US, Germany, and France. Of course, international cooperation demanded that we have frequent parties – lots of great food, beer and wine. The US guys never spit a whole lamb like the French, and we weren’t issued wine by the case, as they were, nor did we receive beer as part of our rations, as did the Germans. But we did pretty good – trading our Class VI spoils for goods from their commissaries. In particular, a few well placed bottles of Jim Beam kept us in baguettes and quaffing the wonderful nectar of the local hofbrau, delivered bi-weekly, by government contract!

For one party we hosted, we bought several cases of frozen chicken pieces from our commissary. We decided to serve it in three ways – one was the traditional bottled tomato type of bbq sauce (Kraft, as I remember), another was my teriyaki marinated chicken (which I had previously made for ourselves and we all liked), and the final batch was a recipe we had just read about in the Stars and Stripes, about this award winning county fair chicken developed by a professor at Cornell.

The Cornell chicken ran out quickly. The teriyaki went next, and the standard bbq stuff had lots of leftovers. Everything was cooked right – nothing too dry or burnt. Everybody (all nationalities) just loved the Cornell chicken.

Since that time, I’ve alternated my grilled chicken between the Cornell and the teriyaki on a fairly regular basis. I should point out that the teriyaki is my Japanese mother’s recipe and is not at all sweet and gloppy like some Americans like their teriyaki. It is a marinade and not a syrupy baste. I use a “mother sauce”, which is basically shoyu, rice vinegar and mirin with a little sugar. And that is made into a large number of marinades and sauces by the addition of garlic, ginger, scallions, sesame oil, yuzu or lemon, etcetc. But while it seems that many people are familiar with teriyaki, few have heard of Cornell chicken.

I did once read a review of the Cornell recipe calling Professor Baker, the Colonel Sanders of barbecue chicken. I wonder, now that KFC is selling grilled chicken, if that still applies. I haven’t had the KFC grilled chicken yet – somehow, I’m not all that eager to try it out. Maybe it’s because I already have the best!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Summertime Grilling: Gas or Charcoal?

This is a simple blog. The answer, is obviously, both.

There are so many unique advantages of both, that it's silly to restrict yourself from using one or the other. Charcoal, especially hardwood lump, can burn much hotter than briquettes or any home gas grill. It can impart flavor and smoke. Gas is convenient, but also offers a combination of radiant and convective heat that is perfect for longer-cooking items, like chicken pieces.

In these pictures, the ribs are being reheated for service. They were smoked in a smoker for 4-6 hours at 230F, using hickory chunks. I like to pull them a bit early so that I can reheat and finish on the charcoal grill, usually at a later time when I'm ready to serve.

Two favorite techniques that make grilling work better for me:
1) Use a chimney starter for your charcoal. After years of fooling with lighter fluids, electric starters, etcetc - I found that nothing is simpler or faster than a couple of crumpled up pieces of newspaper under the chimney full of charcoal.
2) I love the rotisserie attachment for my Weber 22" kettle. In conjunction with the intense heat from two piles (one on either side) of hardwood lump, I can get the crispiest, deepest maillard crust, without burning, and yet keep the middle rare, on leg of lambs, rib roasts (bone in or out), and pork loins.

And don't forget the vegetables!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Being Progressive

I am progressive. I call myself that, and believe it fully. I believe that it’s mankind’s destiny to move forward – to move to new ground, both physically and in all areas of knowledge. I am a technologist, and believe strongly that our tools combined with our knowledge will ultimately lead us to a better future. And yet, I also find myself often quoting, “Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.” Now you know I’m progressive – I quote from Star Trek, the ultimate techie, optimist, utopian, intellectual (ok, pseudo-intellectual), vision and philosophy.

Michael Pollan and others have been making a significant and important point. We must listen and take heed if we want a better future. Today's factory food systems are destructive. The application of modern mass production technologies to food, with their high-productivity management techniques and profit-driven values, is destroying our world even as it presumably drives down prices and allows us to feed more for less. The use of petroleum based resources (as fertilizer and for transport) to enhance everything from grains to livestock makes little real economic sense, but is driven by the need for short term profits for corporations that are now an integrated part of our economic and political system, and thus, our food chain.

The forces that apply to this situation have little to do with a free market economy. Our economic system has been skewed so far from a true liberal market system that libertarians and economic conservatives can no longer argue that what we have today approaches anything like the traditional liberal marketplace that Adam Smith called for. The “invisible hand” of individual self-interest has long since been replaced - co-opted by the greed and avarice, the corruption and decadence of corporations and their inability to think beyond a 6 month window and their executives’ golden parachutes.

Clearly, the hidden public costs are not being paid by those that are making the profits – but if they were, if every piece of environmental damage caused by intensive pig farms or massive cattle ranching and slaughtering operations were actually accounted for and paid for (or better yet, corrected) by these corporations, would they still have more efficient systems than traditional farms? If every cubic centimeter of methane and carbon dioxide put into the air were accounted for, what would be the cost of the “cheap beef” we get today? USDA Prime corn-finished rib steak is flying off the shelf at $6.99/lb at some warehouse stores these days. Would the demand be as great at $12.99/lb? Would our economy survive if we ate less meat, if our grains were grown with the sun, and not products made from petroleum distillates?

The immediate alternative to our modern disaster seems to be to go back. We need to go back to traditional farms, where crops and livestock were kept in equilibrium and synergy with the earth - indeed optimized through years of understanding of what the land and the sun could produce – without the aid of petroleum. But my progressive bias tells me that this is not our way forward. We need to go back in terms of restoring balance – but not necessarily in terms of losing all the productivity gains we’ve made.

As Pollan says, the key point in understanding the issue comes when we look at the percentage of our cost of living allocated to food and to health (insurance, medical). As the modern food factory systems have grown, consumer food costs have gone down. But our health costs have risen at a much higher rate. There are many reasons for this, including our more sedentary lifestyles, our worsening diets based more and more on the factory produced foods that are cheaper, and the worsening environment, based significantly on the proliferation of food factory processes. The methane from the cows that produce our cheap beef is much worse, in terms of overall accumulation of greenhouse gasses, than all the emissions from our cars.

The solution is staring us in the face. We need to restore a balance to our food and health expenditures. We need to pay more for our food. We need to compensate for that by paying less for our health. Whether that’s because our health is better, or because we’ve managed to wrangle one part of our corporate greed structure down to a reasonable level, we need to do whatever works to control health costs. Initially, our health will not be better. But as more people get insurance and see providers quicker and more regularly, we can expect our health to get better and our costs to go down.  An important part of that will be the recognition that our diets drive the health costs, up or down, based on poor or better eating habits.

If we pay more for our food, we can expect that over time, systems and solutions will develop to move us in the right direction. In some cases, there will be a restoration of the traditional farm structure. As locavore situations that make sense (not all do) come about that restore balance to an eco-system, the higher prices will attract more growers and producers and allow for more local efforts. But even where the specialization of our factory farms continues because they are truly more efficient, there will be more incentive to account for the environmental issues and to produce better product.

For a time, a significant part of these higher costs will need to be government borne. The effect of rising food costs on programs such as Food Stamps, needs to be accounted for. The poor and dependent are already getting so little money that they must turn to the cheapest factory foods. They are a captive audience for the factory food producers. As alternatives grow, so must their ability to improve their diet and their health.

But much depends on our ability to create a free marketplace – one that operates without the corrupting influence of corporations on our government and directly on the people. Given real choices, people will understand the issues and be willing to pay more for a product that is more in line with their real self-interests. Living longer, healthier lives ought to be everybody's goal.  Deliciousness, is but a side effect - a bonus.  But as long as corporations can convince people to vote and to buy against their own true self-interests, a true free market will never come about.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Michael Pollan's Latest: Julia, Food Network, and Cooking in America

Pollan's Article:

With regard to the difference between Julia's shows and today's crop of Food Network shows, it's a much bigger issue than just cooking. It's a reflection of the times.

There is a difference between information and knowledge. While Wiki and the general growth of on-line sites may have increased our exposure to information, usable knowledge hasn't grown so much – we're not really a more intelligent or capable society, despite some true productivity gains. After all, you may gain new insight on a particular surgery by doing some research on line, but you would want your surgeon to actually have gone to medical school, and perhaps done a few of these procedures before cutting into you. No amount of detail in a Wiki article could make someone a surgeon, an engineer, a lawyer, a musician, or anything else, including a good cook.

For information to be usable knowledge, it has to be taught and learned and this is best done through a teacher who can put together a syllabus – an understanding of epistemology, of how concepts are broken down and a sequence of learning. There are plenty of self-teaching programs and packages out there, but they are generally put together by such a teacher. This understanding can be intuitive – not necessarily learned to the nth degree – but the subject matter must be well understood and the person teaching it must intuitively or by their own education, be able to transfer their own knowledge into others. Julia was prepared to do this after years spent assembling MTAFC1, and later 2.

Food Network is food information. It is not food knowledge. Even in the case of Alton Brown's Quick Eats, everything he presents is given with much more detail and in a teachable and learnable form in books like McGee's On Food and Cooking and Corriher's Cookwise.

Julia taught us – both in her books and on TV. Ina, Sandra, Rachel and Paula demonstrate – they provide information, but they do not teach.  Most of the shows are simply entertainment. These celebrities may have varying degrees of food knowledge, but what they present is in the form of information and entertainment. Food Network wasn't always like that. The original crew, including Rosengarten and Moulton imparted significant bits of usable information in a learnable manner. But as Howard/Scripps took over and entertainment and the lowest common denominator (i.e., largest audience) became important, teaching became less and less important.

Emeril got caught behind his own persona and engulfed by his studio show. A large staff and high entertainment production values brought him to being a demonstrator of all kinds of foods he had no experience in or special knowledge to impart. He is so much better now on his new Green Planet show, where he is a one-on-one teacher, and sticks to recipes and methods he really knows well. Based on what he's done in rebuilding New Orleans and his legacy of Julia's guidance and friendship, he certainly has the ability to be a good teacher.

A more important aspect of Pollan's article was the correlation of cooking to health (both individually and to society), and even further, between scratch cooking and our health. Based on his earlier work, it's clear that the increase of factory prepared foods in our diets is a significant part of our health problems, as well as our food related environmental issues.

And yet, there's a limit to the amount of scratch cooking we're all willing to do – to going back to the dark ages. There's a bell curve of people willing to accept modern conveniences. At one extreme, you have the hunters, chicken pluckers, coffee roasters, grain grinders. At the other, the nothing but chain eaters. And in the middle, most of us do what we can. We may open cans of tomatoes and make the gravy (sauce) from mostly scratch, rather than open the jar of Ragu.

The problem, in my mind, is that we're getting used to more and more factory prepared foods, and we're letting go of the scratch processes a little too eagerly. Many of us are not only happy, but proud to be doctoring up frozen burritos to serve to our guests. Rather than feeling shame or guilt when we use a shortcut our mothers would never have considered, we feel proud of the product we make from boxes and cans. Of course, big corporate food inc., is happy to have us feel that way. They aim their ads at just that feeling - to show pride in the accomplishment of opening a can and heating some soup - to have our kids love us for it.

What a rotten shame. Be proud of that scratch chicken soup. Your kids can tell how you feel about it without your even prompting them for a smile. They'll remember, and make some for their kids (because you'll have taught them how). If you open up a can of cream of mushroom for them, hey - that's the way it goes - we all get busy. But make sure they know that you're not actually really happy about serving them a bowlful of HFCS and sodium - it's just something you had to do at the time.  Apologize - and tell them you'll make something better, real soon.

Michel Ruhlman made some really great observations about Pollan's article in his blog: