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Corned Beef or Pastrami Sandwiches

October 6, 2009

As I mentioned yesterday, these are Deli Days at the FLB.  And while there is much to talk about, I feel compelled to talk about the single most important thing at a Jewish Deli: The corned beef or pastrami sandwich.

Please do not think that I am going to draw a line in the sand and pit the two noble meats against each other for deli supremacy.  Some places make better pastrami.  Some make better corned beef.  Each fills a special place in my heart.  Asking me to choose between the two would be impossible.

Also please do not think for a second that I am advocating putting both meats on the same sandwich.  I am a purist at heart, and fundamentally believe that each of these delicious morsels needs to be appreciated on its own terms.

It is the form of the hot sliced fatty beef sandwich that is the cornerstone of the deli experience.  And yes, I said fatty.

Lean corned beef or pastrami is an abomination.  The stunningly brilliant thing about good fatty Jewish deli meat is how delicious, buttery and meltingly tender it can be when done right.

Once I was at Schwartz’s in Montreal.  Their specialty is simply called smoked meat, but it is closely related to pastrami.  I was ordering a platter of meat, and asked the waiter to have it half-medium and half-fatty.  When he brings me the platter of lean meat, not only was I upset to get the wrong order, I felt personally insulted.

FLB: “Do I look like the kind of person who would order LEAN meat?!?”
SSM: “You asked for half medium, half lean.”
FLB:  “I most certainly did not.”

My actual exchange with the waiter was much different.  I was graciously polite, and he was the rude one.  But we can all dream.

The fat on the meat at Schwartz’s is sublime.

This is where bread comes in.  Good pastrami or corned beef is fatty.  Those with a more delicate constitution might be inclined to call it juicy.  But a lot of people just really don’t want to see all the tender, juicy fat that is going into their bodies.  Hiding it between two pieces of bread is a brilliant solution.

However, when you add bread, one now has to be concerned with meat to bread ratios.  And of course, the bread should add something.  And in the case of Jewish Deli, it should add the spice of rye.

The sandwich does not have to be a mile high.  Nor should it.  Two inches of high quality meat is sufficient.  What is critical is that the meat needs to entirely cover the bread.  The meat is not there for the bread.  The bread is there for the meat.  There should never ever be a bite of bread without a meaningful amount of meat.

The bread to meat ratio is a trickier beast than one might imagine.  One Albany deli, Ben & Bill’s, suffers from the critical flaw of providing a sandwich with bready ends.  Gershon’s, a deli in Schenectady, attempts to up their meat to bread ratio by slicing their rye bread thinner than I ever imagined possible.

Assuming it’s all been done correctly, now you have a deliciously fatty sandwich.  And while it’s an amazing thing, all of that fat can get a bit heavy.  And here is where the deli shines.  It offers a series of brilliant items to cleanse all that fat from your mouth, and prepare your palate for the next bite of unctuous goodness.

Vinegar is your friend.

And the deli provides it in spades with proper deli mustard (which can go on your sandwich), coleslaw (which really shouldn’t go on your sandwich), and pickles (which would be impossible to put on your sandwich).  Me, I’m a full-sour guy, and honestly, I’ll never understand you half-sour people out there.

To wash it all down, a real deli will have Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic.  While it’s not a vinegar-based soda, it does have plenty of acid, and it plays nicely with the celery notes from the coleslaw.  This soft drink is not for everyone, and probably deserves its own post later this week.

All of this from cuts of beef that nobody used to want.  This is the collective wisdom of my people.

I hope you all can come and hear an actual professor speak on these matters for free next week at SUNY Albany.  I’ll be there.  I figure it’s like college, but without readings, homework, or papers.  And it’s about Jewish deli.  How could you go wrong?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    October 6, 2009 9:59 am

    A problem with Ben & Bill’s rye is that it contains sugar, which a good Jewish rye should not. I use Heidelberg or Rock Hill. I agree that the meat should be fatty (as should good barbecue, another whole discussion) but for us oldsters with high cholesterol, sometimes a lean cut is better than no cut at all!

  2. brownie permalink
    October 6, 2009 11:01 am

    Wow. I can actually taste the pastrami; I know what I’m having for lunch today. If you need me I’ll be eating up fatty (meat) around the corner.

    • Raf permalink
      October 6, 2009 4:15 pm

      Yeah, you eat fatty meat on the corner.

  3. October 7, 2009 8:19 am

    Oh my god, Dr. Brown’s makes the best soda’s to wash down Corned Beef. Oh I miss Katz’s.

  4. October 7, 2009 10:08 am

    I’ve never ordered anything but half-fat at Schwartz’s.
    Maybe that’s why my heart hurts while I’m typing this.

  5. October 7, 2009 3:03 pm

    gershon’s does slice their bread TOO thin1 but their knishes are delicious :)


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