Discovering the Deli: Corned Beef
Some time ago, I decided my long-term goal would be to open my deli. I grew up on deli food and miss it so - the soft, seeded-rye; stinky chopped chicken livers; the dew on the windows from the corned beefs… corning; the grease-glazed knishes; mountains of yellow potato salad. Delaware is not a haven for such gastronomical delights beyond chicken ‘n dumplings and steamed crabs. My very indiscriminate love of good food was born of my experience with really good deli food. So, in seven years, I want to open a deli. I have never been good with the more subtle nuance of fine dining, am not very adept at any particular nationality’s cuisine nor do I know how to fling a pizza dough. I do enjoy really good deli fare and think many other people do, too. So, the goal is to bring my sunset years into focus flanked by two slices of that rye bread shmeared with spicy brown mustard and pastrami. Between now and then, however, I have to figure out how to do it without losing my shirt.
The plan is to explore, in ridiculous detail, the favorites that make up the menu of classic delicatessens, legendary for blending the food of immigrants, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, with American appeal. I do not really need to delve headlong into the history of the deli as institution in this country; like the colloquialisms that bespeckle our geography, the food offered at delis varies from town to town. For that matter, the food can vary from street to street! So, knowing about the deli itself is not quite as important as knowing well what is contained therein. New York delicatessens are legendary, and for good reason. Katz’s Deli is a landmark, a shrine, to the cornerstone of what defines a quintessential delicatessen. Even the more touristy places like Maxie’s and Roxy in Times Square eloquently do justice by offering an array of classic deli dishes. Deli food is not limited, though, to the big island. While I haven’t yet visited every city in the country, I would guess that there are some respectable delis throughout the country. Certainly, Miami, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlantic City have all done me well when hankering for some matzoh ball soup and a Reuben. Some venues offer local specialties or eclectic tastes of the particular deli operator. New York delis often have the trademark, paper-thin pizza. Further west, pizza is in the pizzeria across the street from the deli. Up north, subs or hoagies are on the same menu next to blintzes and brisket. So it goes that flavors vary by locale. The classics, though, like Bach, Sinatra and The Beatles, may be interpreted differently, but are always on the playlist. Call them standards, call them ‘must haves,’ there are just some dishes that must be there to be called a deli.
Chapter 4: Corned Beef
Corned beef is bedrock deli food. The matzoh balls can be spoon-tender and airy, the chopped liver can be as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and the rye bread can surround its inhabitant meats with a soft grip and firm crust, but if the corned beef is not just right, you got gornisht! Steamy corned beef, sliced by hand, on seeded rye with mustard is everything in the deli. It isn’t even the little black dress of the deli’s daily garb; it is the fabric, the thread from which nothing else can be artfully made, should the scarlet-red meat fail to meet the Higher Calling.
Its humble origin, like many foods from the Old World, is rooted in self-preservation. A long, slow soak in a salt-rich bath will keep properly corned brisket of beef healthy for quite some time. Long before refrigeration, surprisingly, people had the need to eat. They salted cod until it was a dry, lifeless albino version of fish jerky. They dug holes in the earth and dropped pots of vegetables, sometime laced with colon-cleansing peppers, to ferment the kimchee for consumption later in the year. Cured, smoked, dried, eventually canned, freeze-dried, flash-fried and reconstituted; some methods of preservation bring out some great flavor. Just ask Prosciutto or Bacalao. There is a reason we still eat these foods, long after Sub Zero wrecked the practicality of modern refrigeration.
Corned Beef is a throw back to humble beginnings from, where else, but Ireland. Or maybe England. There is something else for them to argue about. Irish or English, corned beef has found and established its cultural identity within the locale of the delicatessen. Corned has nothing to do with the yellow, shoe-peg or sweet white husk-housed stuff found throughout the summer. Instead, corning is the process of salt brining using corn-shaped pebbles of salt. Easy as that, beef set to absorb an abundance of flavor and a salty wash through osmosis is corned beef. It is that sweet-tinny smack of salt that is addictive. There is a zen-like balance that exists in corned beef. Indeed, you read it here! The palate is made whole with full-on assaults of every region of the mouth; sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory are all assault, karma style. Quiet, innocuous and blissfully understated, the nondescript charisma of corned beef delivers an unsuspecting trip to nirvana. So, let’s say that a bite of corned beef is a left-hooked smack down from the peace and tranquility of the Dalai Lama in a silk-polyester blend robe and two-stepping feet, squarely planted in the dead center of your agape jaw. Ahh, corned beef; so pleasant we think you, but a real pisser, you are!
I was raised on corned beef. As a little tutty I remember grease stained deli paper all over our faux wood grain formica countertop in the kitchen in the center of the most kosher part of Pittsburgh. There was always sliced turkey, pastrami (corned beef’s near and dear cousin), Hebrew National salami, Israeli salad, kashi and bows and Halvah – a not-so-good tasting sesame ‘cookie’ that tastes something akin to a neatly pressed rectangular block of slightly sweetened sand. Perhaps that is why I dislike the beach so much! But dinner from Rhoda’s Deli in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh was always my favorite. It was my first brush with interactive food; I got to make it my way… as much or as little meat and whatever combination worked for me. Breaking the ancient kashrut laws of not mixing meat and dairy, we always had Swiss cheese to ply upon the corned beef. Mom, not being a very good cook (or cook, at all) would zip the sandwich off to the toaster oven and eventually, as the slow dance with technology waltzed its way through the Berman household, the microwave. Perhaps that is why I dislike the microwave so much! Melted cheese on paper-thin sliced corned beef on soggy bread that sticks to the roof of the mouth like Silly Putty to the Sunday comics. But it was good. And when I say paper thin slices, I am not using hyperbole; light does, in fact, very easily pass through the cross-grain cut slices. No, it does not melt on the tongue. But it does make for quite the enjoyable experience; the texture, or lack of it, adds to the karmic appeal. My mother would trim that white fat, which I later learned is in its own rites tastes amazing. My zaddie would just roll slices like little kosher Piggies in a Blanket and pop them into his hulking jowls. I only knew my grandfather for a short time before too much corned beef got the best of him, but I remember him standing in our Kitchen that Time Forgot, brown paper bags with tell-tale grease stains and the smell of what I now know was the juniper from the corned beef, onions in the chopped liver and caraway seeds in the sliced rye bread.
As I have been recreating dishes to bring to life in a deli of my own, I got very scared of even attempting corned beef. I was afraid of doing to this most sacred of delicatessen fare as Pat Boone did when he redid Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train. It just makes you just shake your head in part embarrassment, part disgust and part disappointment. I plowed through books, sampled many specimens (gladly!) and tried my hand as best as I could. I will confess that what follows is not exactly what I want. It is very close. The flavor is bright, the texture is what I want and it does not look anything at all like what it does in the package form or from Katz’s, Hershel’s or Junior’s. There is still a certain amount of flavor for which I am still craving. Close? Yes. The appearance differs from the others because I have opted to not employ the use of saltpeter. The saltpeter will lock in that trademark rosy red color of which we have become familiar with in the deli case. Everything I have read tells me that the saltpeter can be dangerous and contributes nothing to the flavor. So, I surrender the high ground in regards to the color of the end product. Saltpeter is a primary ingredient in fertilizer and gunpowder, so, perhaps we can leave it alone. What follows is a recipe using one whole brisket. Making this at home? Get a half of brisket. Or get a whole one and share with your neighbors. Oy, they will thank you for it. A recipe is usually comprised of ingredients, a procedure and, on occasion, a picture or two. I must add that this recipe adds the component of time. And a good bit of it. The brine is quick to make. The cooking is even manageable. It is the time in between that must be reckoned. We are looking at a five day soak in the Jewish Jaccuzzi. The brisket must hang out to allow the denaturing of the protein to adequately do its thing; the salt brine will penetrate the cell structure of the meat and bring along the flavors of the brine. Too short of a swim and you have boiled beef and little else.
Culinary Student, Shaquille Webb, presents a deli classic combination
2 gallons, water
3 lbs. kosher salt
1 ½ lbs. light brown sugar (I make my own… just mix sugar with molasses until it is the color you like. If you always have molasses on hand, you never run out of brown sugar)
5 bay leaves
10 sprigs, fresh thyme
¼ cup, juniper berries
1 Tablespoon, whole black peppercorns
1 brisket. They vary by size, so shoot for an 8-9 pound slab
Culinary Student, Shaquille Webb, readies the seasonings for the brine
Combine all the ingredients except the brisket in a large pot. Bring to a boil until the salt and sugar dissolve. Allow to set to reach room temperature and then refrigerate. Conversely, you can set the pot in an ice bath: a sink full of ice and water, to hasten the chilling of the brine. For food safety’s sake, the brine really should be cold before adding the beef.
Place the brisket in a container large enough container to accommodate the beef and the brine. Pour the brine over the brisket, cover and set in the refrigerator for five days.
In a pot large enough to hold the brisket, pour half of the brine and add fresh water enough to cover the meat. Discard the remaining brine. Bring to a boil and cook for three hours. Remove from the liquid and slice to serve immediately or chill to slice later.
This technique flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Boiling beef? For that long? With a salty brine? I am not mashuganah! Yes, you are correct to question my scruples. It works.
Slicing the beast is a whole other tale of biblical proportions. There are excellent delis that stack slices of hand-cut corned beef heaven-high, steamy and chewy enough to get stuck between every tooth. Then there are those, that once the meat has adequately chilled, are sliced by machine to almost one-dimensional consistency. Hey, there are ups and downs for both methods. Do what you like.
The experience that is Corned Beef is both visceral and imaginative, simple and complex, and, quite honestly, the litmus test for good deli food. Rhoda’s had great corned beef. Alas, Rhoda’s and its following incarnates are shadows in the past, replaced by some abomination of fast food, low-fat, gluten-free vegetarian Chinese food, or some other dreck. I recently drove past the hallowed ground from where my very true, mad, deep romance with deli food was born. I cringed. And my taste buds wept a salty tear. A tear laden with the preserved memory of food that once was. And, perhaps, a bit of salt from the corning process… I like to think.
Other articles found here on ChefTalk from Discovering the Deli
 Yiddish for nothing, as in If your corned beef is gornisht, you are out of business!
 A good little boy, the apple of his grandmother’s eye; she liked me more than the other grandchildren, of this I am sure. I was also the only boy, so I win!
 Groats; toasted buckwheat. In this case, cooked with onions and butter, tossed with bow tie pasta. Not a light side dish, but a deli staple, nonetheless.
 The ancient law that dictates the practice of keeping Kosher. We didn’t. Bacon-double cheeseburgers from Burger King were a tell-tale sign of that. Mom was not a cook.
 Term of endearment for grandfather. My grandfather was the best. He used to give me drum lessons Sunday morning and then make pancakes. They weren’t pancakes so much as they were chewy biscuits cooked in a pan. But he made them for me and I can still taste them. He had a big, guttural voice that still echoes in my head. He was a big fan of food from the old world, given that he was off the boat from Lithuania. A sense of humor he had, when he arrived at Ellis Island, he didn’t know his birth day. So, what else would an immigrant Jew pick? Christmas Day, thank you very much. I toast my grandfather every Christmas with a glass of Manischewitz concord grape wine.