Pennsylvania Revisited: Lancaster County

Every summer I go on a road trip with one of my BFFs. This year, we’re headed for Asheville, NC, with a first-night stop in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania.

Bird-in-Hand will henceforth be known as the heart of the Amish Industrial Complex. I realize that this place is a vacation/tourist destination for many, many people (ourselves included, obvs), most of whom are interested in the simple lifestyles/hearkening back to the simpler time of of the Amish. I suspect we’re nostalgic for “slow”. Whatever the appeal, the problem with a place like Bird-in-Hand is that it Disneyfies the real-world lives of a population. And I do love me some Disney, so that isn’t the issue. The issue is that when we go to Disney, we know exactly what we’re paying for, and that there is nothing truly authentic about the experience.

Our hotel stay included a free bus tour of Amish country. Unfortunately, taking a bus tour of Amish farms is an anachronism that even I have trouble with–a visit to the Amish Zoo, if you will. I guess I’m just made uneasy by the idea of riding around in air-condition comfort for the purpose of watching people work in their yards–especially when those people have eschewed the worldly invasion of modern technology.

However.  Oh, however. The evening we arrived we were hungry and thanks to all those users over at Yelp, found our way to a place called Jennie’s Diner over in  Ronks.

Brittany, our waitress, was fabulous. We sat down, and she immediately pegged us–“Are you sisters or best friends?”, and ultimately sent us away with some phenomenal house-made pies (coconut cream for my friend, shoofly for me).

The in-between, though, was the very best part. My favorite thing to do, when I’m in a strange place, is to ask about the local dishes. And here in Lancaster county chicken croquettes are, apparently, a thing. Chicken croquettes are a mixture of diced chicken, celery, gravy, breadcrumbs, onions, and who knows what else that have been formed into large balls, dredged in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.  And they were really, really good.

The show-stopper, however, was the zucchini. Since I was having a big ol’ pile of fried food served on top of mashed potatoes and gravy, it seemed prudent to have some vegetables somewhere on the plate. I chose the broccoli (fresh, large pieces lightly steamed then browned on the grill-top. Yum!) and the zucchini.

What I can tell you about the zucchini is that it was so good I asked Brittany if it was house-made. When she said yes, I asked if she could find out how it was made. While I watched, she went to a man at the counter, where they had an animated conversation. I could overhear bits of it–“stir”  “salt” “boil”.  And then she came back to tell me how to make it. I’m sharing it with you here. I had a further chat with the man (the owner, it turns out) about how he makes it and the only thing I couldn’t get out of him were what spices he uses. So these are guesses (and I have a sneaking suspicion that he uses whatever catches his fancy while he’s making it), but the technique should be just about right. I’m going to make this when I get home. Count on it. Oh–and he said you really have to make it with fresh tomatoes; canned ones just aren’t the same.

Chicken croquettes with zucchini ragout

Chicken croquettes with zucchini ragout

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zucchini Ragout

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

2 lbs zucchini, sliced into 1/2″ rounds

4 cups chicken stock

6-8 whole, ripe tomatoes, large dice

1/2 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbs olive oil

Salt and pepper tt

Spices. My guesses are: 1/4 tsp nutmeg, 1 tsp dried basil, maaaaaaayabe a pinch of thyme. You could also throw in some oregano for fun.

Instructions

Sautee the onions and garlic in the olive oil

Add chicken stock, bring to a simmer

Add tomatoes and spices, allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes

Add zucchini, simmer until tender

 

Welcome to…hang on a minute

I do love a happy coincidence. According to my notes, the next stop on our trip is North Carolina. And it just so happens that a week from now, I’m taking off on my second annual road trip with one of my bffs. Guess where we’re going?

Yup. North Carolina. Last year, it was an epic trip to Graceland (if you know me at all it will come as no surprise that I picked that one); this year it’s the barbecue heaven of North Carolina. When it comes to pulled pork, I’ll take North Carolina style every. Single. Time.

En route, we’ll be heading down the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopping in a couple of states I’ve already cooked–most notably Pennsylvania and Virginia. The best part about revisiting places is the chance to bring a new story or two to the table.

Until then, I have tires to rotate, bags to pack, and a walking boot that is just begging to be bedazzled.

~Brooke

 

Welcome to New York: The Empire State

NewYork

I moved to western New York back in..um…(what year is it?) 2010? 2009? One of those. And even though its not somewhere I thought I wanted to live, it’s my favorite place to call home.

Depending who you ask, I live in either western or upstate New York. It’s an interesting distinction. “Upstate” is often defined as “anywhere that isn’t one of the 5 boroughs or Long Island.” But, if you ask a non-NYC-er what it means, the answer becomes a least a little more descriptive. We like to think of our regions as just a wee bit more distinctive than “not NYC” so while “Upstate” isn’t incorrect, it’s also not very precise. So technically, I live in the Finger Lakes region of Western New York (Western being anywhere west of 20 miles west of Syracuse…Syracuse is Central New York). Not to be confused with Niagara Falls, the Southern Tier, or the Adirondacks.

And of course, each region has its own food traditions. Hot dogs are one such tradition, for example, and have clearly demarcated borders. If you live in Buffalo, you eat Sahlens. Those of us in the Rochester area prefer Zweigle. And our friends in Syracuse are all about the Hoffman’s. While you can often find Sahlens in Hoffman’s territory, and both of them here in Zweigle-land, the simple truth is that the Wegmans cashier will look askance if you actually dare to buy them out of area. We’re that serious about them.

Obviously, the culinary traditions are broader than just our hot dogs (or “hots”). Chicken spiedies (marinated, grilled chicken) come from Binghamton in the south; chicken riggies (chicken and pasta in a spicy cream sauce) hail from Utica, a town along the Mohawk River valley that serves as the gateway to the Adirondacks; and of course the ubiquitous chicken wings (side note–per pound, the wings are now the most expensive chicken part) started at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the WNY abomination known as the Garbage Plate. From Nick Tahou’s, a dive in Rochester proper, it is the grease-and-salt laden purview of the after-bar crowd. A garbage plate starts with a base of French or home fries and a generous scoop of macaroni salad, topped with your choice of two cheeseburger patties or hots (either red or white), and is finished with a spicy sauce that lands in the Middle Kingdom between Detroit-style coney sauce and pickle relish. Top that with diced onions and mustard and ta-da! the Rochester Garbage Plate. Somehow, this thing manages to skirt the line between vile and irresistible and has to be tried to be fully understood.

As you can imagine, choosing a dish to honor the diversity of my adopted home state has been a challenge. I managed to narrow it down to about 15 different options before realizing something: a pastrami sandwich covers it all. Pastrami. Truly.

Hear me out. First, let’s disregard the Texas v. New York origin stories of pastrami–we’ll discuss those in a bit more depth when we get to the pastrami recipe and indeed we will discuss them because as a native Texan and pit mistress I might have an opinion or two. Now then, disregarded? Okay. The deli sandwich, although a beautiful thing in and of itself, starts by paying homage to the great delis of NYC–land of the 4″ thick sandwiches that just don’t fit in your mouth. And just to be sure NYC is well-represented, we’re serving it with with half-sour pickles from Brooklyn. Since this one single sandwich has been selected to represent an entire state, we’re going to build this bad boy between slices of Cohen’s rye bread–in honor of Buffalo. The brisket that we’ll use to make our pastrami (did I mention that we’re making it from scratch? No? Yeah. We are, from cure to rub to smoke) comes from our friends at Aberdeen Hill here in the Finger Lakes; and the cabbage in the slaw? That’s a specialty grown in Clifton Springs and Phelps–two New York towns that smell really funky when harvest season comes.

So while the idea of “deli” speaks to NYC, our sandwich is, in fact, an ode to the state of New York–especially if we serve it with a big glass of Riesling.

Seriously. I must like it here, because this whole “waxing poetic” thing isn’t usually my style.

~Brooke

Classic New York Pastrami Sandwich

Rye bread from Buffalo; pickles from Brooklyn

Rye bread from Buffalo; pickles from Brooklyn

I feel almost ridiculous writing a post about how to make a pastrami sandwich. Almost. Except that this is a really, really good pastrami sandwich, and easy to make once the pastrami is done.

When we left off at the pastrami-making post, I was making vaguely threatening noises about simmering the brisket. Here’s how that works.

Add about 1″ of boiling water to a roasting pan–use the rack if you have one, but it’s fine if you don’t. You don’t want to submerge your pastrami, though. Place your brisket in the roasting pan, and put them in a 250º oven. Allow to simmer for 2-3 hours until your pastrami is fork-tender. Once it reaches this state, you’re ready to make your sandwich.

Ingredients (per sandwich)

4-6 oz of sliced pastrami

2 slices of good rye bread

1 tsp yellow mustard

1-2 Tbs Thousand Island dressing*

1/8-1/4 cup slaw

1-2 slices Swiss cheese

Assembly

Slather one slice of the rye bread with the Thousand Island dressing

Slather one slice of the rye bread with the Thousand Island dressing and mustard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top with slices of pastrami

Top with slices of pastrami

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add slaw

Add slaw

And cheese

And cheese

Serve with half-sour pickle and chips (in my case, falafel chips)

Serve with half-sour pickle and chips (in my case, falafel chips)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note

An easy, sandwich-friendly version of Thousand Island dressing can be made by mixing together 1/2 cup mayo, 1 Tbs ketchup, 2 tsp sweet pickle relish or cornichons, a splash of vinegar and some salt and pepper. If you want to get really crazy, toss in a teaspoon or so of minced onions and garlic.

Adventures in Pastrami-Making

It’s stunning, the things we take for granted. Gravity. Round tires. Pastrami.

Sorry kids, but this is going to be a longer than usual post. Turns out that talking about all the nuances and details of pastrami and pastrami-making takes a few words. There are a lot of misconceptions and uncertainties about this classic sandwich meat.

Pastrami, if done right, is a 3-4 day process (considerably longer if you’re cattle farmer) that requires brining, rubbing, smoking, and simmering. And pepper. Lots and lots of black pepper. All those hours of labor just to inhale it in 3 minutes. And it’s worth every mesquite chip. But there are some things to be aware of and careful about–especially if, like me, you’re a novice at working with cures and curing.

Before we get into a discussion of food safety and nitrate handling, let’s talk about the history of pastrami. In preparation for writing this post, I did a bit of research into pastrami’s roots. Smoked meat has a long, long history and pretty much every culture on the planet has some kind of smoking/barbecue tradition. From the Caribbean barbacoa to Italian salamis to Eastern European briskets and German sausages, the act of using smoke and salt to preserve and flavor meat, poultry, and fish, has a history dating back to the discovery of fire–or at least the discovery that adding fire made that mastodon especially tasty. Simply put, there are books dedicated to the history and craft of meat smoking; I’m not even going to pretend that I can do all of those thousands of pages justice in a singe thousand-word post.

But I can at least touch on a few highlights and dig into that Texas v New York debate for a sentence or two. Texas Monthly BBQ’s “The History of Texas Pastrami” goes much more in depth–if this is a subject that sparks your interest, it’s worth a read.

Pastrami, it is important to note, is Eastern European in origin and not Italian as some folks think–etymologically speaking, this is likely due to the modernization of the spelling. Early shipping manifests from Bralia, Romania, show the spelling as “pastroma” or “jerk beef”. Presumably, this jerk beef didn’t have the same level of seasoning and juiciness that we find in contemporary pastrami, suggesting that while the name has carried on, the food has evolved greatly.

As a Texas girl, I grew up eating smoked brisket. On summer Saturdays, my father would get up early and start the smoker–a big brick pit in our back yard. By late afternoon, our table would be graced with a beautiful piece of smoky, tender beef brisket. There were probably sides, as well, but the thing that stands sharpest in memory is the brisket. There are some things a girl just doesn’t forget.

The smoked-brisket tradition of Texas has its heart in the Hill country, a part of the state that starts with San Antonio to the south, and Austin to the north, then heads west for a while. This is the area that was originally homesteaded by early Polish and Romanian immigrants–the ones who brought the smoked meat traditions with them. Some food historians suggest that all smoked brisket comes from that little piece of Texas.

Pastrami, though, isn’t just a smoked brisket.  It’s more like the love child of smoked brisket and corned beef. And to add to the confusion of food etymology, it needs to be noted that the corned beef we associate with Ireland isn’t Irish at all. It’s Jewish. In a Smithsonian article about corned beef and cabbage, Shaylyn Esposito details the advent of the corned beef/St Patrick’s day tradition and lays bare the truth that the so-called “Irish” corned beef we eat with our cabbage is, in fact, a Jewish dish (hello, New York Deli connection). As she tells us, “The Jewish population in New York City at the time were relatively new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. The corned beef they made was from brisket, a kosher cut of meat from the front of the cow. Since brisket is a tougher cut, the salting and cooking processes transformed the meat into the extremely tender, flavorful corned beef we know of today.”

And smoked brisket, as we’ve discussed, is classic Texas barbecue. I think it’s pretty easy to connect the dots between smoked meat and corned beef–as immigrants moved west from Ellis Island, culinary traditions began to co-mingle (like they do…perhaps pastrami is an early example of fusion cuisine), with the classically Jewish brined brisket meeting up with a stack of mesquite somewhere along the way and transforming into something absolutely magical.

Here’s the thing. I’m torn by my own mixed loyalties. Do I declare pastrami for my state of origin, or for my adopted home? I’m not sure it really matters–the pastrami is the thing, not its roots. Regardless where the smoke met the brine, the pastrami on rye is pure New York deli food. Also, it isn’t lost on me that for the second state in a row, we’re talking about cured, smoked meats. I’m sensing a theme in my life.

As I mentioned, this is a 3-day process–and when it comes to making pastrami, the real work is in the technique, not the recipe. The recipe is the easy part. In addition to scouring multiple dozens of websites for information about pastrami-making, I relied heavily on the book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. While it may not be the definitive guide to smoked meat, it’s an excellent resource that demystifies the whole process of smoking, salting, and curing, making it an altogether excellent resource for the novice charcuterie-maker.

But enough of my rambling. We’re all just here for the pastrami.

Notes: I only used 4# of brisket (I smoked the rest, Texas-style); most briskets run anywhere from 8-16# depending on whether you buy just the flat, or both the flat and point.  Adjust your amounts accordingly.

My pastrami has been described as “aggressively spiced”, which is either a very good thing, or a little overwhelming depending on your preference. If you’d like a milder pastrami, use no more than half of the black pepper.

Ingredients

4# beef brisket, trimmed to 1/4-1/2″

     For the brine

1 Tbs pickling spice

3/4 cup kosher salt

3 teaspoons pink curing salt***

5 cloves of garlic, chopped

2 Tbs honey

1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar

1/2 gallon water

*** Pink salt should not be confused with Himalayan pink salt. Curing salt was pink long before that stuff showed up in our markets. The salt we’re talking about here has nitrates added–the nitrates act as a preservative on the meat while its in the brine and help prevent nasty things like botulism and spoilage. Nobody wants a botulism-infused pastrami. I usually get pink salt online from places like the Savory Spice Shop (where real people write real thank you notes on your packing slips!). There are other sources–find one you like, but make sure you’re buying curing salt. The smart thing to do is educate yourself–this podcast is a great starting point.

     For the rub***

1/4 cup ground black pepper

1/2 cup toasted coriander seeds

***My pastrami has been described as “aggressively spiced”, which is either a very good thing, or a little overwhelming depending on your preference. If you’d like a milder pastrami, use half of the black pepper in your pre-smoke rub.

    For the smoke

1 cup mesquite* chips

Instructions

     Day 1

Trim the brisket so that the fat cap is no more than 1/4-1/2″ thick. Some fat is good, too much will inhibit smoke absorption.

The fat cap has been trimmed to between 1/2-1/4 inch.

The fat cap has been trimmed to between 1/2-1/4 inch. Remember, I carved this piece off of a whole brisket; yours is likely to be much larger.

Place all brine ingredients into a pot and bring to a simmer, stir until salts and sugar are dissolved.

Transfer to a non-reactive container deep enough to hold your brisket.

Chill to slightly lower than room temperature.

Carefully slide the brisket into your brining solution. Top with a heavy plate or bowl so that it remains submerged.

Happy brisket going for a briny swim.

Happy brisket going for a briny swim.

Refrigerate for 3 days, turning once on the 2nd day.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 Day 3

If you use a stick-burner (wood-and-charcoal smoker), now’s the time to get your fire started. Whether you’re burning sticks or pellets, keep the temperature between 225-250º for the duration of your smoke. My 4# pastrami took about 5 hours to reach 190º. For a larger piece, plan on 1-1 1/2 hours per pound of meat.

Remove your brined brisket to a grate or cooling rack placed over a sheet pan. Blot with paper towels and allow to air-dry until the outside is dry.*

While your meat is drying, make the coriander-pepper rub by toasting the coriander seeds in a skillet over medium heat. If you’re using whole peppercorns, add those to the pan.

Toasting toasty coriander seeds

Toasting tasty coriander seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_8153

Coriander, meet paper pepper packet.

 

(Note: I did not use whole peppercorns. We were out of whole peppercorns on pastrami day. We were also out of plain old ground black pepper going slowly stale in a tin on pastrami day. What we DID have were a thousand or so of those little bitty paper pepper packets that I use when catering)

Grind the coriander (and pepper if you have such a whole-berried luxury) either by hand or in a spice grinder. I ground mine by hand because I wanted the textural contrast on the meat. While I was grinding the coriander, the hubs was opening hundreds of the little paper pepper packets. Hundreds. Literally. He’s a very nice guy. Plus, he got a couple of excellent pastrami sandwiches out of the deal.

Mix the coriander and pepper together in a bowl.

IMG_8154

The combination of course-ground coriander and pepper from tiny paper pepper packets makes an interesting study in contrasts. It also didn’t hurt the flavor one little bit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And by

And by “liberally” I mean liberally. Again, if you don’t care for aggressive seasoning, use less of it.

 

 

Liberally coat the brisket with the pepper-coriander mix.

 

 

 

 

Check your smoker for temperature, and if you’re in the 225-250º range, you’re ready to put it on.

I add my wood at the beginning of the smoke, and then every 20 minutes or so for the first 90 minutes. At this point, your meat should be just about right in terms of smokiness. Continuing to add wood at this point opens you to the risk of over-smoking your meat. It’ll still be edible, just not nearly as good.

Once your meat is on, it’s time to hang out and read a while. After the smoking phase is over, you can ignore it for a while–just check your temps periodically so that you’re staying within the range.

And by

We call this our “test kitchen”

 

 

Once the internal temperature has reached 190º*, pull it off the smoker and let it cool.

 

 

 

 

If you’re not making the sandwiches immediately, let your pastrami rest for at least an hour, then wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.The next step to our pastrami sandwich requires simmering the meat until it’s fork-tender. We’ll discuss this when we get to the actual sandwich post.

Brined, rubbed, smoked, and chillin' on the counter.

Brined, rubbed, smoked, and chillin’ on the counter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

I used mesquite because it’s my all-purpose wood. It tends to be milder than a lot of the fruitwoods and I wanted the brining and bark to be the focal point of the meat. Feel free to substitute hickory, pecan, or any other wood you choose (though I don’t recommend bourbon-barrel. The sweetness fights hard against the inherent savoriness of pastrami.)

Dry meat forms a sticky outer coating called a pellicle. The pellicle helps the spices and smoke to adhere to your pastrami, so don’t skip this step.

Some people prefer to rinse the brine off the meat before allowing it to dry. I typically do this with dry-brining, but not with wet.

Why 190º? Because at this temperature, the collagen has broken down and the meat becomes tender. It’s technically food-safe by 140º, but not even close to ready to eat.

But first…

We belong to a CSA, and the first share of the year is always a cause for celebration. I don’t know what’s for dinner tomorrow, but it will include these things.

First share of the season.

First share of the season.