During my class at Le Cordon Bleu last night, I gathered my students in the front of the classroom for a brief demonstration. I began by asking who among them likes corned beef. Almost all of them raised their hands. I asked if there was anyone in the room that had never tried corned beef, and the answer was no. I then asked who has tried and likes to eat pastrami. No hands went up. I asked them if they had any idea what pastrami is, and the closest we came to an answer was "something like corned beef". That answer is correct, in a way. Pastrami begins it's life in much the same manner as corned beef, but one really must look at the big picture in pastrami production to fully understand that it plays the part of sophisticated city dweller in comparison to corned beef's simpler, country bumpkin existence.
In step one, the similarities abound; we've got brisket of beef being soaked in a brine solution for three to seven days. In that way, corned beef and pastrami are both a type of cured meat. From there, corned beef goes on to being simmered in water until tender, and then it's eaten. Pastrami, however, is just getting started. After coming out of its brine bath, the brisket is coated with a mixture of ground coriander seed and black peppercorns. Then it goes to the smoker for a couple of hours to develop more flavors and a higher level of preservation. Lastly, the smoked brisket gets steamed until the connective tissue breaks down and it becomes super tender.Only then is it able to be called pastrami, ready for slicing and piling high between rye bread with plenty of spicy brown mustard.
While both of these items are regulars at the corner deli, their origins couldn't be more disparate. Interestingly, corned (the "corn" refers to the grains of salt used in the brining process) beef is not something that was ever hugely popular in Ireland. The Irish apparently preferred pieces of brine soaked pork for their boiled dinners, partly because cows were much more valuable as dairy and draught animals. It took the popularity of beef in the U.S. for corned beef to become an Irish-American standard and gain its association with St. Patrick's Day. As for pastrami, credit for its creation is given to Jews in Romania who used to treat goose breasts to the brining, spicing, smoking, and steaming process until emigrating to America and discovering that beef brisket was cheaper, readily available, and, most importantly, delicious when subjected to the same treatment.
So, the next time you're in the deli and about to order a sandwich, go for the pastrami. It's deep, complex, spicy, and smoky. If you can lay your hand on a latke and a few pickled green tomatoes to go on the side, so much the better!