Pastrami: the challenge of curing, spicing and smoking

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The basic formula for pastrami-making is this: Beef brisket is brined for about a week in a salt solution with sodium nitrite (to preserve color) and pickling spices, such as bay leaf, mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, allspice and cloves.

Then it gets crusted with a peppercorn-and-coriander-based spice mix and smoked for hours. After that, the meat is steamed until tender.

Some chefs adhere to the formula; others deviate. Some slice it razor-thin; some prefer it a half-inch thick. Adjusting processing times, devising proprietary spice mixes and combining smoking woods are all ways to stamp a brisket as their own.

"Everyone has a visceral idea of pastrami from the first time they ate it," says Jamie Stachowski of Stachowski's Market in D.C. "So you're trying to measure up to every … person's memory."

Pastrami and Mussel Chowder

Makes 10 cups (8 to 10 servings)

You make your own quick stock for this hearty soup by using the mussels' cooking liquid as a base. The pastrami's smokiness and its black pepper and coriander notes complement the mussels. The Portuguese know about such a combination; they often pair clams and mussels with spicy linguica sausage in dishes. Taste the chowder just before you serve it; if the pastrami wasn't very salty to begin with, you may wish to add salt at the finish.

Substituting half-and-half for milk results in a rich chowder; using low-fat milk makes a thin one.

MAKE AHEAD: The chowder can be made and refrigerated a day in advance or frozen for up to 3 months, but add the mussels right before serving so they don't get rubbery. Also, if you plan to freeze it, do not add the dairy components until you've defrosted and are reheating it. (Refrigerate or freeze the mussels separately after you make the stock.) From food writer and former chef David Hagedorn.

For the mussels and chowder

2 pounds medium-size mussels

4 cups water

1 teaspoon kosher salt

For the chowder

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1 small yellow onion, chopped

2 ribs celery, diced

1 medium carrot, diced

2 large fresh bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

5 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon ground coriander

4 cups regular or low-fat milk (see headnote)

1 medium russet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 teaspoon sugar

8 ounces thickly sliced pastrami, trimmed of most of its fat and chopped

2 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves

Several dashes Tabasco sauce

Freshly ground black pepper, for garnish

For the mussels: Clean the mussels under running water. If any of them are open, tap on them gently. If they do not close, discard them.

Combine the mussels, water and the teaspoon of salt in a medium stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and cook until the mussels have just opened, about 3 minutes. Set a colander over a bowl and drain the mussels. Rinse out the pot; you'll need to reuse it.

Line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth. Strain the cooking liquid into a large measuring cup. Discard the shells and reserve the meat of the mussels.

For the chowder: Melt the butter in the pot over medium-high heat. Once the butter foams, add the onion, celery, carrot, bay leaves and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables have softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Stir in the flour, cracked black pepper and coriander; cook for 1 minute, stirring, to create a roux.

Gradually add the reserved mussel liquid, stirring constantly so the mixture remains smooth. Add the milk, potatoes and sugar. Once the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium and cook until the potatoes are just cooked through, about 15 minutes. Stir in the pastrami, garlic and thyme and cook for 5 minutes. Add the reserved mussels and cook for 1 minute, just to warm them through.

Discard the bay leaves. Stir in the Tabasco sauce. Taste, and adjust the salt as needed. Divide among individual bowls. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper.

Per 1-cup serving (using low-fat milk): 240 calories, 20 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

Pastrami Reuben Gougeres

Makes about 20 hors d'oeuvres

Adding smoky meat to cheese-laced cream puff batter (gougeres) and topping the baked puffs with sauerkraut-spiked Russian dressing evokes a classic Reuben sandwich. Choose kimchi over sauerkraut to give the dressing an extra kick.

You'll need a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain round tip; or use a plastic food storage bag with one corner snipped off.

MAKE AHEAD: The sauce can be made the day before. You can make the dough several hours ahead of time and bake the gougeres just before serving (best); or bake the gougeres a day in advance, store in an airtight container and reheat in a 300-degree oven for a few minutes. From food writer and former chef David Hagedorn.

For the gougeres

1/2 cup water

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon ground caraway seed

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs, at room temperature

3 ounces thickly sliced pastrami, trimmed of most fat, then cut into 1/2-inch dice

3 ounces grated Swiss cheese (about 1 cup)

Chopped chives, for garnish

For the sauce

1/4 cup sauerkraut (squeezed free of brine) or kimchi, finely chopped

1/4 cup regular or low-fat mayonnaise

2 tablespoons ketchup

1/4 teaspoon mild smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton)Steps

For the gougeres: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicone liner or parchment paper.

Combine the water and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the butter has melted, add the flour all at once and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour is completely incorporated. The dough will pull away from the sides of the pan and come together in a ball. Stir vigorously for about a minute to cook the flour a bit. Add the caraway seed, coriander, black pepper and salt. Remove from the heat and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.

Beat 1 egg into the dough until it is completely incorporated, then the remaining egg. Stir in the pastrami and cheese.

Transfer the dough to the pastry bag or food storage bag. Use a spiral motion to pipe 20 golf ball-size mounds, spacing them at least 1/2 inch apart on the baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes, until they are well browned and seem hollow when you pick one up. (They should be just a little gooey inside.)

While the gougeres are in the oven, make the sauce: Whisk together the sauerkraut or kimchi, mayonnaise, ketchup and smoked paprika in a medium bowl.

To serve, top each warm gougere with a small dollop of sauce and a few chopped chives. Or serve them at room temperature.

Per piece (with sauce, using low-fat mayonnaise): 70 calories, 3 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 135 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Pastrami Hash

4 servings

Smoky, peppery pastrami gives this hash zing. It's a perfect way to use up meat from overstuffed delicatessen sandwiches. Poached or over-easy eggs on top of the hash add up to a great breakfast.

If you're feeling extra indulgent, you could make Eggs Reuben Benedict by slathering the poached eggs with a choron sauce (tomato-flavored hollandaise) mixed with chopped sauerkraut or kimchi.

MAKE AHEAD: The hash can be assembled several hours in advance, but it is best made to order. From food writer and former chef David Hagedorn.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 large russet potato (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper

8 ounces thickly sliced pastrami, trimmed of most of its fat, then cut into pieces slightly larger than the potatoes

Heat the butter and oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat.

Add the potato and onion, spreading them in an even layer. Cook undisturbed for 4 or 5 minutes, so the potato is nicely browned on the bottom. Season with the salt and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often to make sure the potato is cooked through.

Stir in the garlic, thyme, coriander and pepper; cook for 1 minute, then add the pastrami and cook for 2 minutes, until the meat is incorporated, warmed through and lightly browned.

Serve warm.

Per serving: 300 calories, 15 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar