Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pastrami again - Niman's Ranch this time

We've been enjoying the much-lauded Niman Ranch navel pastrami at Chez Noshstalgia this week. My cousin Jon ordered it for us from Niman's web store. I have to say, as others have, that Niman's meat is of notably high-quality vs. most other pastrami. They supplied two navel plates in the order - both packed in a single vacuum sealed wrap.

They provided no cooking or heating directions in the package, but their website suggests steaming for "up to two hours". I steamed a whole plate for about 100 minutes, flipping the piece once around 20 minutes before the end. Then, of course, I hand slice. I do it on a steaming rack in a thermostatically controlled electric skillet that does a good job of providing gentle steam. Mine has a glass lid, so you can - if you wish - stand mesmerized by the sight of fat running out of the meat in many places as it cooks. I am reminded now of the fascination one experiences on visiting a geologically active area with steam vents, geysers, and the occasional volcanic event - except the pastrami smells much better than that. And even at $60 with shipping, the Niman's pastrami purchase was comparatively economical.

So, is it any good? You betcha. Not a classic New York flavor and aroma profile. Certainly not Romanian-style. But very good. Very aromatic, strongly peppered, tender, gently processed texture, and a prime-like (and perhaps actually prime) degree of marbling contributes to a very satisfying mouth-feel. I liked the product, although while I found the spice profile distinctive and appealing - it is very present and struck me as a bit monolithic - very over-all, very homogenized. A deli expert I consulted (from whom I've not yet obtained permission for direct attribution on this - but I will seek it and amend the post when obtained) said he thought the product had seen too much bay leaf. I confess, I couldn't pin it down to that myself - but he's a real expert so perhaps that was it. But whether classic NY-style or not, it was very enjoyable. Thank you, Jon.

One more note on this over-all-ness, this homogeneity. Is this a bad thing? Generally? Maybe not - certainly where commercial pastrami is concerned I can't point to any counter examples. So why even mention it? Maybe this observation comes to me because I'm thinking of - yearning for - a more Artisanal product - one that's got more edges and spikes - flavor and aroma variation throughout and around the product. By way of analogy, consider the difference between Artisanal and industrial cheeses. The best of the farm-house products present at least a chamber work and sometimes even a symphony of related but distinct bodies, textures, aromas, and flavors. And the industrial products? Well, you know...


extramsg said...

I'm glad you brought this subject up. I think there is too much homogeneity in the pastrami world. I've been complaining about it for a while. Tasting pastrami in NY, LA, Chicago -- wherever -- it has a very similar flavor. Too similar.

Can you imagine if fried chicken or pizza or hamburgers had as similar a flavor as do all the pastramis out there? How boring would that be? The main difference seems to be in the handling, how well and consistently they steam it, whether they cut it properly, etc. I'd love to do a blind taste test with deli lovers of Katz's, Stage, Ben's Best, Langer's, and whoever else. I think distinguishing them would be harder than expected if they were all cut and steamed the same.

I've wondered for a while how many actual producers of commercial deli pastrami there are in the country. Obviously none of the biggies are making theirs on-site. Katz doesn't have a smokehouse. There could be three or four NY pastrami-makers and none of us would be the wiser. Hell, how many actual salami makers are there in NY that sell their products in the big delis? And even there, how many of the self-branded salamis, like Katz and Stage, are probably made by some bigger salami producer like Empire? I want to know. Because I suspect there are a lot fewer than most people realize. They're very specialized, PITA products to make with a lot of processing regulations, especially for places that ship out their products.

You know 100 years ago, though, that all these delis had their individual pastramis and salamis, their own smokehouses, etc. They made their own sauerkrauts, knishes, pickles, and mustards. They did it all. And that would have meant they used different spice blends, different ratios of salt and sugar, different woods for smoke, and different smoking methods.

I would guess that this changed post-WWII when the food processing boom hit.

This problem has become a bit of an annoyance for me since me and my business partner are trying to make an artisan pastrami. (Google Kenny & Zuke's or check us out on Save the Deli.) I compare it to trying to make artisan ketchup. The flavor of Heinz ketchup is soaked into the American palate so strongly that any other product is always compared as to how closely it resembles Heinz ketchup. Heinz ketchup has (unfortunately, I say) become the ideal form of ketchup, the sine qua non of ketchup, the ketchup par excellence. Instead of just asking whether a ketchup is good, people really just say whether the kethcup is like Heinz and if it is, then it's good.

That's what happened to some degree with our pastrami. We'd get people complain that while it tasted good, it wasn't "real NY pastrami" -- that it was too smokey, or too sweet, or had too pepper or too little pepper, or that it was cut too thick and should be thinly sliced on a machine or whatever. Ad nauseum.

The problem is that all these people remember essentially one flavor profile, the deli pastrami of the last 30 years or so. But that's not an artisan product. It's something made in some factory somewhere in New York or New Jersey or Michigan, most likely. And I still say they all taste the same for a reason.

So yeah, ours is intensely smokey because it's been smoked in a traditional method. And yeah, it's intense because the flavors need to balance out the smoke. And yeah, the spicing isn't exactly like what you get in NY, but that's because we developed our own recipe over time to our tastes. (And my business partner grew up as a NY Jew eating deli all the time.)

So what? It tastes damned good. So shut up and eat! ;-)

Dan said...

Wow, extramsg. Welcome to Noshstalgia.

I agree with you that there's less variation, and less tolerance for variation in the market than I'd prefer - or than serves us all - and it's a shame. And I'm very excited to hear of your effort to produce a distinctive pastrami product. In fact, I'd like to know how I can get a hold of some.

All that having been said, I want to clarify a bit what I meant in the original post because I was not complaining of Niman's sameness. I was not saying their product was too much like the others out there. On the contrary, I actually think their product is quite distinctive. Rather, (and I take full responsibility for not having expressed myself clearly on this point) my complaint was that their product's taste was itself very uniform. Certainly there was a difference between the crust and the interior - or between the thinest sections and the thickest - but the spice profile was very homogenized. When I think of artisanal products they often exhibit dramatic variations even within a single sample.

Your point is much the more important one in the grand scheme of things. And frankly you've got me worried. I want to hear more about your experience with your product. Where did you introduce it? What's your current disposition - have you given up or are you still trying to figure out how to break in? etc. I am very interested in promoting great and diverse products in the market and hope that you'll follow up with me to pursue this.

extramsg said...

I actually got what you were saying in your original. I wasn't ranting about your palate, I ranting about the homogenized pastrami palate out in the world.

I haven't tried this plate pastrami that they're making so I can't comment on it. I haven't been overly impressed with their commercial stuff that I have had. However, I'm glad to see they're making the effort. I'm so sick of seeing these ultra-lean pastramis out there made with something more suitable for roast beef.