I haven’t always been a world famous food blogger. I used to read blogs and food websites during my lunch hour or in the middle of the night just like you. Now that I have literally tens of readers I feel I owe it to them (you) to stay ahead of the curve. So, I’m still cruising the internet as I used to, and one of my old standbys, the “Dining and Wine” section of the New York Times remains a favorite read.
Last week Julia Moskin wrote in the New York Times about a dedicated band of new deli owners who have set out to update what has become a rather dusty fare. I have to make an admission here: as I read the article, I was salivating over the various descriptions of how these folks are changing kosher-style deli into something fresh and new without straying too far from the familiar. Factory produced meat is out, artisanal deli is in. This can only be good news.
Make no mistake: no one is trying to take away your Pastrami. Rather, they are bringing the same “fresh, local, slow-food” sensibility to deli food that chefs in other venues have exercised for a long time. Kosher-style deli food is comfort food – soul food— and it is important that no matter how anyone updates it that the ring of familiarity remains. Just ask anyone (including me) how they feel about Pastrami on Rye (extra mustard) and that sentiment will be confirmed.
I will now proudly age myself by announcing that I grew up in the days before McDonald’s and Burger King became ubiquitous. Yes, they were there, but you had to hunt them down, usually planted like hedgerows near a strip mall, their flashing, spinning signs launched high up in the air, beckoning you from miles away.
Mickey D’s equivalent in my childhood neighborhood was Bernie and Ruby’s Langley Food Shop, which we simply referred to as “The Langley Deli.” My Mom would steal us away to its noisy, air-conditioned, Formica tables ostensibly to treat us to something at the time thought of as good wholesome food (although I assume the treat was really hers.) The Langley was a clangy, hectic, neighborhood place where you could count on running into someone you knew. Facebook with half-sour pickles.
If you have never eaten at a real kosher-style deli, then my best description would be the smell: equal parts air conditioning, mustard, pickle, beef, and black pepper. Throw in a touch of fried potato for good measure and you‘ve got the idea.
The other question, of course, is, “Do you still eat Pastrami?” For me the answer is no. Knowing what I know now about food and health, I won’t touch the stuff. Too much fat and too much salt, the unfortunate cornerstones of any good soul food, no matter what ethnicity. I could eat oatmeal every morning for a thousand years, but I doubt it would clear the childhood Pastrami fat from my veins. I keep praying that scientists will announce some heretofore-undiscovered cholesterol dissolving properties of the Diet Coke that inevitably sat next to my Langley sandwich.
On the other hand, if you tell me that you are hand-roasting Pastrami from organic grass-raised beef, and serving it between slices of artisan rye bread I could be easily tempted. That, it seems, is just what the pioneers of the “new deli” are doing. I just may be taking a field trip to the Mile High Deli in Brooklyn to sample the goods.
In the meantime I was inspired to try my own hand at artisanal deli food. A quick survey of my kitchen revealed that it is, alas, not suited for Pastrami roasting. I decided to try something a bit more humble (read: easy.) How about knishes?
Knishes were traditional party food when I was a kid. The sad thing about them was that no matter where you went, no matter how fancy the party, the same slightly over baked, mystery meat-filled cocktail knishes were passed around. Again, that magic alchemy of fat and salt. Fat little Mikey (that’s me) could toss those back by the dozens.
An Asian friend of mine often makes Chicken Walnut Spring Rolls. I thought the combination would lend itself beautifully to the world of kosher deli, albeit with a touch of complexity provided by the earthy meatiness of Cremini mushrooms, and the caramel sweetness of onions. A kiss of soy sauce would reflect the origin of my inspiration.
The pastry is a classic Pâte Brisée, usually the wrapper for tarts and quiche. Here, sliced into strips and rolled, “pigs-in-a-blanket style” around the filling, it serves up nostalgic flakiness while keeping the knish filling in line and ready for the next Bar Mitzvah. The old cocktail knishes hid their mystery meat under the blanket; this style, open at both ends, is a bit of an exhibitionist.
And best yet, this riff on nouveau kosher-style deli is relatively healthy and guilt free.
Meanwhile, do you think there’s any chance of that cola cholesterol cure coming true?
Click here for the recipes for Chicken Walnut Knishes.
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