Saturday, May 21, 2011

Size Matters When It Comes to Corned Beef Sandwiches

I didn’t know there was a crisis in the world of corned beef, but when you think about it, it makes sense.  A good corned beef sandwich is full of thickly sliced, fatty but flavourful hunks of brisket, pickled in a seasoned, salty brine.

That doesn’t cut it in today’s artery-conscious world.  Corned beef on rye is just, well… not kosher. The under 30 set would rather eat a salad with marinated tempeh bits, edamame, sundried tomato, jicama and pine nuts tossed in a light miso-based caesar dressing.

And that’s a problem for people who make their livings selling Reuben sandwiches (corned beef, sauerkraut, swiss cheese and Russian dressing on rye, grilled).

An article in Silicon Valley’s MercuryNews has this to say about it.

“A man walks into a Jewish deli and doesn't come out with a giant pastrami sandwich.

That's no joke, in more ways than one, because in this modern, organic, smaller-portioned, locally sourced, sustainable, artisanal pickle world, a bigger-than-your-head sandwich burgeoning with fatty cured meats of unknown origin just doesn't cut the muster -- or the mustard, as the case may be -- anymore.”

So what’s a deli owner to do? Talk, shmooze, and eat, of course.

A Deli Summit was  sponsored by Saul’s Deli and Restaurant at the Jewish Community Center of East Bay in Berkley, California this week. Designed for deli owners and customers to explore the thrills and challenges of a modern deli, it might as well been dubbed:  Stayin’ Alive.

Menu items on the summit’s slightly tongue-in-cheek agenda included:  "Pickle pricing," "In defense of hand-slicing," and "How size matters: of menu and portion."

The real menu during the evening’s proceedings?  House-baked Bialys and Smoked Fish, with chive cream cheese, red onion & capers. Sweet and sour pickles on the side,  7.  Openfaced 10. 

Make no mistake, this summit is serious stuff. As Julia Moskin says in her New York Times piece,  “Can the Jewish Deli be Reformed?,” the beloved institution of Jewish delis continues to disappear,”  but a few brave delis are breaking up canons of the dying model and have something to share with their fellow restaurateurs.

“At Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley, Calif., the eggs are organic and cage free, and the ground beef in the stuffed cabbage is grass fed. Its owners, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, yanked salami from the menu in November, saying that they could no longer in good conscience serve commercial kosher salami.’

Fortunately, the new formula for delis doesn’t mean throwing the potato knish and chopped liver out with the salami’s bathwater,  “…but to make it more foodie friendly for today's health-conscious society.”  The potatoes are organic and the meat antibiotic free. Why not? How can it hurt?

I’m quite pleased, though I hadn’t had a corned beef sandwich in the last twenty years, until recently.

I grew up eating at delis, at least once a week with my family in my hometown of Detroit. Dinner out? That’s where we’d go, to the local deli. I always ordered the same thing, a Dinty Moore. They don’t have it on the menu in Toronto, and I when I first moved here, I sure missed my triple decker corned beef, tomato, lettuce and Russian dressing sandwich on toasted white, with a fancy toothpick to hold it together.

I never did find out how my beloved sandwich got its name, nor the name of my other favourite  Detroit deli sandwich, a Swanky Frankie (hot dog split down the middle, stuffed with cheese and wrapped with bacon, grilled, and served on a bun).

Yikes. I can barely believe I ate either, but I sure did love my Dinty Moores and Swanky Frankies. Like everyone else, though, with time, the amount of salt and fat contained in each started to turn me away.  Maybe if I lived close to a deli I might have “treated” myself once in a while, but the truth is, I lost my taste for that kind of food. Or so I thought.

I was visiting my sister in Detroit a few months ago. She asked me where I wanted to go for dinner, and I heard myself say, “Stage Deli.” She ordered a lovely little salad with dressing on the side. Me?  I went for the Grilled Reuben with coleslaw (inside the sandwich, replacing the sauerkraut).

I was in foodie heaven. The moist corned beef’s saltiness was perfectly countered by the sweet in the Russian dressing and coleslaw. The sandwich was grilled to perfection, ensuring the swiss cheese oozed the way it should over everything. The bread had a nice toasty exterior without being too crisp. 

I ate remarkably slowly that night, not wanting my meal to end.

I don’t think it was just nostalgia. I really do think it was a damn good sandwich. Something everybody in the world should have and enjoy. Maybe once every two years.

I guess that means the Deli Summit will have to become an annual event.  Too many people like me around going someplace else for our salads.

But Long Live the Deli:  I really do recommend that you either go out for or make your own Reuben.  They're pretty fabulous. If you opt for home-made, just make sure to use good-quality corned beef. The kind you get at a deli.

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