Sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine.
I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time;
I eat them for my supper and I eat them for my lunch;
If I had a hundred sandwiches, I’d eat them all at once.

~Fred Penner

Okay, I don’t quite share Fred Penner’s enthusiasm for sandwiches but I do love a good sandwich and an overstuffed pastrami on dark rye is among my favourites.  Pastrami is not to be confused with its corned beef cousin.  Pastrami is dry cured and smoked whereas corned beef is brined and roasted without smoke.  Though corned beef is great stuff, it just doesn’t compare to a good smoked brisket.  To me this is a great example of simple ingredients delivering big flavour.  Great pastrami is all about the spices in the dry rub and, of course, the smoke.  The finished product is complex, peppery and smoky yet layered with the aromatic notes of coriander and allspice.  Delectably seasoned and roasted to tender perfection, a hot pastrami sandwich on a cold day is pure beefy bliss.

Schwartz's Smoked Meat on Rye with a Kosher Pickle

New Yorkers claim to be the current epicentre of pastrami achievement.  There are hundreds of delis, good and bad, preparing their own unique recipes.  Manhattan delis run the gamut.  Carnegies is a Time Square tourist trap where the lines are long, the prices high and the sandwiches large enough to feed a family of four.  That said the pastrami on rye was awesome.  Better yet there is Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side.  Katz’s has been a Manhattan institution since 1888 and still home to a really great sandwich.  If you have space after a sandwich as big as your arm, try to the matzo ball soup while you’re at it.  

But, Montreal boasts its own proud “pastrami” tradition.  While purists may argue they are different, Montreal smoked meat really is pastrami by another name.  My first encounter with Montreal smoked meat in its natural environment was Rueben’s on Rue Ste. Catherine in downtown Montreal.  We squeezed our way into a small table near the back of the restaurant, the only one left in the bustling lunch spot.  So impressed were we with Rueben’s mouth-watering creation we went back a few days later for take-out to bring along on the train to Quebec City.  We were the envy of our rail-car-mates who were left with few dining options outside a vacuum packed tuna on white bread. 

Of course, dear readers, you deserve more than just my nostalgia-fogged memories.  So, being the unreasonably demanding mother that I am sent my daughter on a quest.  Go have a smoked meat sandwich at your favourite deli (on me – she is a student after all).  The terribly onerous conditions were to send me a photo and to share her thoughts.  There is no shortage of delis offering up smoked meat in Montreal.  Rueben’s, Dunn’s, Snowden and the list goes on.  She chose Schwartz’s on St. Laurent which claims to be the oldest deli in Canada, in business since 1928.  Unlike Katz’s the sandwich is a meal for one and it is priced accordingly, still just $5.50 prepared as you like it.

Schwartz's in 1928

The pastrami assignment wasn’t much of a strain for Monique.  She is a true carnivore. So much so that when she came home for Christmas a trip to Memphis Blues Barbeque House was at the top of the “To Do” list.  Memphis Blues is euphemistically known as the “meat restaurant” around our house.  Schwartz’s is her Montreal “meat restaurant” and Monique has tried them all.  After several months of rigorous research she has concluded that Shwartz’s is the best.  According to Monique, “the brisket is well marbled and is really moist and flakey.  The sandwich needs something acid to cut the fat and the plain French’s yellow mustard definitely makes the difference.”  Then she betrayed me and rejected the superior wisdom of a sophisticated palate!  “The hot mustard at Max’s would overwhelm the flavour of Montreal smoked meat,” she said naively.  Blasphemy I say!

I really do believe that fresh is best when your talking pastrami, but outside Montreal and New York, you’re unlikely to find someone hand slicing a brisket behind the counter. Here in Vancouver our choices are not plentiful but your pastrami craving can be deliciously satisfied.   Max’s Bakery and Delicatessen on Oak Street (at 15th) is my personal favourite.  The menu options are plentiful, but I have to admit I always have the same thing, pastrami and smoked goulda on dark rye with hot mustard.  And at Max’s when they say hot, they mean it!  Of course you’ll find a crisp kosher pickle on the side.  A close second is homemade.  You can now buy Dunn’s Montreal Smoked Meat at Costco of all places!  George and I had pastrami and ementhaller on rye for lunch last weekend.  Mmmmmm.  It might not have the ambience of Swartz’s but my kitchen rarely smells so good on a Saturday afternoon.

Montreal Smoked Meat on Rye with an appropriate array of pickles

Now, you could make your own pastrami but it takes time, a significant chunk of fridge space for three to four weeks and a multi burner barbeque to allow you to smoke and slow cook the meat.  I made my own corned beef once and while I was thrilled with the result, on balance, it was just not worth the effort.  There are just too many high-quality, affordable options available.  However, having made it myself, I now respect the craft and enjoy the finished product all the more.  Whether you visit your favourite deli, buy a packaged product for home or undertake making your own, I encourage you to have a hot, juicy pastrami sandwich the next time you’re looking for a casual but immensely satisfying meal.  Can you use pastrami to make something other than a sandwich? Of course, but why would you?

Sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine.
I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time…

Bon appétit.

Della

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