Tue 15 Mar 2011
When I got back to my office with the beef for this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge, several of my coworkers lit up with big smiles. You see, I work with a decent number of Texans, and brisket is the meat of choice in traditional Texas barbecue. They envisioned a succulent, peppery masterpiece bathed in post oak smoke overnight. You can imagine the way their faces fell when they learned that the brisket would be bathed in salty, seasoned water instead.
“You’re going to do what with a perfectly good brisket?” was the question.
I could have seen it coming. I should have seen it coming. Of course March’s challenge would be corned beef…St. Patrick’s Day is one of the few holidays that is actively associated with a specific dish and it just so happens to be cured meat.
There’s just one problem. We’re not exactly fans of boiled dinners, stews or braises that involve cooking meat until it loses all trace of its muscular past here at Capital Spice. Add steamed cabbage and overcooked potatoes and you’ve lost us completely. So what’s an aspiring charcutiere to do?
I could have fallen back on the Apprentice Challenge, brining a chicken or some pork chops, but it would have felt like a cop-out. We’ve been singing the praises of brining for years now, and we know from experience the transformative effect it can have on roasted chicken. We’ve even brined a turkey for our Fakesgiving dinner.
I knew I had to go for the Charcutiere Challenge this time around. I wanted to anyway, as I’m eager to embrace Charcutepalooza as fully as possible and I’d like to think I’m ready for the varsity team when it comes to curing. That’s why Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s introductory post was such a lifesaver.
In her description of her get-together with friends, she describes what might be one of the best party games ever: a head-to-head competition between a classic Reuben sandwich and a Baltimore special known as the Cloak and Dagger. That’s when it clicked for me: I didn’t have to serve my corned beef hot as part of an Irish meal, I could slice it thinly and serve it deli-style. I could even use the opportunity to introduce our friends to a largely unknown New Jersey treat.
Go ahead and make your jokes about what that might be, then rejoin the group for the process and the results after the jump.
First things first: I needed a brisket. When the time came to slice the bacon I made for last month’s challenge, I didn’t want to slice it by hand and ruin all my hard work with uneven slices. So I took it to the guys at Union Meat Company in Eastern Market and they did a great job. Going back to them for the brisket was a no-brainer.
I followed Ruhlman’s directions for brining the meat and pulled it out at the end of five days. The meat had taken on a rather disappointing gray hue, leading me to wonder if I had forgotten to include the curing salt. But I soldiered on, rinsing the brisket completely and wiping off some of the larger spices from the pickling blend that had pressed themselves into the fat cap while the meat soaked.
Three hours’ worth of simmering later, the meat still looked wan and I was ready to admit defeat. I let the brisket rest and trimmed off the fat pad (the idea of chewing that fat once it had cooled didn’t appeal to me). Then I sliced into it…and I was amazed. Inside, the meat was a glorious bright pink! It looked like corned beef! I popped a small piece into my mouth and I knew I had nailed it. The flavor was salty but subtle, with a pleasant allspice note that lingered afterwards. I brought it back to Union Meat Company and had them slice it deli-style.
When the Bacon Terrorist learned that I had cured my own bacon last month, he made it clear that he wanted to be a part of all future Charcutepalooza endeavors. So we invited him and Itty Bitty Betty over to enjoy the corned beef with us and they offered to bring beer and homemade Jewish rye bread for sandwiches. We gladly accepted – the Bacon Terrorist is an accomplished amateur baker and we would gladly trade cured meats for some of his bread any day.
The addition of the rye to our lineup meant that we were one step closer to my Jersey surprise. The Cloak and Dagger sandwich in Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s post triggered a memory for me: triple decker deli sandwiches on rye, piled high with corned beef and other meats, cole slaw and Russian dressing. In Northern New Jersey delis and diners, this is known as a Sloppy Joe, which is confusing enough until you realize we also call ground beef and tomato sauce on a bun a Sloppy Joe.
Traditionally, this messy sandwich is made with a mayo-based slaw, but I find that the combination of the slaw and the Russian dressing can make a sandwich too creamy and one-note. So I subbed in a slaw inspired by one I found in Tom Colicchio’s ‘wichcraft cookbook that uses a vinegar base. Like Mrs. Wheelbarrow I also decided to make Ruhlman’s Russian dressing, which meant my first ever homemade mayonnaise. The transformation of oil and raw egg yolk into silky, creamy spread is the kind of magic that continues to amaze me in the kitchen.
Ruhlman describes Russian dressing as “an all-but-forgotten tomato-mayo-based sauce that’s ripe for a comeback.” Unfortunately, his recipe calls for generic “chili sauce,” a vague directive in an age of access to global ingredients. The fact that he references tomatoes in his description leads me to believe that he meant a chili sauce along the lines of the ketchup-like one produced by Heinz. I bought my “chili sauce” from Trader Joe’s. On the plus side, it includes real chili flakes and omits high fructose corn syrup, but there are no tomatoes to be found inside. As a result, my “Russian” dressing took on a sweet-spicy Asian flavor and a color less pink than light orange. But everyone agreed it was delicious, so we didn’t mind.
The end result was a sandwich that was lighter than the Jersey Sloppy Joe that inspired it, with more balanced flavors and (barely) less mess. My attempt at corned beef was a definite success. Not only did the meat turn out beautifully, it gave us an opportunity for a good evening with great friends. We’re already looking forward to April’s challenge!