My Citizens – apologies for going dark for the last two weeks, I have been using the end-of-the-year holiday season to rest and recharge my incandescent soul in time for 2021, for it has dimmed due to exhaustion and 9+ months of strict quarantine! As I was preparing to enter my latest recipe (not this one), I was greatly saddened to learn that one of the great Jewish restaurants of old has permanently shut its doors – a place near and dear to my Yiddishkeit (Jewish) soul.
I speak of nothing less than Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, nearly 100 years old and now the latest COVID-19 restaurant casualty. If you never had the privilege of visiting Sammy’s, it was basically a non-stop Jewish party soaked in schmaltz, steak and schtick and was as much an experience as a meal – watch this video to get a small idea of what I’m talking about! FYI – for an historic take on the Jewish love for steak and garlic (Sammy’s used it LAVISHLY), you simply must visit my friend Nino’s amazing website, the story is here!
As such – my next 2 recipes shall be for Jewish classics of the deli and kosher restaurants of the NYC area in honor of Sammy’s and my religious/cultural zeitgeist! The first recipe is one that is nearly lost to the mists of time – those Jewish deli mavens of a certain age all remember a staple called rolled beef – sadly, only one or two establishments still make this storied and legendary ‘white whale’ of the deli scene. Few remember it, even fewer have tasted it – and that is a shame and tragic loss of Jewish deli culture.
As noted in an article on forward.com:
What exactly is rolled beef, and how is it made? The answer to the first question depends on the answer to the second. Like many things Jewish, it’s under dispute.
Weinberg’s elaborate process, handed down from his grandfather who fled Nazi Germany, begins with three pieces of navel beef, the cut used to make the most popular type of pastrami because it has an extra layer of fat. Weinberg removes the fat, ending up with two thin, flat slabs of beef from each of the three pieces, which he then sews together “like a quilt.” After curing and spicing the meat, he rolls it up tightly, ties it together, and smokes it.
Andy Schwartz in Buffalo also starts his preparation by trimming the fat from navel beef, but instead of stitching several pieces together, he adds a stuffing. “In the past, we would use whatever was left over at the end of the week,” Schwartz notes. For this occasion, he sliced strips of chuck roast.
Both Weinberg and Schwartz agree that the seasoning is similar to that of pastrami, give or take a little more pepper or garlic.
Jay Parker, owner of Ben’s Best Kosher Deli in Rego Park, Queens, recalls his father describing a process similar to Schwartz’s: When the deli men were standing around with nothing to do, they took the trimmings from pastrami, rolled them up, and tied the whole thing together.
But Parker gets his rolled beef from Weinberg—when he can wrest some from his longtime supplier and friend—and Ben’s may be the last deli in the country to carry it. Parker says, “It’s like the secret handshake. Someone comes in and asks for rolled beef, we know he knows kosher deli.” He also ships to “a few people around the country who are happy to pay the crazy price to have it air freighted to them,” adding, “We don’t make any more money. It’s a kind of public service for nostalgic Jews.”
There are no recipes for rolled beef online, so in true TFD fashion – I sleuthed out how to make it thanks to my friend and legendary deli-man Ziggy Gruber, proprietor of Kenny and Ziggy’s deli in Houston and one of the last deli torchbearers of song and story!
Ironically, I was working on this recipe with Ziggy over the last few weeks as he still makes this nearly-extinct product – and mercifully you can mail-order it from his deli if you are so inclined. It’s a fantastic recipe – but I think it is very important from an historic and cultural standpoint to share how to make this at home if you are so inclined. No, this is not Ziggy’s recipe, and please don’t trouble him to share it – but he gave me some very useful tips and pointers on how to properly cure rolled beef!
I found this description of rolled beef on a now-defunct website:
So just what is rolled beef? I was never quite sure, so I did some research to augment my own impressions. First of all, it’s a cold cut. It’s served cold, as opposed to pastrami and corned beef, which are best hot. It’s cured in a way similar to them, seasoned with black pepper and garlic and who knows what else. The meat, when sliced, has a relatively smooth finish, with a nice fat to meat ratio.
A whole rolled beef has a circumference larger than most salamis and smaller than most mortadellas (pardon the treyf; it’s only for the size comparison; this you should allow). It has a red color from the curing not unlike pastrami. You might say it’s like a cross between a pastrami and a salami. You might also liken it to a Jewish version of pancetta or perhaps capicola.
So – first things first. Rolled beef is – to grossly oversimplify – a pastrami that has been cured, rolled up and smoked before being chilled and sliced very thinly on rye bread. It – like its brother pastrami – is properly made not from brisket but the navel cut. This is the belly of the cow, which has interstitial fat running throughout and is frankly far more delicious than brisket (yes – I said it!). The spicing for rolled beef is similar to pastrami, though I prefer a more pronounced garlic flavor in my rolled beef and my recipe reflects that.
If you have a smoker (or access to a commercial smoker, which is what I use), rolled beef is actually not that difficult to make!
First – you need a proper navel cut of beef – I prefer American Wagyu for mine to make the final product super-tender and delicious. Only one vendor meets my quality criteria for this – and that is Huntspoint Meats. Accept no substitutes, unless Johnny is sold out. You can – if you must – substitute regular beef navel for Wagyu – the result is still amazing, just not transcendent. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you substitute any other cut of beef besides navel. I will hunt you down, I promise – and you will be furthermore haunted by the ghosts of Deli Men Past if you violate this decree of the all-powerful TFD!
Next – you will need some curing salt to make this product. It is what gives the final rolled beef its proper red color and most importantly – it prevents botulism. You can buy it here. IMPORTANT NOTE – THIS IS TOXIC IF CONSUMED IN LARGE AMOUNTS. KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDREN AND PETS – IT’S TINTED PINK SO YOU DON’T CONFUSE IT WITH SALT OR SUGAR.
You will also need some sodium erythorbate – this is a common ingredient used in sausage making and meat curing for accelerating the breakdown of sodium nitrite (curing salt), allowing you to smoke cured meats immediately after stuffing. It also acts as an antioxidant which prevents discoloration/pigmentation of meats treated with the cure. You can easily buy some here. Unlike the old deli men who had tons of pastrami scraps they would incorporate into the rolled product to avoid waste, we are not using meat scraps – only pristine navel!
Temperature probes to properly establish the correct internal meat temperature during the smoking process are beyond important – you can’t make this recipe without them. I personally love the very latest Bluetooth-enabled wireless probes – you just stick them in the meat and your phone will tell you when the correct temp is reached! My favorite brand can be purchased here.
The old-school way of making rolled beef is to roll it and tie it with butcher’s twine – which definitely works well! However, I wanted to try and find a way to make this using a modern enhancement to the twine on the beef – and I decided to explore the world of molecular gastronomy to make it happen! There is a substance called Transglutaminase – aka meat glue – that when applied to any protein, it causes any other piece of protein to stick to it like glue!
When raw meats are bound with TG, they typically have the strength and appearance of whole uncut muscles. It can be mixed into a slurry with 4 parts liquid and can also be added directly into ground meat mixtures. It is safe and easy to use – buy it here. I mix my meat glue with beef stock and a whole lot of garlic and I smoke my rolled beef over a combination of oak chips and apple wood chips – you can buy them at the respective links.
Citizens – this nearly-lost recipe of delis past is now yours to enjoy and appreciate! If you thought you loved pastrami, you will simply ADORE rolled beef – a heritage of Jewish cuisine that thanks to dedicated masters like Ziggy Gruber will never fade away! Serve it very thinly-sliced on – of course – Jewish rye with mustard! As Ziggy is fond of saying in Yiddish – zayt mir gezunt un shtark (Stay healthy, strong and safe) – a New Year’s wish to all of TFD Nation!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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