- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

A string hangs from the ceiling at Katz’s Delicatessen on New York’s Lower East Side to mark the spot where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal sat for a scene in “When Harry Met Sally.”

Katz’s pastrami on rye is just about as good as it gets. It’s a sandwich that is the ultimate New York deli experience in what is considered one of the city’s pre-eminent delicatessens.

Pastrami has quite a history, and so does Katz’s. The Lower East Side is a neighborhood built by immigrants from all parts of the globe. Many groups left their marks, but it is the Jewish heritage that shaped the area’s identity.

Cookbook author Joan Nathan says the word pastrami comes from the Turkish word “basturma.” It describes a meat that is sliced, wind-dried, rubbed with dried spices and then pressed.

The technique was adopted by Jewish peddlers who began to cure kosher meat in the same manner. When the Jews came to New York, delicatessens, a German word for stores that sell meats, filled that need. Today, true delicatessens are rare because few continue these meat preparation and preservation techniques.

I had a Sunday meat-feast brunch there a few weeks ago and learned that at Katz’s, not much has changed since it became a deli 115 years ago. Fancy, it’s not. A tad run down, it is. Excellent food, you bet. Step up to the counter, and you’ll be offered a taste of pastrami before you order. The counterman cuts the meat by hand with a surgeon’s precision, and the pieces are stacked between slices of rye.

Pastrami is dry-cured, smoked and steamed beef. Specifically, it’s a cut called the cow’s plate that is found next to the brisket. By the time pastrami appears in a sandwich, it is a deep red wine color. It is flavorful, tender and juicy, with just enough fat to balance its essential partners: tangy mustard and Jewish rye bread.

If you can, share a sandwich with a friend so you can sample other things from the menu. You wouldn’t want to miss the corned beef, which is sweet and salty, fatty and delicious. Forget about lean corned beef, an oxymoron if ever there was one. When I asked for a taste of tongue, I was handed two huge slices on a plate. Also excellent are the chopped liver and salami, not to mention the knishes, brisket and New York cheesecake.

Another Lower East Side institution just around the corner from Katz’s is Russ & Daughters, sometimes referred to as “the temple of smoked fish.”

For more than 90 years, it has been known for having comprehensive selections of smoked fish. (Lox, whitefish and sable are the most popular.) Joe Russ opened the small, quaint store in 1914, then ran it with his daughters, who passed on the business to their children, who operate it today.

Besides the famous fish, they sell excellent chopped liver, pickled herring and a variety of homemade cream cheeses. The window is stacked with a kaleidoscope of beautiful dried fruits. Ask for a sample of anything in the store, and it’s yours. Then enjoy your nosh on the park bench outside the door on the sidewalk of the Lower East Side.

Reuben sandwich

This simple creation has a long list of ingredients, but everything comes together quickly to make an unforgettable sandwich. Make your Reuben on Jewish rye using the best hand-cut pastrami you can find. This variation on the classic is excellent.

Butter, softened

8 slices Jewish rye bread

Russian dressing (recipe follows)

1 pound pastrami, preferably hand-cut

4 ounces Gruyere cheese, sliced into 12 to 16 thin slices

Creamy coleslaw (recipe follows)

Spread a thin layer of butter on one side of all bread slices. Set out half of bread slices, buttered side down, and spread each of unbuttered sides with 2 tablespoons of the Russian dressing to cover. Pile one quarter of pastrami on top, then cover with one quarter of cheese slices. Place remaining slices of bread over cheese, buttered side up.

Place sandwiches on a grill and cook without crowding until browned. Flip sandwiches over and continue to cook until crispy on the outside and oozing cheese. If you want to press the sandwiches, weight them with the bottom of a cast-iron skillet that has been brushed with a bit of butter. Cut sandwiches in half on the diagonal and serve with a side of creamy coleslaw, any remaining Russian dressing and pickles. Makes 4 sandwiches.

RUSSIAN DRESSING:

1 extra-large egg, hard-cooked, finely chopped

1 cup mayonnaise (homemade or Hellman’s)

3 tablespoons ketchup

1 drop Tabasco

⅛ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

A few drops fresh lemon juice to taste

2 teaspoons finely minced red onion

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

3 gherkins, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)

½ teaspoon kosher salt

In a large bowl, combine egg, mayonnaise, ketchup, Tabasco, Worcestershire, lemon juice, red onion, parsley, gherkins and salt. Adjust seasonings to taste. Makes about 1¼ cups.

CREAMY COLESLAW:

⅓ cup mayonnaise (homemade or Hellman’s)

3 tablespoons sour cream

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or vinegar

1 teaspoon yellow mustard

2 drops Tabasco

3/4 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon celery seed

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

½ head cabbage, shredded to equal 2 cups

In a large bowl, mix together mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice or vinegar, mustard, Tabasco, sugar, salt, celery seed and pepper. Add cabbage, toss to coat and chill until ready to serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

In New York:

m Katz’s Delicatessen, 205 E. Houston St. (at Ludlow Street); 212/254-2246

m Russ & Daughters, 179 Houston St. (between Allen and Orchard streets) 212/475-4880

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES INTERNATIONAL

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