a home cook with notions & an appetite
I have no idea exactly where my urge to make a pastrami from tongue came from, but I know I like pastrami and I do like tongue. Beef tongue is by no means an everyday meal. Not because of expense or difficulty, but simply because it requires either a ton of cooking (hours) to get it to a state where it won’t be super-tough or you tend find it cured in delis as part of sandwiches. If you frequent taco trucks and purchase lengua tacos, you’re eating tongue (there’s still a lot of cooking to get the meat tender). What I’m getting at is tongue really isn’t so much exotic/out-there as it is a cut of meat your very thrifty great-grandmother knew to purchase for pennies and cook the heck out of or cure for a cheap source of protein.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. I decided to make a pastrami out of tongue. Normally, pastrami is made from the brisket, but I was relieved to find that Carrots & Ginger had successfully made a Tongue Pastrami and I decided to combine a bit of their recipe with Ruhlman’s traditional pastrami recipe from Charcuteri. (And, by the by, Rhulman has another alt-pastrami recipe in the form of boneless beef shortrib pastrami, something he discovered Asian Jewish Deli has also been doing.)
The biggest advantage to this post is that I’m about to compress two weeks of time into less than half an hour of reading time (I’m assuming this is leisure pace).
I do want to point out one of my key pieces of equipment in brine making (well, charcuterie in general) – my kitchen scale. In this shot, I’ve zeroed out the scale yet again to measure the 90 grams of dark brown sugar that I need for the brine. (SPOILER!). The brine I’m using is from Charcuteri and is the one that is traditionally used for pastrami (if you buy the book, all instructions are on page 91 in the hardcover edition).
In the pot:
In being as technical as I want to be, this is also a CSA recipe. We had yet another fresh garlic head in the basket when I made my brine – here it is as chopped cloves.
This super-fresh garlic kind of does make me wonder what it would take to grow them in my back yard…but let’s save that for later.
While the brine cooks, I did take a lovely series of tongue photos. I did want to see if I could trim any excessive fat from the tongue at first and to see if husband would agree to having his face licked by cow tongue, but neither happened (only one because it was deemed unnecessary at the time, the other due to lack-of-fun):
Yes, that is my three-pound tongue. I got it at the local mega-mart. It’s that easy to find – I promise there were no special passwords and no secret handshakes. It’s easy to find and buy. Well, the check-out boy acted as if I were buying packed radiation when he scanned it, but I can assure you that tongue has no greater desire to reanimate and attack you anymore than a strip steak does. It feels like a real cow-tongue (what, you’ve never been licked by a live cow at the state fair?) because it is a real tongue. It’s simply no longer attached to a lovely warm head you can still pet. Instead, it will become a fantastic pastrami you can enjoy and respect.
Once the brine is fully cooled after cooking (really, you should buy the book and get the full run-down), I transfer it to a two-gallon zip-lock with the beef tongue. This is transferred to a large bowl (which it barely fits) and I weigh it down with a jar of relish that I’ve recently canned.
Normally, a brisket pastrami would cure for three days. Not so much with a tongue and the tough outer skin and tougher meat. Carrots & Ginger recommends a week of curing and while I didn’t use their recipe or smoking method, I notice that Heritage Foods recommends a full 10-12 days of brining for a tongue. I decide to go long.
Time passes…roughly 12 days worth…
This is what a brined tongue looks like when you open your bag. It mostly smells like muted brine (this means that nothing went funky during the brining process in the fridge). As you can see, some parts of the meat went a darker red and the fat is very, very white. All of these are signs that we’re entering the final day of preparation on the tongue pastrami.
I do dump the brine and rinse the tongue. No exciting photos. We’re now ready to boil the tongue for three hours. Most tongues are roughly an hour per pound when boiling regularly, although Carrots & Ginger never did indicate how big their tongue was when they suggested three hours in their recipe. Either way, that’s what I’m going do – after chopping up a large onion, 2 stalks of celery and using what I’d call the equivalent of 2 large carrots in baby carrot form and filling up the pot with water (and the tongue!):
Boil, by the by, isn’t exactly what I do. I bring it to a boil and simmer for three hours. This is time to do whatever you want to do as simmering tongue only requires the occassional pass-by to ensure that it is still covered by water.
After three hours, the tongue needs to cool a bit so it can be handled. The outer skin of the tongue – the part with all of the taste buds – needs to be peeled from the tongue. If you don’t, you’d be leaving an outer later that you’ll have a hard time chewing through (I hear that it’s inedible). My simmer was kind enough to start out the peeling process for me, which I managed to do almost entirely by hand and with minimal cutting. I also trimmed most of the visible fat:
This is all meat. It’s time to smoke. Almost.
First things first, a nice seasoning to go on the outside of my pastrami. Yes, this would be easier if the tongue were a flat, even piece of meat like, say, a brisket, but that’s not a challenge now, is it?
I use the Carrots & Ginger mixture of the following:
I cracked my corbiander a bit with a mortar and pestle before adding it to the mix and then rubbed the whole mess around my beef tongue with the best intentions. (The color change is half the lighting in the room and the plate, the other part is the tongue really cooling down.)
Now I was ready to smoke.
This is my smoker holding steady at 200°. The smoker is stocked with soaked hickory chips that are making a nice thick smoke that will last the full two hours.
If you’re saying to yourself, “why those ridges look vaguely familiar, but not in an exact brand of smoker I recognize,” I’ll tell you that’s because its’ a trash can that I converted about two years ago. The bottom has an asbestos brick that supports an electric charcoal starting wand and the smoker box that rests on top of it for my chips. Basically, I modified these plans a bit from cruftbox (I didn’t want to use the hotplate as all the ones I found had plastic casings I worried would crack and present serious fire hazards). I even have a smokebox on my actual grill and I still love the trashcan smoker more. Oh, one other modification – I also installed brackets that allow me to adjust my grill rack up and down to accommodate larger bits of meat when needed.
Three hours later, I bring the tongue inside and have my moment where I recall the smells of home, where I grew up on Arthur Bryant’s barbecue that is slow-cooked in a pit that is well stocked with hickory (and oak). After a few flashbacks, I survey my tongue and cut into it to survey the smoky goodness (which nearly permeated 100%, save a tiny circle in the very center:
The best part of tongue pastrami? The taste (tongue is just extra-beefy). The second best part? It’s a nice narrow cut of meat, so it makes perfect snack-sized pastrami slices.