Recently at a market that carries some good local meat I spied a big old cow tongue. I’ve never cooked it, but I have memories of my Grandfather serving it to me on occasion. It always sort of creeped me out; that boiled beef smell and the gray pallor of the giant tongue just didn’t add up to appetizing. I did eat it, and it did taste pretty good–if kind of bland–but I sort of filed it away in the “things old Jewish people eat because they grew up dirt poor in Poland” category and didn’t give it much thought for a long time. So, seeing in the cooler, I decided that I would give it a shot, and do what I could to minimize those qualities that had turned me off it as a child: I would make it into pastrami.
Boom! There’s really no escaping the reality of a cow tongue. It looks more like some kind of parasitic space lamprey than something you’d voluntarily eat, but there it is. The thin end looks a lot like some slip-ons that Satan himself might sport–say, to Bristol Palin’s wedding.
First off, I brined the pieces in a mixture of salt, herbs, garlic, pepper, vinegar, and a pinch of sugar in the fridge for three days. The next step was getting the very thick skin off, so I made some long cuts in it and blanched the pieces in simmering water for about 10 minutes. It could have gone longer, but the cuts allowed me to get most of it off pretty easily. The rest I sort of whittled away with my sharpest knife. Cow tongue skin is serious stuff. It probably would make good shoes.
Once peeled, I rubbed the pieces all over with the standard pastrami spices of pepper and coriander. If you’re going to do this–to a tongue, a brisket, or anything else–make sure you grind whole spices. Do not waste your time with powders; pre-ground black pepper is worthless. Then into the smoker they went, where they spent about two hours bathed in hot smoke from wind-felled maple branches gleaned from the yard. I took them out when their insides had reached 140˚F.
Gene Simmons wishes that his tongue looked like this.
There are a few other recipes for tongue pastrami, but most involve simmering the thing for five hours to tenderize it before smoking it. And there’s no doubt that this is one tough muscle. It sorely needs tenderizing, but I really didn’t want to end up with that awful grayness. So I tasted it for salt, and then vacuum-sealed the pieces in a bag with a little extra sprinkled in there because the brine had not been saline enough. And I cooked it for 18 hours at 150˚F. The result? It had the lovely, rosy smoke ring of good barbecue, and was still pale pink throughout like any self-respecting deli meat should be, yet perfectly al dente. Not chewy, not falling-apart, and no deathly, ashen hue to be found. I also ended up with about half a cup of the pastrami juice that cooked out into the bag. I’m saving it for mushrooms, I think.
And the tongue tastes very good: a classic pastrami profile, but with much less fat. Now I loves me some copious, chin-dripping pastrami fat, but sometimes it’s a bit much. This is amazing in sandwiches. My current favorite lunch is a croque-monsieur with homemade bread, two-year old Vermont cheddar, and a layer of tongue. It also makes a wicked Reuben with homemade sauerkraut. (See also my nearly 100% from scratch Reuben TNS post from last year). Last night I was using some leftover risotto I made with puréed carrot soup (a brilliant yellow-orange, and very tasty) to make makizushi for Milo’s lunch today. Since we didn’t have any salmon, he asked me if I’d roll some “cow tongue” up in the middle instead. So I did. Here’s a shot of a platter I put out for a meeting here yesterday, along with duck prosciutto, bread, and some cheese. I just had the uneaten portion in a superlative sandwich for lunch. Now I have to buy a brisket and make a real pastrami; one gets accustomed to having homemade deli meats around, and in this dismal weather the thought of doing without smoked meat in my grilled cheese is too grisly to contemplate.