Discovering the Deli

Some time ago, I decided my long-term goal would be to open my deli. I grew up on deli food and miss it so - the soft, seeded-rye; stinky chopped chicken livers; the dew on the windows from the corned beefs… corning; the grease-glazed knishes; mountains of yellow potato salad. Delaware is not a haven for such gastronomical delights beyond chicken ‘n dumplings and steamed crabs. My very indiscriminate love of good food was born of my experience with really good deli food. So, in seven years, I want to open a deli. I have never been good with the more subtle nuance of fine dining, am not very adept at any particular nationality’s cuisine nor do I know how to fling a pizza dough. I do enjoy really good deli fare and think many other people do, too. So, the goal is to bring my sunset years into focus flanked by two slices of that rye bread shmeared with spicy brown mustard and pastrami. Between now and then, however, I have to figure out how to do it without losing my shirt.

The plan is to explore, in ridiculous detail, the favorites that make up the menu of classic delicatessens, legendary for blending the food of immigrants, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, with American appeal. I do not really need to delve headlong into the history of the deli as institution in this country; like the colloquialisms that bespeckle our geography, the food offered at delis varies from town to town. For that matter, the food can vary from street to street! So, knowing about the deli itself is not quite as important as knowing well what is contained therein. New York delicatessens are legendary, and for good reason. Katz’s Deli is a landmark, a shrine, to the cornerstone of what defines a quintessential delicatessen. Even the more touristy places like Maxie’s and Roxy in Times Square eloquently do justice by offering an array of classic deli dishes. Deli food is not limited, though, to the big island. While I haven’t yet visited every city in the country, I would guess that there are some respectable delis throughout the country. Certainly, Miami, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlantic City have all done me well when hankering for some matzoh ball soup and a Reuben. Some venues offer local specialties or eclectic tastes of the particular deli operator. New York delis often have the trademark, paper-thin pizza. Further west, pizza is in the pizzeria across the street from the deli. Up north, subs or hoagies are on the same menu next to blintzes and brisket. So it goes that flavors vary by locale. The classics, though, like Bach, Sinatra and The Beatles, may be interpreted differently, but are always on the playlist. Call them standards, call them ‘must haves,’ there are just some dishes that must be there to be called a deli.
Chapter 5: Blintzes

A crepe. Some cheese. Fat, of course. Side by side, a dollop of sour cream. Inhale nicotine-laced smoke from a just-lit cigarette. Extinguish. Slowly exhale, skyward. Foodgasmic. Blintzes are incredible eating. A pair on a plate is said to represent the twin tablets of the Ten Commandments presented upon Moses during his stay on Mt. Sinai. So, their existence, it can be said, is sacred. One bite, I am sure of it. And if you are not familiar, imagine a burrito fashioned out of a crepe embracing soft cheese.

Crepe making is not the easiest technique in the culinary world. It can be, frankly, a little frustrating. I tell my students that once the batter is perfectly made, velvety smooth, runny and well rested, crepe building can still be wrecked. The first handful, or so, of crepes are usually casualties of First Timer malady. Pan too hot – burnt crepes. Over adjustment: pan too cool – crepes stick. Therein lays a balance. Crepes made, set aside.

•2 large eggs
•¾ cup, milk
•½ cup, water
•2 Tablespoons, sugar
•1 cup, all purpose flour
•3 Tablespoons, melted butter, unsalted

Butter, for coating the pan

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients and mix well. Rest the batter for at least an hour; overnight in the refrigerator is preferred. The agitation of the flour with moisture promotes the development of gluten, causing a tough crepe. The rest will allow the protein strands to relax. The batter will keep for two days. Heat a small non-stick pan or well-season steel crepe pan. Add melted ‘top’ butter to coat. Pour 1 ounce of batter into the center of the pan and swirl to spread evenly. Cook until the edges of the crepe begin to curl and the surface appears to move from glossy to matte. Turn over and cook until the crepe releases its grip on the pan. Remove to plate or sheet tray to cool. Repeat, using the remainder of the batter.

The challenging part of blintz making out of the way, blintzes are flavorful contenders for good dollars in a deli and make my mouth so very happy. The crepe is wrapped around a malleable form of ricotta cheese; the often allusive Farmer cheese can be ranked with other unripened cheese varieties of the curds and whey lineage. Farmer cheese can be mushy, pliable or downright crumbly. Not living in a culturally-rich, ethnically diverse neighborhood enriched by Jewish grocery stores or the All Night Farmer Cheese Store, I use ricotta. It actually adds some fun play on texture, is readily available and versatile enough to make adulterations to go down, say, a sweet road or the savory path.

•2# Ricotta Cheese
•½ cup, powdered sugar

Combine cheese and sugar.

Spread approximately 2 heaping tablespoons of the cheese mixture on the center of the crepe and fold, burrito-style (bottom folded over filling, right side over, left side over, rolled to look like a burrito.)
Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add fat and crisp the seamless side of the blintz, about 2 minutes. Turn and repeat on the other side. Allow two blintzes per person.

Pillows of cheese and crepe blanketed love, the folded blintz is crisped in fat over a medium-hot flame. It is Jewish food, so use schmaltz. The rendered fat of chicken has flavor that simply can not be dismissed. Butter is a good second, but schmaltz brings another of those ever-important layers of flavor. It isn’t chicken-y. Rather, it is depth, another dimension of cry-into-your-sleeve-because-it-tastes-so-good flavor and mouth nirvana. Crisp the seamless side of the blintz, flip, remove.

Recommendations for serving include a dollop of cold sour cream; it’s deli food, dairy with dairy is an accepted practice. The hot blintz dating chilly sour cream is quite the harmonious relationship. At a recent event, Sweet Potato ice cream found its way to garnish blintzes at our table. Magic happened and the ensuing fireworks were quite the sight. Fireworks and lots of exhaled smoke pointed skyward as the amorous affair between crepe, cheese and chilly garnish became the closest of intertwined bedfellows.