Numerous restaurants and sandwich shops offer pastrami -- and other kinds of -- melts, though none can take credit for inventing the concept. Jewish New York immigrants are due all the credit for introducing pastrami in the U.S. Pastrami is the star of this sandwich, so it's, of course, the major ingredient in any variation of this delicatessen favorite. Focus on the quality of the meat first, and then fill in the rest of this culinary canvas with quality cheese and condiments.
Splurge to buy the best pastrami possible. Pastrami making is a labor of love that can take several weeks, starting with curing, followed smoking for several days, before the flavorful meat is boiled to finish cooking and steamed just before serving. Such attention to detail is why some delis have amassed a cult following based on their pastrami alone. When shopping for pastrami, look for meat with a thick, dark bark of spices from the smoking process, with tender, juicy, pink meat inside and balanced fat marbling throughout. Ask for samples before making your selection. Have the pastrami sliced thick, or better yet, hand carved, just as it is in New York delis.
Pastrami purists insist that the only bread to use is seeded rye, but the type of bread you use is really a matter of preference. Marble rye bread is close in taste with light rye dough swirled together with cocoa-tinted rye dough. For a hearty appetite, a pastrami sandwich assembled on an Italian or French bread loaf makes a filling choice. If your favorite bread is the plain, white sandwich variety, you can use that to make a perfectly respectable pastrami melt.
Filling the Sandwich
Filling ingredients should enhance or complement the pastrami without overpowering the meat. To satisfy the "melt" requirement of the sandwich, add cheese atop the pastrami. Pair the strong, spicy pastrami flavor with mild, nutty Swiss cheese. Smoked cheddar and the mild smokiness of provolone complement the smoke flavor in pastrami. Muenster, with its semisoft texture, subtly accents melt-in-your-mouth pastrami. Mustard is the condiment of choice for pastrami -- usually a grainy yellow mustard or Dijon with a bit of spice. Add sour or half-sour pickles to your sandwich so that the acidity can balance the richness of the meat. Given the similarities between pastrami and corned beef, a pastrami melt with Swiss cheese and crunchy sauerkraut makes a convincing alternative to the classic Reuben sandwich.
To qualify as a "melt" sandwich, the pastrami should be hot with the cheese melted, but no additional cooking is required if you carve the pastrami hot and top it with cheese immediately. Pop the sandwich in a toaster oven or under your oven's broiler if you want the cheese extra bubbly and the bread toasted. Smear butter over the outsides of the bread and cook the sandwich in a skillet for about three minutes on each side to make a pastrami melt sandwich with the crunchy, buttery qualities of a grilled cheese. Eliminate the need for excess butter by making a pastrami melt panino. If you don't have a panino press, try a waffle iron or counter-top grill for a similar effect.