Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a Middle Eastern store nearby to purchase ready-to-eat favorites.
Just ask reader Mario of Queensland, Australia. He requested a recipe for homemade basterma because there's no place for him to buy it, and his local butcher can't create this recipe for him. Mario, originally from Alexandria,Egypt, said the best basterma in Egypt was made by the Armenian community. In Australia, he was able to buy thinly sliced basterma in Melbourne and Sydney, but noted that no one in Queensland even knows what it is.
Depending on where you live, October and November are said to be the best months for making this favored delicacy. (Mario reminded me that Australia's seasons are opposite those of North America, so those months don't necessarily work for him.)
Making homemade basterma requires the patience of a saint. You’ve got to set aside plenty of time for curing the meat. Mario, I hope you're a patient guy!
Top-quality meat is the key to tender basterma, and having a favorable relationship with the local butcher is a must.
When you’re ready to tackle the job, tell the butcher what you are planning to make, then ask him to cut a 2 to 3 pound piece of boneless beef from the rib section about 1 to 1 ½ inches thick.
If, after reading the directions, you’re concerned about the food safety aspect of making basterma, don’t worry. According to Irina Petrossian, author of “Armenian Food - Fact, Fiction and Folklore”, bacterial growth (in basterma) is prevented because the meat is dry-cured with salt, and, because fenugreek is a key ingredient in the paste, it acts as a natural insect repellent.
Feel better? Roll up your sleeves, put on your apron, and give it a go...
2 to 3 lbs. boneless beef (from rib section, 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick)
½ cup Kosher salt
For the Paste:
1/4 cup paprika
1/4 cup chaman (ground fenugreek seeds) - Found in specialty shops or well-stocked grocery or Middle Eastern stores
1 tablespoon allspice
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp cayenne pepper
3 small cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
1 cup (or more) cold water
Using a fork, pierce the meat all over. This will allow the salt to penetrate. Cut the meat in two equal pieces, then with a large needle, thread a heavy twine or string through one end of each piece of the meat and tie it into a loop. This will be used to hang the meat when curing.
Generously sprinkle each section of meat with Kosher salt on all sides. Lay meat on a pan and refrigerate for 3 days. Turn meat once a day to keep coated with salt.
On the fourth day, remove salt from the meat. Wash meat thoroughly, then soak in cold water for about an hour. Drain and pat meat dry using paper towels, making sure excess moisture is removed.
Create 2 bags out of cheesecloth to hold each section of meat. Place meat in bags, and hang from the loops in a cool dry place** - or the refrigerator - for about 2 weeks.
(**If you hang the meat in a cool dry place rather than the refrigerator, be sure to bring the meat inside if the weather becomes rainy or damp.)
After the 2 weeks are up, combine all of the ingredients for making the paste, stirring in water a little at a time. Stir until a smooth, thin paste is formed. (Note: the paste can be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator until ready to use.)
Remove the meat from the cloth bags, saving them for later use.
Cover the dried meat completely with the paste; let stand for about 2 weeks in a pan. Turn the meat every couple of days to keep covered with the paste. At the end of the second week, remove meat from the paste and return each piece to the cloth bags. Hang outdoors for one more week of drying. Remember, if it’s damp outside, hang the basterma in a cool dry place inside.
After the second drying period, the basterma will be ready to serve.
To serve, slice into paper-thin pieces. Best eaten with lavash, olives and Armenian string cheese. (A little Arak wouldn't hurt either!)
To store, keep in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator.
Now that Mario has the recipe, he understands why prepared basterma is so expensive. To make it at home is truly a labor of love.