Ahhhh, the Reuben, the simple combination of smoked meat, cheese, dressing, sauerkraut and bread commonly found lurking on menus of delis and bars across the country. These crunchy, buttery, gooey, smoky, sweet and – of course – salty conglomerations of meat and cheese are one of my absolute favorites.
The history of the Reuben is one steeped in culinary controversy. Some hold that Reuben Kulakofsky, an Omaha grocer, came up with the idea back in 1925 to feed the participants of a late-night poker game. Others believe that Arnold Reuben, owner of the creatively named Reuben’s Restaurant in New York City, was responsible for the sandwich’s creation. Whatever the actual story is, it’s clear that this melting-pot of a sandwich is uniquely American. By essentially mashing together a variety of popular and flavorful foods, the creator of the Reuben (whomever that may actually be) devised a hardy meal that would stand the test of time.
That’s not to say that no one has ever messed with the original recipe. For example, there’s the Rachel, which replaces the corned beef with roasted turkey. Apparently there’s a vegetarian Reuben, which (according to this recipe) means that you stuff it full of fake meat. There are also a number of versions that use some sort of fish or seafood (grouper Reuben, lobster Reuben, salmon Reuben, walleye Reuben, etc.) in place of the traditional protein. I’m also a big fan of the Reuben egg roll, though I don’t know that I would need to make them on my own, I think I’ll stick to ordering them after I’ve had a few.
But those all sound delicious, or at the very least, passably tasty. But then, there’s this:
The worst case I’ve ever seen of someone messing with the classic Reuben took place a few years ago when I was teaching Middle School. At the beginning of the day, a mass e-mail arrived informing us that a handful of parents had decided to fill our break-room with treats, presumably in an attempt to soften the reality of our contractual obligation to their prepubescent monster’s gradual transition into humanity. I meandered down to the break room, and dug into the spoils. An odd smell wafted about the room, and I finally noticed that among the trays of grocery store pastries and dried out confections was a steaming slow-cooker, partially covered in aluminum foil. Further investigation – and a conspicuously placed sticky-note – revealed that this cauldron of bubbling goo was actually full of someone’s “famous Reuben dip”.
I love a good Reuben, but this monstrosity was absolutely hideous. I couldn’t bring myself to have more than a bite, which was supposed to be taken on limp pieces of white bread (presumably left in place of rye). My first and only bite revealed my fears: whichever well-meaning individual had provided this “treat” had also – consciously or otherwise – bastardized my favorite bar-food.
The basic premise is as follows: remove or reduce all substantive and toothsome ingredients (toasted bread, meat and sauerkraut) and amplify the quantities of all liquid and/or liquid-prone ingredients (dressing and cheese) to ridiculous proportions. In essence, you’re left with a cheesy glue peppered with meat and sauerkraut and filled out with mayonnaise. But unfortunately, the cook in our case had not stopped with mayonnaise. Perhaps considering the volume of teachers to be fed, they had added a load of Velveeta. You know, the cheese product with so little real food in it that it can’t legally be called cheese.
It was vile… and it was gone by 10:00 in the morning, proving yet again that teachers will eat anything, as long as it’s free.
The following recipe is not vile. It actually began as a challenge on instagram from one of my wife’s former co-workers (@lordsofbacon), and evolved into one of my new favorite flavor mash-ups. Enjoy!
- 2 Slices of Rye bread
- 3 slices Boar’s Head corned beef
- 2 slices Boar’s Head pastrami
- 3 slices Swiss cheese
- 1/4 cup thousand island dressing
- 1.5 tbsp gochujang (more if you want a spicier mix)
- 1/2 cup sauerkraut
- 1/2 cup spicy kimchi
- A lot – like 3 tbs – of butter
This recipe is easy to assemble, but there are a few simple but important steps that make your sandwich go from good to “holy shit that’s delicious”.
Step 1 is to chop the kimchi until it’s roughly the same consistency as the sauerkraut. The textures will be slightly different, of course, but that adds a little extra something to the whole experience.
Combine the kraut and the kimchi in a strainer, allow it to drain for a few minutes, and then squeeze out the majority of the moisture with you hands. Yes, your hands will smell like sauerkraut and kimchi for a little while… but is that really a bad thing?
Set the strained “sauerkimchi” aside in a small bowl.
Mix the thousand island and gochujang together in a small bowl.
Heat a pad of butter over just-below-medium heat in a frying pan. Once it sizzles, layer the corned beef and pastrami in the pan. The idea here is just to heat and slightly brown the meat (it’s already cooked) and to start melting the cheese.
After a few minutes, flip the slices of corned beef and pastrami, and place a piece of cheese on each stack. As the other side of the meat browns, the cheese will begin to get gooey.
As the meat cooks, spread a generous portion of the dressing mixture on two sides of the sliced rye, and then pour the remaining portion over the kimchi-kraut mixture, and stir to combine.
Once the meat has reached a desired done-ness (it took about 3-4 minutes on each side, for me), stack it all together, and set it aside for a moment.
Place another pad of butter in the pan, and wait for it to heat up. Add a slice of the bread (clean side down, dressing side up, of course) and then layer the creation from the bottom up with the final slice of Swiss cheese, as much of the kraut mixture as you want, the pastrami (cheese-side up), the corned beef (cheese-side up) and the final slice of bread (dressing side down) to make the perfect sandwich.
Allow your newly assembled treat to cook for a few minutes, until the bottom piece of bread turns a toasty golden-brown.
Using a spatula, remove the sandwich from the pan, and place yet another piece of butter in the bottom, letting it heat up before flipping the reuben giving it a final toasting. By the time it’s done (about 3-4 minutes per side), the cheese should be melty (but not runny), the “krautchi” should be warm (but not cold or hot), and the bread should be perfectly toasted, like that of a buttery grilled cheese sandwich.
You can enjoy this with beer (which I would of course, recommend), or any other damn thing that you want, because this is so delicious that you won’t actually need anything else.