It has been explained to me several times in recent days that I have neglected you, gentle reader, and that I should be ashamed – but more than ashamed, I should be writing.
In an effort to make amends AND stay current, I will tell you about the Reuben sandwich I had last night – a Reuben, I must add, of my own making.
You see, it starts with good corned beef, yes, but it cannot end there. If you have it in you to corn your own beef, so much the better – and more power to ya, I don’t have that kind of time. So, spend the extra 50 cents per pound and splurge on the meat. You won’t regret it.
But the True Reuben is not just meat. Oh no. There is also sauerkraut. and on your sauerkraut, you can aim as high or as low as you want – of course, you can make your own sauerkraut at home as well, and again, I envy you your obviously superlative time management skills. The only thing in my house that I can find time to pickle is my liver, and that’s only because I can multitask while drinking.
Back to our sauerkraut. It doesn’t matter what kind you buy. You’re going to put it on the stove, in a pot or saucepan, with all its juices. You will then add about a quarter of the caraway seeds you have left on the shelf, assuming you haven’t used any of them for anything else. If you’re below half the jar, use them all. Boil that. Yes, you can add some beer, but it won’t help. and besides, weren’t you going to drink that? Doesn’t matter.
The important bit is that you have your pans set up, your rye bread – you got rye bread, right? We’re not doing this without rye bread – buttered on both sides, and your Thousand Island (or Russian dressing, which is another name for “that oddly tasty orange oil slick some people put on salad’) close at hand, with a basting brush handy. And the Swiss cheese, at least halfway decent, the kind you wouldn’t be ashamed to serve to your grandmother, assuming she was from the old country and would know better in the first place, but you don’t have to break the bank for it. Get someone to slice it pretty thin but not really thin. If you can read the paper through it, thank a teacher, but it’s too thin.
Ok. You’ve got the best corned beef you can afford, some generic sauerkraut that isn’t going to know what hit it anyway, good rye bread – I like the pumpernickel swirl, but then I like Jackson Pollock paintings too, so who the hell am I, you know – and you’ve got at least two, maybe three pans on your stovetop, staying warm.
You buttered the bread, right? Both sides? Real butter? Yes, real butter has salt. No, margarine doesn’t count. If you have any margarine in the house, throw it out. That’s not food. If you have a heart condition that dictates your butter consumption, you shouldn’t be eating Reuben sandwiches in the first place.
OK, take the first two slices of bread, put them on a pan, buttered-side down. That’s a joke, they’re buttered on both sides. Take a good whack of the sauerkraut, and how much is going to depend on the size of your bread, and put it on another pan – you’re going to cook off the juice, and it’s going to love you for it. Now put the first sandwich-worth of corned beef on a pan – could be the same pan as the sauerkraut, doesn’t matter. This pan will be a little hotter than the one with the bread. Cook the individual strips of corned beef until they’re shriveled a bit, then flip them. Now’s a good time to flip the bread, too. Once flipped, pour a good dab of the Thousand Island on one of them, baste it all over, and spread the excess on the second one. Just enough is enough. Then, move the corned beef on top of the first slice of bread, then the sauerkraut on top of that. Next, put your tools down and add two slices of the Swiss cheese. Picking your tools back up, put the second slice of bread on top, orange-side down. (That’s not a joke.) Stare at it for a moment, thinking about the proper ratio of meat to kraut and wondering what’s become of the life you dreamed of when you were young, and then flip the sandwich onto the hotter pan. When you see the cheese melting like Frosty in the summer sun, you’re ready.
Here are the tricks, the things you only find out later:
- You have to have enough corned beef to tell the sauerkraut to fuck off. If you let the sauerkraut have its way, you don’t have a Reuben, you have a pickled cabbage sandwich with orange-flavored meat on it.
- You have to have enough Thousand Island to tell the Swiss cheese to go to hell as well. You don’t want to overdo it, but the Swiss are bastards about their cheese, and it will shine through like a stripper at the office Christmas party.
- You have to toast, technically fry but it’s more politically correct to call it toasting, the rye bread into submission – but without burning it. You need to make it understand that it’s no longer in charge, that it lost all control when you buttered it and that its sole purpose is to support the meat. Not the sauerkraut, the meat. If you let the rye bread get in too tight with the kraut, you’ve already lost control of this sandwich.
- Your first sandwich will suck. Expect to toss it to the dog. Not only will it fall apart, but the first one sets up the seasoning for all the rest. With the second sandwich, your pans already smell of butter, of sauerkraut and corned beef, of love. If you don’t have a dog and you’re making Reubens for several people, decide now which one you love least. Being allowed to eat first is not a blessing in this case.
Remember: the True Reuben is not just about the meat. The True Reuben is a mastery of perspective, rye and Russian in harmony, corned and cabbage fried together and united by the bonds of Swiss cheese and love.
I hope my little recipe inspires you to aim for your own True Reuben experience. A parting gift of advice – wear an apron. The Naked Reuben is a great name for a band – and a bad idea.