Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reuben Sandwich

Sunday's peaceful decline is marked by the horn of a distant train, clearly heard in the still air.

The sky is overcast, what warmth there was is gently trapped beneath the gray blanket, without sound or movement. A candle on the patio table burns undisturbed, it's flame as stable as a painting.

It is my stepson's birthday, he is now forty-something and rather surprised by how quickly this birthday has followed his last. We celebrate the event with Reuben sandwiches, Brownies and good cheer, the grand-kids rocketing around the house like elemental particles. A baryon zips past, narrowly missing a lepton as a meson comes through, hooting like the train. The meson has lost a tooth, proudly displays the gap, sign of approaching maturity and two-bits from the Tooth Fairy.

A Reuben sandwich is a bit of a mess, one of those things so messy that you know it has to taste good even if you've never tried one before. It starts with Rye bread, which gets lightly buttered on what will become the outside. Suitably greased, the slices of bread are spread apart and a dripping tablespoonful of my Secret Sauce gets slopped onto each slice, spread around by the spoon and allowed to soak in. The Secret Sauce begins as something tomatoey... tomato sauce will do but so will ketchup. I'm making six sandwiches so I'll need a bit more than a cup of sauce and begin by schlurping ketchup into a small bowl. Then comes Horseradish... the Good Stuff that stops your breath and brings tears to your eyes. Not too much but you need to establish Who is In Charge. The sauce gets a shot of mustard then a shot of mayonnaise, something of a surprise but a necessary evil. Dash of garlic powder and lots of stirring then two heaping tablespoonfuls of dill pickle relish. Schlop --- smear -- swipe. If you take more than a minute you've missed the whole point of a Do-It-Yourself Reuben.

Onion, in thin slices. This calls for a sharp knife. The slices fall away from the blade, already coming apart, which is okay, because you adorn the sauce with two or three slices broken down to their individual rings; a Torpedo Net of onion rings.

After the onion comes the sauerkraut which has been simmering on the stove. You can spice it up if you like. This one wasn't. The heat is important, part of the technique needed to produce a proper Reuben.

Swiss cheese, sliced stinking from a brick of holes comes next, followed by the meat. Today I'm using canned corned beef but you can use pastrami or various kinds of sausage, even dried beef, partially re-constituted by heating it amidst the sauerkraut. Bully beef is okay; it makes for less of a chore when accumulating the ingredients. Since bully beef is tapered by the can you need to plan ahead, topreventrunning out of room.

A cast iron skillet has been heating on the stove. Very low heat but fifteen or twenty minutes. A lid, also warm, is near at hand. The assembled sandwich is flipped into the hot skillet, causing the butter to sizzle, telling you if it's too hot or too cold.

The tricky bit here is to flip it into the skillet meat-side-down. Now pop on the lid and start assembling another. Why meat-side-down? Because you want the meat to be hot and the cheese to melt but you don't want to turn the onion into a soggy mess.

Cooking the Reuben cools the skillet so that when it's ready to be flipped, the onion-side goes down onto a relatively cool skillet. There is still a bit of a sizzle but now it's more like a hiss. The lid goes on. Nothing is getting cooked except the bread, which is being toasted, which is why you keep an ear out as you assemble the next customer. When the cool side of the sandwich is toasted you scoop it up with a spatula of suitable length and plock it onto a plate with crunchy dill pickle and a slab of potato salad if you've got it. If the sandwich is destined for a woman it gets sliced on the diagonal, which removes the threat of squeezing goo all over that pretty blouse. Guys being guys just wrap a large napkin around the thing and attack.

If there are vegens 'round the table, leave out the meat and use a French knife to give the onion rings a couple of chops. Cooked without meat, the onions will lose their crunch and become difficult to manage.

Reuben's have a habit of vanishing. People who are sure they can't finish one end up wandering around with an empty plate in hand and a wistful expression.

Use a LOW heat. Allow time to work in your favor.

If you're feeding kids as well as adults, mix two sauces, one having less horseradish. It's a big sandwich; serve them halves.

DON'T mix up things ahead of time. The sauce does not improve with age.

If using canned corned beef, it should be at room temperature.

Everyone's recipe for a Reuben sandwich is different, which is as it should be.


I'm still trying to regain muscle mass. Reubens are one way of doing that but they're a lot of trouble to prepare -- you need a good excuse -- just having cancer isn't good enough. Turning Forty-Something justifies Reubens.

The joy of cooking is not in your ability to produce a tasty meal, it is in the expressions of the people eating what you have prepared. After eating a Reuben, they smile. Their plates are empty. It has been a memorable experience, for them as well as me.


Cooking with cast iron is a bit different in that the skillet never goes into the dish washing machine. Cast iron pots and pans are washed by hand but it is more scraping than washing. Once all of the residue has been removed they are put over a low flame and fed a small amont of oil. We usta use lard but that meat having to wash the skillet before using it as well as after. Nowadays you'll probably use rape seed oil (ie, 'canola' oil). Let it get hot in the skillet, Dutch oven or what-have-you then wipe it dry and put it away. The next time you use it, give it a gentle pre-heat with a shot of oil and wipe it out. In many ways a cast iron skillet is similar to a cast iron griddle.


A good Sunday. I hope there will be plenty more.