Different than the corn that Jimmy cracked

Without corned beef, there would be no Reuben sandwich, and that would be a tragedy. Of course, corned beef is served in other ways, too. Corned Beef and cabbage is popular–one day out of the year, on St. Patrick’s day. My understanding is that corned beef is not particularly common in Ireland, but try to tell that to Chicagoans around the ides of March.

Corned beef hash used to exist as a staple for bachelors and shut-ins, but it doesn’t exactly evoke fond memories. Lots of hash, not much corned beef, and in a can. It was barely a notch above SPAM in terms of cachet. Maybe even a notch below.

Even so, most people will tell you they love corned beef. And, if you’re going to have a corned beef sandwich on rye, you may as well go all out and have a Reuben.

Q: What do Russians call Russian Dressing?


Depending on which story you believe, Reuben sandwiches were first enjoyed by a Jewish Lithuanian named Reuben Kulakofsky and some Russian, Czech, Polish, and miscellaneous slavic gamblers sunk into an all hours card game. Back in the 20’s, card games didn’t last 15 hours. They lasted 15 YEARS. One can imagine a bunch of guys taking naps on ratty couches, cigar smoke, lots of hats and coats. Bad coffee.

Picture it: Omaha, 1920. The Blackstone Hotel.

Dark rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and sauerkraut wouldn’t seem the least bit exotic to that crowd, and so goes the story. Sometime after the kitchen staff went home, the players got hungry. Reuben “K”, as he was called, the proprietor and bank, went in to the kitchen and whipped up something so the card game didn’t stall. Reuben wasn’t an inspired chef testing limits. Reuben was a business man.

I’ve been to the Blackstone in Omaha, back when I was a kid. I remember it being extremely cold outside and nothing special inside. It had a glorious past in the 20’s, then fell into disrepair as the western migration continued. It has since been renovated and renamed.

Beef, Corned

If you click on the link above, you will be sent to a more lengthy explanation of corned beef. We’ll illustrate the simplified version.

I started with a whole corned brisket, that’s almost 14 lbs./6.5Kg. Keep the spice packet separate–it’s flavor/aroma cannot penetrate the surface of the meat. Use it to flavor the broth.

Whole or cut up, processing intervals do not change.

Three lb. pieces will fit in a Ziploc Gallon Freezer bag or a large Foodsaver sleeve.

You can buy a smaller piece at the market, already corned, and use the exact same temperature and interval. Sous vide doesn’t really notice the size of packages, penetration time notwithstanding. I then processed @

140F/60C X 48-72 hours.

As always, time determines tenderness–but a clock cannot be used to MEASURE tenderness. Read this ARTICLE.

After that, it’s just a matter of putting things together. A club sandwich can go on any kind of bread. As long as it has three slices if bread, it’s still a club sandwich. But a burger should come on a bun. We need to have standards.

My memory of that first West Lanes bowling alley Reuben is vivid enough that I always expect it like that. Heavy, dry, dark rye, with generic Swiss cheese, the Russian dressing, and cut into three with the frill picks. Sadly, you rarely see the dark rye any more. I can’t think of anything else that dark rye would go with anyway. We used to see the marble rye once in a while, but, well, honestly, if it isn’t for a Reuben, MEH.

These days, and since I left Omaha for warmer pastures, I usually see thousand island dressing on Reubens. It’s okay, what with pickles and whatever else in it. But there’s no horseradish in Thousand Island. Back then, Russian dressing was mayonnaise, ketchup, and horseradish. Lots of cultures dig horseradish, including Slavs especially. Nowadays, we say that the horseradish “complements the overall flavor profile.”

Did I mention the kraut? If Omaha had a signature dish, it would probably be sauerkraut. For a lot of people, “good kraut” is an oxymoron. Who eats kraut? People BUY kraut, but who really eats it? Kraut is a staple for certain ethnic tastes. Omaha had a large population of Eastern Europeans and Germans. People’s names had lots of consonants, and if they didn’t, they were probably Italian. For them, sauerkraut was like lettuce is for the rest of us warm weather Anglo-Saxons.

Cabbage. FERMENTED Cabbage.

The shelf stable stuff is what most of us are familiar with, and it’s not bad if you already like kraut. The fresh stuff can really have some character. There’s different styles, but I’m no expert on kraut.  I know it’s basically cabbage that you slice, beat up and then salt to make it ferment. It makes some vinegar, and turns into that thing we call kraut. Fresh kraut can be eaten raw, like a pickle. It’s cooked too, and it was cooked on that first Reuben that I had down at the bowling alley. I even remember the commercial for the snack bar, where they described it as their “award winning Reuben Sandwich.”

The way it was…

This version would closely resemble that first sandwich I got down at the lanes. A grilled Swiss cheese sandwich on rye bread with corned beef (instead of ham), sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.

Fast Forward Fifty

There’s a good chance that the first Reuben sandwiches weren’t grilled, or even hot. Those guys would eat whatever was put in front of them, and Reuben himself probably wasn’t inclined to turn on the griddle. Such are legends. It really doesn’t sound very good cold.