Making Reubens From Scratch

It sure has been a while since I wrote about food or even posted in general on Pop Poppa. I’m hoping to get back in the swing of this blogging thing now that I’ve got a new laptop and typing a simple post doesn’t involve more cords than the back of my TV.

For what it’s worth, though I haven’t been writing about food, I have been cooking quite a bit and even coming up with some of my own recipes. I’ve also been digging into some new and different kinds of cook books, usually trying them out from the library first (which I highly recommend). I liked Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Bryan Polcyn so much that I bought my own copy and have been experimenting with brines and cures and whatnot.

I’d been kicking around this idea about making something seemingly simple with several components from scratch (or as from-scratch as I could given my level of experience and access to equipment). While flipping through Charcuterie, it all came together and I decided to make my own Reubens. Given the proximity to March (the idea began bubbling back in early February), I figured I’d serve them on St. Patrick’s Day! What better way to celebrate an Irish legend than with traditionally Jewish food?

With that, I got started working on the plan. I’m no expert, but even I knew the basic components of the sandwich: rye bread, corn beef, Russian dressing, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. No problem, except for the cheese, I just bought that from the grocery story. I turned to Charcuterie for the corn beef and sauerkraut recipes, The Stay At Home Chef for the rye and Martha Stewart for the Russian dressing (though I used Ruhlman’s Ratio book to make the mayo).

The trickiest part of doing all this was figuring out the timing. The kraut needs to sit in its brine for two weeks and the beef needs to corn for five. I wasn’t sure how the kraut would play out, so I actually gave it a shot a month before the high drinking holiday. This process is super easy. You chop up a cabbage, boil 3/4 cup of salt in 4 liters of water, wait for the latter to cool, then toss the greens in, let it sit for two weeks and you’ve got cured cabbage.

It looked great after a week and a week and a half, but by the end of the second week, it had turned into a mold pond. I’m not sure how it happened, but I used our garage because it’s consistently cold, so it’s possible something strange got mixed up in there.

Undeterred, I gave it another shot, but I made two changes. First, I bought a 6 quart square Rubbermaid container. I remembered these from my days hanging out in the kitchen of the restaurant I worked at for years and figured it would make a good addition to my kitchen arsenal. I also put the covered cabbage in a shady spot in our un-insulated sun room/porch/playroom-thingy and made it through with no problems! Well, except for that bit of my finger and nail I lopped off, but that was no big deal.

The next big plan-ahead moment came in the purchase of the beef brisket for the corn beef. The grocery store had TONS of the prepared corn beefs, but I grabbed two smaller briskets (about 1.5 pounds apiece). The process is basically the same here as with the sauerkraut, but with a few more ingredients in the brine. With this one you boil 4 liters of water with 2 cups of salt, 1/2 cup of sugar, an ounce of pink salt (I bought a two pound bag of Anthony’s Pink Curing Salt #1 on Amazon), 3 rasped garlic cloves and two tablespoons of Pickling Spice (instead of making that, I just bought one at the store). Once it’s cooled, pour it over the meat (I let it cool overnight), put a plate on top to hold it down, cover and refrigerate. I used a big metal bowl for this and it worked perfectly, though you need space in the fridge for that kind of thing.

With the two longer-term projects doing their things, I had time to figure out which rye and Russian dressing recipes to use. The former took a while and there seem to be a million different ways to make this particular brand of bread which I have very limited experience with. Some use pickle juice, others molasses. I went with Stay At Home Chef’s because it seemed simple enough for my skill level and sounded tasty. I also liked that it’s made on a pizza stone and I already had most of the ingredients, though it took trips to two different stores to find the rye flour, but now I know where to go (check the organic section).

For the Russian dressing, I knew I wanted nice chunks of dill pickle in there, which, apparently, Martha also likes. First I made Ruhlman’s mayo by hand (it’s so easy, gang, give it a shot sometime) and then mixed in everything else from the Stewart recipe. The only substitution I made was dicing a deli-style pickle instead of using relish. I did this the day before so it could all get together and make friends overnight. On that day, I also took the cabbage out of its brine, put it in two large jars and then boiled the brine before letting it cool and filling in the space in the jars. I thought I was done at that point and was a little concerned that the sauerkraut was WAY too salty.

Luckily, I went back to Charcuterie on the morning of the feast and read the rest of the introduction which explained that I could now braise the sauered kraut in a liquid of half chicken stock and half chicken broth. I also poured in some beer because it seemed like the right thing to do. After getting it to a simmer, I put it in a 300 degree oven for 30 minutes. It was still salty, but not as overpoweringly so, as it had been.

That morning I also made the rye bread. I was worried that the recipe didn’t call for any yeast curing and went through several others on my phone, but then decided to just follow it as written and it worked out great! My four-year-old son even helped out and we had a great time. The only problem was that it came out fairly flat. Next time I’ll squish it up higher (sorry for using all of these highly technical baking terms), but I’ll definitely use this recipe again.

Finally, three hours before eating, I took the beef out of the brine, sprayed it down and then put the pieces in a pot with two more tablespoons of pickling spice and enough water to cover. I simmered them for about 2.5 hours instead of the recommended 3 because I wasn’t using as large of a piece of meat as mentioned in the book and also because I was cutting it on my slicer and didn’t want the meat to fall apart too much. I was a bit worried about the bread being okay, but was super concerned about the meat. Not only can you not check to see if it’s tasty for the five days in the fridge, but you don’t know exactly how the pickling spices will change the flavor. I’m happy to say that the meat turned out fantastic, that perfect mix of salty, sour and sweet that makes corn beef so delightful.

With that, I put out the spread — which also included pickle spears and Wavy Lays — and we sat down to eat with my folks! The sandwiches were much thinner than I intended, but I was really happy with how everything turned out. The dressing was nice and tangy, the CB right on point (I keep sneaking pieces from the fridge), the bread nice and crusty and the kraut pretty sauer, though I’d like to figure out how to get it even more so. I’m happy to say that everyone really enjoyed the food! It would have been a mega bummer if, after all that time, they hadn’t!

So, at the end of this experiment I’m feeling pretty good about the whole thing. It wasn’t perfect, though that’s not something I ever expect. I’m more happy that it wasn’t a disaster, which tells you a lot about how my mind works. I’d definitely try to make a taller bread next time and might need to tweak the sauerkraut recipe (or maybe let it sit longer post-braise?), but that corn beef is so tasty that I had to stop writing this post twice to run up and grab a slice or two from the fridge!

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