A while back I wrote about making sauerkraut. The recipe called for two heads of red cabbage. Even that small amount of cabbage makes a lot of sauerkraut, especially if you are eating other things during the long winter. Such surplus calls for creativity in what to do with all of the sour cabbage.
One thing comes to mind immediately: make some Reuben sandwiches. These are a real delicatessen classic, and if you have ever been close to the Lower Eastside in Manhattan, guaranteed you have had a Reuben. Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston is one of the most famous purveyors, but that is not where the sandwich got its start.
As a matter of fact, nobody is exactly certain as to the origins of the Reuben. There are at least three stories about the creation of the sandwich. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by Andrew F. Smith and Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food contain the most authoritative descriptions of the history and the controversy surrounding the sandwich.
The most likely explanation seems tied to the famous New York delicatessen, Reuben’s Restaurant, on East Fifty-eighth Street. Arnold Reuben, the owner, reportedly created a huge sandwich for Annette Selo (variously described as making a Charlie Chaplin movie or as an out-of-work actress) who came in one day asking for something to eat. Reuben created a big sandwich which Annette suggested should be called an “Annette Special”. The reply came back something like, “Fat chance,” from Reuben, and the sandwich became so popular that it wound up on the menu as “Reuben’s Special”. It consisted of rye bread, Virginia ham, sliced roast turkey, Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing..
The second explanation is that the original was created in the 1920’s for some hungry poker players at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha Nebraska, by Reuben Kolakofsky. The sandwich included corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing. An employee of the hotel or maybe one of the poker players entered the recipe in a sandwich contest, winning the contest and ensuring the fame of the sandwich.
The third explanation is that the sandwich was created in 1937 at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. The hotel has reportedly produced a menu which includes the name of the sandwich and its ingredients along with the date, thus providing the only written documentation for the creation of the sandwich.
Over time, the stories have become interwoven and the dates have changed in various tellings of the stories. So, it seems likely that the real origin of the Reuben sandwich will never be known with reliability. Still, there is no doubt that the Reuben has become one of the all-time favorite American sandwiches. These days, the ingredients usually include rye bread, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and thinly sliced corn beef. Pastrami and Thousand Island dressing are common substitutes. The sandwich is often grilled and best when it is hot.
My version substitutes dark pumpernickel bread for the rye and pastrami for corned beef. Also, I am not a big fan of Russian dressing, so I have made my own sauce. The recipes that follow reflect those preferences. But the sine qua non to me is the sauerkraut, so this is a perfect place to use that kraut you made in your own crock. I used our George Forman grill to toast the sandwiches, but you can use a panini press or a skillet. This recipe makes two large sandwiches.
Reuben Sandwich Sauce
¼ Cup mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 Tablespoons ketchup
2 teaspoons grated horseradish
2 Tablespoons dill pickle relish
1 hard-boiled egg, chopped
- Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl, mix, and set aside.
4 slices pumpernickel bread
Reuben sandwich sauce
½ pound shaved delicatessen-style pastrami
1 Cup sauerkraut, preferably home-made, well-drained
6 slices Swiss cheese
½ Cup thinly sliced white onion
2 Tablespoons butter melted
- Spread sauce on each slice of bread, one side only
- Arrange half of the pastrami on two of the slices of bread, and top with half of the sauerkraut
- Arrange three slices of Swiss cheese over a bed of sliced onion on each of the remaining two slices of bread and form two sandwiches.
- Brush the tops of both sandwiches with half of the melted butter and place the sandwiches, butter side down, in a skillet over medium heat. Press down occasionally with a spatula until the bottom is well-toasted. Alternatively, butter both sides and toast in a George Forman grill or a panini press.
- Brush tops of the sandwiches with the remaining butter, turn the sandwiches in the skillet, and continue toast until the sandwich is well-done on both sides.
- Serve immediately, preferably with a large whole dill pickle and potato chips or potato salad.