Revamping the Reuben

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As a fan of sandwiches in general, I never gave much thought to the Reuben — that traditional deli concoction of corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese grilled on rye bread.

But I had a light bulb go off in my head recently that a Reuben is, by definition, non-kosher despite its association with Jewish deli cuisine.

I took my puzzlement to Steve Safern, owner of the award-winning Hershel’s East Side Deli in the Reading Terminal Market and a descendant of the Katz family that established the world famous New York City deli, Katz’s.


Savern shook his head, “Reubens are most definitely not kosher — mixing dairy with meat. But they are so associated with Jewish deli food that they tend to be offered in ‘Jewish-style’ places. Of course, they would never be served in strictly kosher establishments.”

I then did some research. Like the history of many recipes, the Reuben has conflicting versions.

Some sources claim that the sandwich was created in Omaha, Neb., around 1920 by Lithuanian Jewish grocer Reuben Kulakofsky, who then shared the sandwich with his poker buddies, one of whom was the owner of The Blackstone Hotel. The sandwich made it onto the hotel’s menu and became an instant hit.

Another source claims the chef of The Blackstone Hotel, Bernard Schimmel, invented the sandwich and served it to Kulakofsky during one of said poker games.

The Schimmel contingent’s position is that the Reuben was the creation of a Midwestern chef with a Russian/Polish/German Jewish heritage whose family came to the U.S. in the late 1800s, assimilated and did not observe kosher laws.

However, Arnold Reuben, the German Jewish owner of Reuben’s Delicatessen in New York City, claimed to have invented the eponymous sandwich in 1914.

The earliest print references to the sandwich have been traced to New York-based theatrical publications in the mid-1920s, but culinary historians do not deem that conclusive proof the recipe originated in the Big Apple.

The Omahans have un-earthed menus from The Blackstone Hotel dating to 1934 that feature a Reuben sandwich.

Regardless of its history, the Reuben remain a popular choice for diners in Jewish delis. But for those who keep kosher, that is a no-no.

So I’ve come up with a meat version and a dairy (or pareve) version for those who wish to experience the Reuben without breaking the rules.

Reuben Sandwich | Meat

Serves one

  • 2 slices rye bread
  • 3 tablespoons Russian dressing (or thousand island)
  • 3 tablespoons sauerkraut
  • 4 generous slices corned beef
  • Oil to spray pan

Spread both slices of bread with the dressing. Place the corned beef and sauerkraut on bread and top with the other prepared slice.

Heat a skillet over medium heat with a spray of oil. Place the sandwich in the pan and cook, covered, approximately 5 minutes per side, until the bread is toasted and the inside is heated through.

Reuben Sandwich | Dairy or Pareve

Serves one

This version, using “corned beets” may not work for traditionalists, but it is worth a try. The corned beets recipe makes more than you will need for one sandwich; save them and make more Reubens or serve them as a side dish, sub them for pickles or chop them in a salad.

  • Corned Beets:
  • 3 pounds beets
  • 2 tablespoons pickling spice
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Place the beets in a pot and cover them with water. Bring it to a boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer about 20 minutes until the beets are cooked through.

While the beets simmer, make the pickling liquid: Mix pickling spice, vinegar, water and salt in a non-metal container large enough to hold the beets.

When the beets are cool enough to handle, remove the skin and slice.

Place them in a glass container in the refrigerator for anywhere from an hour to several days.

Note: The pickled/vinegar taste will intensify the longer the beets soak. Remove them from the brine when they have reached your desired flavor.

  • 2 slices rye bread
  • 3 tablespoons Russian dressing (or thousand island)
  • 3 tablespoons sauerkraut
  • 6-8 slices corned beets (enough to generously cover bread in two layers)
  • 2-3 slices Swiss cheese (omit or use vegan cheese if pareve dish is desired)
  • Oil to spray pan

Spread both slices of bread with the dressing. Place the corned beets, cheese and sauerkraut on the bread and top with the other prepared slice.

Heat a skillet over medium heat with a spray of oil. Place the sandwich in the pan and cook, covered, approximately 5 minutes per side, until the bread is toasted, the cheese is melted and the inside is heated through.

Keri White is a Philadelphia food writer.

1 COMMENT

  1. As a vegetarian, I enjoy the vegan or vegetarian version of the Reuben, which is often made with tempeh instead of the corned beef. Many recipes online and, while not common, can be found in vegetarian/vegan restaurants all over the country.

    Check it out.

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