There’s no doubt about it, I love making dishes from scratch with as few convenience compromises as possible, and this was one project I’d been meaning to undertake for some while, particularly with the memory of the Reuben at Katz’s deli still vivid nearly 9 years on from my one and only visit. The catalyst was when my daughter suggested for a Sunday lunch at my house that I cook pot roast brisket, always a favourite of hers; so I ordered at Millins the butcher one piece rolled (1kg) and one boned but unrolled (2.5kg!)
Next step was to make the brine, for which the ideal solution is to include food grade saltpetre – potassium nitrate. There are some whispered health concerns about this product, which in a different guise is also used in fireworks, but is quite safe in domestic uses.
Brine recipe (courtesy of Diana Henry in the Daily Telegraph)
- 275g (9¾oz) soft light-brown sugar
- 350g (12oz) coarse sea salt
- 2 tsp black peppercorns
- ½ tbsp juniper berries
- 4 cloves
- 4 bay leaves
- 4 sprigs of thyme
- 55g (2oz) saltpetre
Put all the ingredients for the brine into a very large saucepan, pour in 2.5 litres (4½ pints) of water and gradually bring to the boil, stirring to help the sugar and salt dissolve. Once it comes to the boil, let it bubble away for two minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool completely.
You’ll see that it has acquired a rich brown colour, not unlike stock. For my huge piece of meat I quickly realised I did not have a food grade plastic vessel big enough to take the beef, so I bought a cool box! This being the perfect size, I continued to follow the Daily Telegraph recipe, complete with bottles of rum and brandy:
Pierce the meat all over with a skewer. Put it in a large, sterilised plastic box or bucket (something non-reactive) and cover the meat with the brine; it must be totally immersed. The best thing I’ve found for weighing it down is two massive bottles of vodka. Put them in on top of the meat and it will stay below the level of the brine. Leave in a very cool place (a cellar or a room that is always freezing cold – most houses have one). Leave it for seven days.
Next cooking the beef, which as the recipe states should be the gentlest of poaching.
Poaching the beef
- 2.5kg (5lb 8oz) piece of brined beef brisket
- 1 large carrot, roughly chopped
- 1 onion, roughly chopped
- 1 celery stick, roughly chopped
- 1 leek, cut into large chunks
- 1 bouquet garni
- ½ head of garlic
Take the beef out of the brine and rinse it. Roll and tie the meat and put it in a pan with the vegetables, bouquet garni and garlic, adding enough cold water to cover. Bring the water to simmering point, then leave to poach gently – I mean gently – for two and a half to three hours. Cook until the meat is completely tender (check with a skewer). It will keep for a week in the refrigerator; wrap it well so it stays moist.
In fact I cooked it for nearer 5 hours, with no ill effect whatever. I ate some hot with potatoes and horseradish, but then moved on to the ultimate goal, the Reuben sandwich.
There are plenty of recipes around, differing only in the minute details. What all agree on is that the sandwich requires two slices of rye bread, thinly sliced corned beef (for which read salt beef), Swiss cheese (by which Americans typically mean emmenthal for its sweet and waxy flavour and easy melting properties, though here I used another Swiss cheese, namely gruyère), sauerkraut (which was surprisingly tricky to source in rural Essex but eventually tracked down at The Food Company in Marks Tey. Look for your local Polish shop.)
Also Russian dressing, which has nothing whatever to do with Russia, being apparently invented in New Hampshire. There are many variations but mine contained the following ingredients, mixed thoroughly with a fork:
- Tomato ketchup
- Chilli sauce
- Lemon juice
- Worcester sauce
- Finely diced pickled gherkin
The method is very straightforward:
Slowly fry one side of the slices of rye bread in butter so it is golden brown. Add thin slices of cheese to one piece so they melt.
Spread Russian dressing on one piece and a generous pile of sauerkraut on the other.
Pile up thinly sliced salt beef and join the halves together. Heat long enough that the beef is warmed through. Plate, slice and serve!
You will have to take my word for this – it is as good as any sandwich you’ll find anywhere!