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The other day I was at Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto and
needed something to eat, something a bit more substantial and
civilized than fast food, but not a drawn-out, sit-down sort of
dinner.
The other day I was at Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto and needed something to eat, something a bit more substantial and civilized than fast food, but not a drawn-out, sit-down sort of dinner.

I went to Max’s Opera Cafe, sat at the bar, and had a beer and a Reuben sandwich. It was just what I had in mind. The toasted sandwich was crisp and juicy, the flavors mingled perfectly, and the Russian dressing ran down my wrist and puddled on the plate.

When I ordered, the bartender asked me whether I wanted corned beef or pastrami on my Reuben. I reflexively ordered pastrami, but the question got me wondering: What, really, is the difference between the two; where did they come from, anyway; and which one is more authentic on a Reuben sandwich?

Also, with St. Patrick’s Day just behind us, we may be thinking of corned beef as an Irish food, but it’s at least as often associated with Jewish-style delis. I decided to see what I could learn.

Corned beef turns out to be one of those foods created out of necessity. Before refrigeration, people needed a way to keep meat from spoiling, so they developed the technique of salting it. Corn has nothing to do with it; the “corn” in the name refers to the coarse “corns” of salt about the size of kernels of wheat, which is called “corn” in England. The grains of salt, similar to Kosher or rock salt, were rubbed into the meat.

Today, the more usual method is brining, or soaking in salt water, with the addition of spices such as peppercorns and bay leaf to give it a distinctive flavor.

So what about pastrami?

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the main difference is that after the meat is brined and flavored, smoking it turns it into pastrami. The name is thought to come from the Romanian “pastrama,” entering English via the Jewish vernacular Yiddish. “Pastrama” evolved into “pastrami.” There is a reference to a Jewish store selling pastrami as far back as 1887.

Peasants in Ireland and Romania were more likely to have pork or lamb available for salting and long-term storage, but the Jewish prohibition against pork probably contributed to beef brisket being the most usual cut for both corned beef and pastrami in this country.

In fact, some Irish cultural historians actually feel that “corned beef” is about as Irish as spaghetti and meatballs, since beef was usually only available to the upper classes. A “bacon joint” was much more likely to  be boiled with cabbage and potatoes and served for Easter dinner.

So, is corned beef or pastrami more authentic in a Reuben sandwich?

An epic controversy continues to wage over whether the Reuben sandwich originated in New York at Reuben’s Deli or in Omaha for a card player named Reuben. There is strong evidence for both versions.

Interestingly, however, both versions list the ingredients of the original Reuben as rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. So my pastrami was a variant.

Here is a basic recipe from Epicurious.com by way of the cookbook “Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food.”

Reuben Sandwich

Modern-day Reuben sandwiches are often open-faced and broiled, which dries out the corned beef and makes the cheese rubbery. Or, under the misguided belief that more is better, they are overstuffed. The main things to remember for a great Reuben are to keep the filling under control and in balance, so when you bite into it you get a harmonious and succulent mouthful; and to grill the sandwich slowly and under some pressure, so the bread gets toasty brown and buttery crisp, the meat gets warmed through, and the cheese is just melted enough to be oozy.

Makes one sandwich.

2 slices rye bread or pumpernickel (note from Elizabeth: I say, NO pumpernickel! Go for caraway rye; the caraway adds to the mix of flavors.)

2 teaspoons butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons Reuben’s Russian Dressing (see below)

1/4 cup well-drained, fresh-style sauerkraut

2 ounces thinly sliced Gruyère or Switzerland Swiss cheese

1/4 pound thinly sliced corned beef

Step 1: Butter each slice of bread evenly to the edges on one side.

Step 2: Place one slice, buttered side down, in a small cold skillet. Build the sandwich in the skillet you’ll grill it in.

Step 3: Spread 1 tablespoon of the Russian dressing on the face-up, dry side of the bread. Then put on the sauerkraut, spreading it evenly.

Step 4: Arrange the cheese in an even layer over the sauerkraut, then do the same with the corned beef.

Step 5: Spread another 1 tablespoon Russian dressing on the dry side of the second slice of bread and place it, dressing side down, buttered side up, over the corned beef.

Step 6: Place the skillet over medium-low heat and grill the sandwich slowly, pressing down on it a few times with a wide metal spatula. Grill until the bread is browned and crisped, then turn the sandwich over with the help of the spatula.

Step 7: Now weight the sandwich down by placing a plate (or another small skillet) over the sandwich, then adding on a weight, such as a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. Grill until the second side has browned and crisped, then flip the sandwich over one more time to briefly reheat the other side.

Serve immediately with a side of cole slaw and a crisp dill pickle.

Russian dressing: combine 1/2 cup of mayo with a tablespoon of ketchup, a tsp. of grated onion, 1/2 tsp. of horseradish, 1/4 tsp. of Worcestershire sauce and 1 tablespoon of parsley.

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