or, "You Must First Create the Universe"
Brining is an effective tool for imparting flavor, preserving foods, and changing the texture of meats and vegetables. I chose not only to make corned beef, but also to make homemade sauerkraut. Once I decided that, it was a quick leap to a made-from-scratch Reuben. I made the corned beef, the sauerkraut, and the rye bread. I even made the Thousand Island dressing from scratch!
But alas, I did not make the pickle, or the chips, and I didn't make the cheese either. When you want to make something "from scratch" you have to decide how far to carry the "scratch" part. If I really wanted to make the sauerkraut from scratch, I should have raised the cabbage myself. I could have made the mayonnaise used in the dressing, and to take it a step further, I could have raised chickens for the egg used in the mayonnaise. I could have ground the rye and wheat for the bread or even raised it myself. There is no end to the from scratch cycle, and in the words of someone much wiser than I:
“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”
That's overkill even for me, so I had to content myself with making most of the components from scratch.
So, on to the brining! You don't need any special equipment for brining, just vessels large enough to hold the meat or veggies in the brining liquid. I started with the sauerkraut since it takes two weeks - it is not an impromptu affair. That's why I'm somewhat surprised I pulled it off, because planning is not my greatest strength. But, perhaps due to my German heritage, the kraut gods smiled upon me and I had excellent kraut mojo.
The sauerkraut brine is as simple as brine can be: salt and water. This simplicity is both the beauty and magic of brining. Salt's transformative powers combine with water's ability to penetrate and bring about change that is nothing short of amazing. I started with a small head of cabbage, finely sliced. After submerging the cabbage in the brine, which took some doing because it wanted to float, I set the bowl upstairs in what I now call the "curing room" (where curious cats are not allowed). Then I turned to the corned beef.
A tisket, a tasket, a brisket in my basket
There are many articles about the origin of corned beef so I'll leave the history lesson to others. Since there was no brisket on the shelf at the local market, I ordered a whole brisket. (This, like most of the beef I buy, is from a farm that has won several environmental stewardship awards.) The butcher must have thought I didn't know what I was doing because he asked me twice if I was sure I wanted the whole thing. But I knew that buying an entire brisket would allow me to choose just which part of the brisket to use for the corned beef, and I would also have excellent pot roast and ground beef with the leftovers. After trimming, I had 5.5 pounds of well-marbled meat. The brisket went into a brine that is more complex than the sauerkraut brine, containing pickling spice along with salt and pink salt. It is remarkable how well the flavors from the pickling spice (which I also made) come through in the finished meat. A five-day marinade allows the water to carry all of the flavors through the meat. The photo shows the brisket post-brine, being simmered with additional pickling spice, which is the final step to corned beef nirvana.
Now that I had two components complete, it was on to the rye bread. Rye bread can be a bitch because the dough is incredibly sticky, but I used a recipe from the Cookaholics bulletin board that contains a higher percentage of bread flour for a more manageable dough. I allowed the sponge (or pre-ferment) for the dough to sit for 3 days, giving an extra zing to the loaves.
The final "from scratch" piece was the Thousand Island dressing. Since both the sauerkraut and corned beef recipes are from Charcuterie by Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman, I'm not at liberty to print them here, but I've provided my recipe for the Thousand Island dressing below.
The components of the reuben pre-toasting are shown below. You saw the final, tasty result at the top of this post. What I found most interesting was the flavor of the sauerkraut. It was less acidic than commercial versions, had a great crunchy texture, and was beautifully translucent. It was a bit salty, but I believe that is because I kind of, well, lost track of time and it was in the brine a couple days longer than was ideal. But it was fantastic nonetheless, and I shall now be forever ruined for store-bought sauerkraut. This happens to me frequently as I learn new cooking or curing techniques: I am no longer satisfied with the inferior commercial versions. This is great, but also frustrating, since I hardly have time enough for all of my "normal" projects without continually adding new ones!
I think these Charcutepalooza challenges will cause me to gain about 5 pounds apiece, but it is wonderful to be pushed like this. I only wish I could share the recipes and techniques with everyone. What I can do is try to answer any questions you may have, so feel free to post a question in the comments.
Thousand Island Dressing
Makes about 1 cup
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
2-3 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2 teaspoons green olives, diced
1 tablespoon onion, finely diced (I used a red onion)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Stir together until well mixed.