I would never, never, ever disrespect corned beef. Ever. Corned beef on rye is my favorite sandwich, and I respect it so much I won’t even EAT it at a West Coast deli. I’m not joking. And I take it even purer than the New Yorkers do — without even a hint of mustard. Nothing but corned beef and rye.
So why would someone like me even dare to discuss a tempeh reuben? Well, because they’re actually good. As much as I love corned beef, and as fat-soaked greasy meaty delicious as a corned beef reuben is, I know that I can eat half before my stomach starts to rebel against me.
Enter (1) a sometime-vegetarian, meat-lovin’ husband, (2) Eugene, Oregon, and (3) a hippy-friendly local neighborhood pub, Cornucopia. Cornucopia is one of the only local places we like for the ambiance. The beer’s great, but the food is hit-or-miss. Their ingredients are fresh, and some dishes are really good, but the menu seems a bit lazy to me — there’s someone creative back there, and I wish they’d give the menu a good scrubdown and coat of paint just like they did the restaurant a couple of months ago.
One of the hits is their tempeh reuben. It’s exactly like a reuben but the corned beef is replaced with tempeh.
Tempeh is a vegan fetish object. If vegans flew a flag, it would be made of tempeh. And with good reason. These little soybean cakes are better than tofu, a similar product, because the soybeans are fermented and processed quite differently, leaving whole beans or chunks in the mixture. The intarnets tell me that it is not only high in protein, but also in several other vitamins and minerals, and the fermentation aids digestion.
What does tempeh bring to the table in terms of deliciousness? Well, texture, mainly. A corned beef reuben falls apart and is generally kind of mushy and oozy. Not that there’s anything WRONG with that, but it relies on bread to keep it all together, and we all know bread doesn’t do that altogether too well.
With a tempeh reuben, you get a bit of backbone. The soybean chunks in the tempeh give the sauerkraut, cheese, and dressing something to cling to. Sure, the smoky, meaty taste of the corned beef goes missing, but the tempeh has mouthfeel and a slightly nutty taste, and it soaks up the other flavors in the sandwich.
I fry up the tempeh in a bit of oil until crispy. I’m not in this for the health. I suppose you could bake it with a bit of soy and brushed with vegetable oil. In the picture, we have tempeh chunks, but I’d recommend leaving it in larger pieces, like maybe 3 x 3 or 4 x 4 inch-squares, so the cubes don’t fall out of the sandwich. You may also want to experiment with slicing the entire cake in half widthwise, so it’s only about 1/2 inch thick. It’s all a matter of preference.
I’m not going to get all crazy-granola on you, but if you do partake in a vegan diet, you can certainly substitute the delicious cheese and russian dressing with soy versions of both.
4 slices New York rye bread
2 t. butter, softened
1-2 T. vegetable oil
1 cake tempeh (plain, not flavored), cut into squares large enough to cover your slice of bread (3 x 3″?)
1/2 cup raw sauerkraut, drained and squeezed as dry as possible
6-8 thin slices of a good mild cheese, like Noris Farmhouse (our house cheese) or Jarlsberg
1 T. sour cream or mayonnaise (mayo will be sweeter)
1-2 t. ketchup
1 t. srirachi or other chili sauce
1 T. dill pickle relish, or chopped dill pickles
Mix ingredients for Russian dressing in a small bowl and set aside. In a skillet on medium-high heat, add 1-2 T. of vegetable oil, and fry tempeh cake until golden brown. Add more oil if necessary. Remove from heat and blot excess oil. This step can be done ahead of time and tempeh stored in the refrigerator, but be sure tempeh is at room temperature before you assemble the sandwiches. Wipe excess oil from skillet if you are preceding immediately to make sandwiches.
Butter one side of all four slices of bread. Preheat skillet on medium heat, if necessary. If you have a large pan, you can make both sandwiches at once, but it might be easier to make one at a time. To make one sandwich, place one slice of bread butter-side down in the preheated skillet, then add a wide swath of Russian dressing, tempeh cake, half of the sauerkraut, enough cheese to cover the sauerkraut, and the second slice of bread, butter-side up (you’ll be flipping the sandwich in a moment).
After 3-4 minutes, or until bread on bottom is golden, crusty brown, flip sandwich carefully, using a wide spatula and your hand as a guide. Flip the sandwich in one, quick motion so it doesn’t fall apart. Cook until cheese is melted and sandwich is heated through, another 3-4 minutes. If bread starts to burn, turn down heat, or, if you’re in dire trouble, take it off the burner, put it on a plate, and microwave for 20 seconds or so to melt the cheese (this is what we did for the picture above, since the heat was too high). Don’t forget you need to make another sandwich for your partner, as much as you want to eat your sandwich immediately.
You’ve now achieved the blissfully ambivalent state of being partly healthy, partly super-fattening; partly green, partly sickeningly-overindulgent; partly Asian, partly New York Jew. Enjoy this liminality, savoring each bite. Congrats: you’re an American.