We need to have a talk. Just you and me. You know how foodies and snobs with blogs like this are always telling you to spend a half a paycheck on the best, freshest ingredients or else your meals will be crap? You know how you always ignore us because you've got more pressing priorities than to hand over 20 bucks to Whole Foods for a jar of artisanal mustard? Well, this is the one time I have to be firm. If you take the cheap way out, your sandwiches will suck. Trust me. They'll be like the soggy, tasteless lump that passes for a tempeh Ruben at the dive sandwich shop over by the university in your town. But if you spring the extra 10 bucks for top-quality bread, cheese, and sauerkraut and take the extra 3 minutes to make your Russian dressing from scratch, these will be the best vegetarian sandwiches you've ever had. Really.
So what should you buy? First, with the bread, don't buy the pre-packaged, 2-week-old rye sandwich bread at the supermarket. Instead go to your local bakery and get a loaf of real, fresh, amazing rye bread (I prefer the sauerkraut rye that our local Whole Foods makes). Now with the cheese: no crappy tasteless 'Swiss.' Find a cheesemonger or at least a store with a good selection and grab a hunk of high-quality Jarlsberg or Emmentaler. No off-brand shit or pre-sliced garbage allowed. I know it's an extra three bucks. You'll thank me later. Finally, the sauerkraut. No canned stuff. Ideally you have homemade in your refrigerator (recipe here). If not, don't get anything from a can or jar at the store that's unrefrigerated. Sauerkraut is a living food, and processing it to stay 'good' on a store shelf kills a lot of the nutrients and much of the flavor. Instead, head to the refrigerated section to find a jar or package of sauerkraut that hasn't been heat processed. I know it's also a bit more expensive, but it's infinitely better.
The other critical key is that we're actually cooking the tempeh in a corning brine. So it really does a great job of providing the corned beef flavor that you expect in a Ruben but it's a step that most restaurants that sell tempeh Rubens don't bother with. Believe me, it's well worth the (small) additional effort!
There. I just saved you from miserable Rubens. Aren't you glad we had this little chat?
Prep time: 2 cocktails
1/2 cup + 2 TBSP apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup water
2 tsp ground allspice
5 juniper berries
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp whole mustard seeds
1 teaspoon paprika
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 TBSP brown sugar
2 bay leaves
1/3 cup mayonnaise (store-bought or homemade)
2 TBSP ketchup
2 TBSP sweet pickle relish
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp prepared horseradish (not some dumpy 'horseradish sauce'; it should have few other ingredients besides salt and vinegar)
1 tsp Worcestershire
Several (or more) grinds black pepper
A few dashes Tabasco sauce (optional)
4 TBSP canola or vegetable oil
2 8-ounce packages tempeh
Sauerkraut, high-quality (refrigerated section) store-bought or homemade
Emmentaler or Jarlsberg cheese, sliced
Rye bread, fresh from local bakery--no tasteless prepackaged rye sandwich bread!
Slice the tempeh in half lengthwise. Now place it on it's side and gently slice each slab into 1/2 the original thickness. A very sharp knife helps. (In general, you have to treat the tempeh gently in this recipe gently to avoid breaking it. Though if you do end up with a couple broken pieces, it's not the end of the world.)
Whisk together all the brine ingredients in very large frying pan (12 inches). Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Gently lay the tempeh slabs in the brine and simmer until 1/2 the liquid is absorbed. Gently flip tempeh and cook until remainder of liquid is cooked off. Immediately transfer tempeh to a plate to cool.
While tempeh cools, combine all the ingredients for the sauce and whisk well. Put sauce in refrigerator or freezer to get a bit colder and thicken up.
Clean and dry the pan you cooked the tempeh in. Add oil and heat pan over medium to medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Gently lay the tempeh in the pan and saute a few minutes until bottoms are a bit browned. Flip, repeat, and transfer to a plate.
Now take a new clean frying pan or clean and dry the one you've been using and heat it over medium-low heat. Build the sandwiches by brushing butter on one side of each slice of your bread. Then with the buttered sides facing out, layer the cheese, sauerkraut, and tempeh. Transfer to the frying pan and cook until the bread is toasted on both sides and the cheese is melted--just like you're making a grilled cheese. Remove from pan, open up and add sauce. Now enjoy the best damn meatless Ruben on earth!