Wordless Wednesday: The Meat of the Matter

Root Marrow

Rack of Glam

MVP Meat

Braised Meatballs

Jack’s Seitan Ribs

Breakfast Sausage

Ribbony Seitan Bacon

Recipe testing for Fake Meat by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

One Reuben to Rule Them All

Who the heck is Reuben, and how did he ever think to invent such a meaty masterpiece? Of course, like any good origin story, this one is full of controversy, hotly contested to this day. The two leading theories attribute the deli staple to restaurants in Omaha and New York, right around the same time in the early 1900s. Each one came about by making thrifty use of leftovers to satisfy a deep, gnawing hunger. Perhaps there’s a kernel of truth in both of these claims, but the world will never know for sure.

Urban legends and lore aside, there’s no questioning the fact that it’s a timeless classic that transcends all tastes. While often associated with Jewish delicatessens, the archetypal sandwich couldn’t be farther from kosher certification, as it flagrantly combines meat and dairy in one mouthful. Today, we have the technology to right this wrong. Abundant vegan alternatives make this classic easily accessible to everyone. In fact, I discovered no less than five wholly unique, completely plant-based Reuben renditions right here in Austin, TX. Each one takes a different approach to accomplish the same goal, demonstrating culinary creativity without making concessions for flavor.

I wouldn’t hesitate to order any and all of these sandwiches in a heartbeat. Each one fulfills a different craving, from reasonably wholesome to downright decadent.

Counter Culture puts a healthier spin on this otherwise gut-busting sandwich, employing whole foods that remain true to their earthy roots. Soft marbled rye flecked with caraway seeds cradles thick planks of marinated locally made tempeh, slathered with super gooey cheese sauce and a notably tomato-forward dressing. Crunchy red onion adds welcome textural contrast, cutting the subtly bitter edge of the fermented beans nicely. The sauerkraut is so soft that it seems to melt into the filling, blended with a few cucumber pickles for an extra fresh flavor.

Wheatsville is natural foods co-op, not a sit-down restaurant, but their made-to-order deli sandwiches put many proper eateries to shame. Although best known for their tofu po’boys, the vegan Reuben sandwich deserves just as much praise. Composed of bright pink corned seitan, sliced dairy-free Gouda cheese, thousand island dressing, and old fashioned sauerkraut, it’s a straightforward homage to tradition. I’ve seen confused patrons take their sandwiches back to the counter, uncertain if they actually ordered the vegan version or not. It’s a perfectly balanced savory composition that’s delicious and hits all the right notes.

Bouldin Creek Cafe is another beloved establishment that couldn’t care less about passing trends, big name brands, or hyper-realistic mock meats. They do things their own way, from scratch, which means their Ruby Reuben is unapologetically made with bright red beets. In this sporadic lunch special, golden grilled rye bread stuffed with tender shredded beets and kale-cabbage kraut, while melted Follow Your Heart cheese slices act as the edible glue, sealing the deal. The subtly smoky Russian dressing creates an even greater depth of flavor, creating a prize-worthy Reuben like no other.

Rebel Cheese really puts their protein front and center, getting right down to the meat of the matter. Their “Gentle Reuben” stacks up with a tidy pile of thinly sliced meatless corned beef as the star of the show. For a shop best known for their homemade cheeses, I do wish it had more of a goo-factor, but that does make it a bit less messy to eat. The layer of sauerkraut is certainly not skimpy, lending a pleasantly salty, tangy character to every bite.

Brunch Bird lays claim to the one Reuben that could rule them all. I’ve seen grown men cry as they sink their teeth into this monstrous meal. The meatless corned beef is unassailable, thinly sliced and super smoky, piled up in tender shreds underneath a tangy blankets of sauerkraut, thousand island dressing, and melted cheese. It’s hard to hold if you don’t want to wear it, but worth the struggle. This is the sandwich that could win over staunch meat eaters without a fight.

Whether you go old school or nouveau, there’s no denying the appeal of a properly stacked Reuben. The interplay between umami, salty, sour, and subtly sweet flavors is what made it a top-seller for over a hundred years. In the next century, perhaps the Reuben revolution will make meat obsolete, once and for all. Which version are you picking up first?

Lobster In a Pinch

As a Connecticut native, I have a lot to say about lobster rolls. While I can’t claim to have been a big fan, it was an absolute, irrefutable fact that one such sandwich could ONLY be made with melted butter and steamed claw meat stuffed into a split-top bun. Served anywhere further than a mile from the shore, it should be regarded with suspicion. Better yet, it should be enjoyed at the beach for best results, with sand between your toes, wind in your hair, and the ocean filling the silence while you eat wordlessly with your lover.

Outside of that dreamy romance, as I got older, I found that the real world has other ideas. It turns out that there’s also a so-called Maine lobster roll that’s instead tossed with mayonnaise for a creamier, cooler richness, though that too should be a spartan affair. If you add things like chopped celery, onion, pickles, or carrots, let’s be honest: You just made expensive, luxury seafood indistinguishable from tuna salad. Some people call this Rhode Island-style, but I just call it an abomination.

Given there are so few ingredients and no where to hide extras, how can one accurately recreate the experience of a fresh, plump lobster roll without any animal products? To that, I say, “hold my bun and watch.”

Thick Sugimoto Donko shiitake mushroom caps offer the ideal meaty yet supple texture once rehydrated. Though smaller than Koshin, they’re the perfect size for tucking into a sandwich and filling every square inch with nuanced, umami and tanmi flavor. Making this recipe suitably lavish, tender artichoke bottoms join the party to replicate that buttery yet mild bite of fresh seafood. It’s a bit of a splurge, as a proper lobster roll should be.

On that note, it’s interesting to look back on how far such a humble crustacean has come. While lobster has become a prized delicacy in America since the early 1900s, prior to that it was so despised and devalued that it was literally served to prisoners. The general public regarded it as “sea trash”, with such overwhelming numbers washing up along the east coast that much of the catch was used as fertilizer. I have confidence that once word gets about plant-based lobster, it might enjoy a similar rise to fame and fortune.

And why not? Infused with the oceanic flavor of kelp and seasoned simply, these fresh vegetables taste downright decadent. Once you have the main meat of the matter ready to go, you can turn it into a Connecticut dream or Maine game in a snap- or both, if you can’t decide. While you could also go off the rails down the Rhode Island route, just don’t tell me about it. I won’t yuck your yum, but I think there’s no reason to mess with perfection here.

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