Reuben Meatballs

When I wax on about some deeply held, sentimental food memory, it’s usually in reference to one of the women in my family. My mom and my aunts are great cooks, my Nana was a powerhouse in the kitchen, and my sister is always my sounding board for dish ideas and inspiration.

2015 Blog August-0349But this one really originates from my dad. Dad doesn’t cook much. He is a master of coconut French toast, and he mans the grill for our family, but he isn’t often stirring a pot over the stove or pushing something into the oven. One of his specialties, though, is the reuben. He builds the sandwich, packs four of them tightly into my parents’ ancient, stained electric skillet, and somehow manages to flip each one perfectly.

2015 Blog August-0320When I was little, I though Dad had invented this sandwich. I mean, if you stop and think about it, it’s a strange collection of ingredients: corned beef and swiss cheese are reasonably normal, yes, but then you add a layer of sauerkraut and douse it with Russian or Thousand Island dressing straight out of the bottle? And dark rye is such a dad-bread, isn’t it? Only a dad would make you a school sandwich on rye bread. These reuben things must have been one of my dad’s concoctions – his own weird, elevated version of a grilled cheese sandwich.

2015 Blog August-03302015 Blog August-0336Imagine my astonishment, then, when I started seeing reubens on restaurant menus. This was a real thing! This wasn’t just a weird Dad-dish! I already liked reubens, as odd as I thought they were, but as an adult it’s hard for me to pass one up when it appears on a sandwich menu. One of our favorite haunts in Eugene had a tempeh version I’m working on recreating. I love a grilled sandwich, and the savory, meaty, melty business, along with the sagging pickle of the sauerkraut and the tangy sweetness of the dressing makes this worth the 5-6 napkins it usually requires.

2015 Blog August-0338It’s no great surprise, then, that reubens became an inspiration for a meatball. Here, I’ve borrowed and shifted a bit, but tried to capture the essential elements of the classic sandwich in these compact packages. Ground beef is lightly mixed with finely diced pastrami, a bit of ketchup and mayonnaise to echo the dressing, some roughly chopped capers or diced pickle, chopped dill, and, if you like (I don’t), a minimal sprinkle of caraway seeds as a nod to the traditional rye bread of the original sandwich.

2015 Blog August-03392015 Blog August-0343Though I originally thought of just jamming all the essentials into the meatball itself, I couldn’t imagine presenting this meatball in any other format than a sandwich. Thus, the cabbage, here lightly pickled rather than deeply brined (which, if you’re keeping track, needs to sit for a few hours before you make the sandwich), and the cheese, remain outside the meatball itself. As for the dressing, I spice up the original by adding sriracha and grated garlic to the standard ketchup and mayonnaise blend, and throw in some minced capers instead of the dill pickles. And I know, this is an affront to authenticity, but I couldn’t picture a quartet of meatballs sitting easily between two slices of rye bread, so I exchanged, keeping the depth of color but not the precise flavor, and went with a pretzel roll.

And if a regular pretzel roll isn’t enough for you, I found these at my Whole Foods:

2015 Blog August-0326That’s right, mini pretzel rolls. Pretzel roll meatball sliders. I know. But I couldn’t help myself.

2015 Blog August-0358Our assessment? These are some goooood meatballs. The bits of pastrami mixed in with the beef makes them incredibly flavorful, and you can definitely taste the dill and the mild pickled essence of the capers in the final product. I love the crispness of the cabbage – it’s not as strongly briny as sauerkraut, but it is bright with flavor and retains some texture, which is a nice addition. As we finished our sandwiches, N. turned to me and declared that these were his favorite meatball thus far. I asked him why, and he said “they’re just so… so savory!” So there you are. A most savory meatball, for my own twist on the ultimate dad-sandwich.

2015 Blog August-0355

Reuben Meatball Sandwiches
Makes 4 sandwiches or 16 sliders
For cabbage:
2 cups finely sliced or shredded red or green cabbage
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon celery seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil
For meatballs:
¼ cup minced red onion
1 pound ground beef (I recommend at least 85% lean, 15% fat. Less fat could result in a dry meatball)
¼ pound pastrami or corned beef, finely diced
2 tablespoons capers or dill pickles, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 teaspoon caraway seeds, optional
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 cups beef or chicken broth
For sandwich:
4 pretzel rolls or rye rolls of about 8 inches in length, or 16 slider buns
¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup ketchup
1 tablespoon sriracha, or to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely minced and then crushed into paste with the flat of a knife
2-3 tablespoons minced capers
black pepper to taste
sliced or grated swiss cheese (as much as desired for each sandwich)


  • In a medium bowl, toss the cabbage with the other slaw ingredients: the salt, the sugar, the celery seeds, the vinegar, and then the olive oil. Let sit at room temperature for at least two hours, tossing occasionally, or refrigerate overnight.
  • For the meatballs, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions. Cook over medium-low heat until the onions are quite tender and just starting to take on some color – about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  • Combine remaining meatball ingredients in a large bowl and mix lightly with your fingertips to combine evenly. The pastrami will want to stick together, so be sure to mix attentively so it integrates well. Add the onions last, once they’ve had time to cool.
  • Heat up 1-2 teaspoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers and spreads easily, drop in a teaspoon of the meatball mixture, flatten it out, and fry about a minute on each side, or until cooked through. Taste for seasoning, and adjust salt and pepper accordingly for the rest of the mix.
  • Wet your hands for less sticking, and roll the meat mixture into 16 meatballs of equal size – they will be somewhere between a walnut and a golf ball in diameter.
  • In the same large skillet in which you fried the tester, heat the remaining olive oil over medium-high heat. When it is shimmering and spreads easily in the pan, add the meatballs in a single layer, not touching one another (you will likely need to fry in two batches). Brown on all sides (about 2 minutes on each surface), then remove to a clean plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
  • You will likely have a lot of residual fat in your skillet. Wipe it out (no need to wash – a paper towel will do) and then return it to the heat. Add the broth and bring it to a simmer, then carefully relocate the meatballs back into the skillet. You want enough broth to come about halfway up the meatballs. Clamp on the lid, turn the heat down to medium or medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes, turning each meatball once about halfway through.
  • While the meatballs simmer, start your sandwich construction. Split the rolls you’ll be using and scrape out some of the fluffy interior – we need to make room for the meatballs to nestle. Set the open rolls on a baking sheet and preheat your broiler.
  • In a small bowl, combine the ¼ cup mayonnaise, ¼ cup ketchup, the sriracha if desired, the pasted garlic and the finely minced capers. Add black pepper to taste. Spread about a tablespoon on each side of your sandwich rolls (or about a teaspoon, if you are using slider buns).
  • Pour off any liquid your lightly pickled cabbage may have exuded, then add a few tablespoons of the cabbage to one side of your sandwich roll, right on top of the sauce. Top the cabbage layer with a thin layer of swiss cheese.
  • When the meatballs are done, wedge four per sandwich (or 1 per slider) into the space you made by scraping out some of the roll’s interior. Top them with a thin layer of cheese as well, then carefully insert the baking tray of sandwiches into the broiler and cook, watching carefully, just until the cheese is nicely melted.
  • Squash the sandwich closed and serve immediately, ideally with a good, dark beer.

Cabbage and Celery Seed Slaw

Food Blog April 2014-3715All too often, it seems, I find myself either ahead or behind the curve. Last week I was offering you Easter bread the day after Easter. This week, I’ve got a slaw recipe that really merits a space on your Memorial Day table, but May is still barely on the horizon. I can’t really blame anyone for this – not even me (at least that’s what tell myself). The fact is, summer is now so close – I have a mere three weeks of classes left to teach – and, if we’re honest, it’s been such summery weather in Los Angeles for so many weeks now, that the divide between what might be summer and what could have been spring is so dubious it barely existed.
Food Blog April 2014-3703While I wait for real summer, I content myself with small pleasures. Sitting on my patio out back, with the afternoon breeze just strong enough to keep the sun from being too hot. Remembering why I assigned that novel to my morning classes as I gasp my way through Margaret Atwood’s bewildering narrative in its relentless, sharp prose. Devouring, lest you think me too romantic, an entire package of chocolate-dipped marshmallow peeps I found in a clearance Easter candy bin. I know. They were so good, though, tiny milk chocolate eyeballs and all.
Food Blog April 2014-3705Despite my inability to work “in a timely fashion,” I think you should keep this simple little slaw recipe around. It’s a tangle of cabbage so bright, so fresh, with not a speck of mayonnaise in sight. It would be equally welcome piled high as a side dish for sausages or barbecued anything as it would squashed between soft brioche halves on a pulled pork sandwich. If we’re going to get really dreamy, it could likely sit quite comfortably atop a lobster roll for a man-I-wish-I-were-on-a-beach-somewhere lunch fantasy.
Food Blog April 2014-3706The inspiration for this slaw comes from a side dish N. had with a plate of fish and chips at Mud Hen Tavern in Hollywood, celebrity chef Susan Feniger’s newest venture. I tasted the humble pile of cabbage shreds and became instantly intrigued by the nutty, savory herbal notes that I couldn’t quite place. I don’t often do this, but I asked a server, and was soon speaking to one of Feniger’s cooks, who told me his secret ingredient was celery seed. He gave me a few instructions about how they make it, and from there it was just a matter of playing with quantities.
Food Blog April 2014-3704Celery seed is a funny little spice – tiny, musty smelling seeds, but with a distinct sharpness. Crushed raw and solo between your teeth they are too strong: a bitter kick with the aftertaste of raw celery stalks. Toasted, though, or crushed and lightly simmered in olive oil until their flavor blooms, they add a deeply savory note, a mix of umami and something almost floral, that I’m now totally obsessed with and want to add to everything.
Food Blog April 2014-3712This slaw is so simple, provided you’re willing to start the process a few minutes in advance. Celery seed, pepper, and, in my variation, a smashed garlic clove, get simmered in olive oil to infuse their flavors. Once it’s cool, the oil, with some of the celery seed dust (it imparts a lovely speckled look and an extra hit of flavor), gets tossed through a jungle of green cabbage threads along with a sprinkle of sugar, a pinch or two of salt, and a hint of vinegar. That’s it. You can let it sit for a while to allow for integration and mellowing of flavors, or you can eat it immediately, savoring every crisp bite.
Food Blog April 2014-3708Food Blog April 2014-3709Substitutions or alternatives: for a different kind of tang, you could swap out the sort of vinegar you use. Red wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, or, for a salivary inducing sweet brightness, even rice vinegar, would also be lovely. Let your main dish steer you in the right direction. As for the celery seeds, I wouldn’t exchange them for anything. If you must, though, I suppose you could crunch a few mustard seeds or coriander and infuse those into the oil instead. Crushed coriander in the oil and a few judiciously torn cilantro leaves mixed in with the cabbage, for example, might make for a beguiling crunch atop a fish taco…

Food Blog April 2014-3713

Cabbage and Celery Seed Slaw
Makes 4-6 side dish servings
⅓ cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled
3 whole peppercorns, or about 10 grinds of black pepper
1 teaspoon celery seeds
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 lb. cabbage, cut into fine strands with a sharp knife (or use your food processor, or a 16 ounce bag of pre-sliced)


  • In a small pot or saucepan, heat the oil over medium-low heat. While it heats, prepare the seasonings: use the flat blade of a knife to push down gently on the garlic clove and then the peppercorns, crushing them to allow more efficient release of flavor.
  • Using the same flat blade of the knife, crush the celery seeds. Because they are tiny, just pushing down on them as you did with the garlic and peppercorns won’t do much. Instead, spread them out a bit, and then draw the flat of the knife across them, pushing down as you go. Repeat a few times, until at least half of the seeds are smashed almost to a powder.
  • When the spices are adequately crushed, add them to the oil and turn the heat down to its lowest setting. After a sudden sizzle, you want a slow, gentle poach. The oil should just barely fizz around the edges of the garlic clove.
  • Simmer on this low, low, lowest of low heat for 15 minutes, until the garlic clove is evenly browned and soft, and the oil smells incredibly aromatic. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • While the oil cools, prepare the cabbage. I had a 2 pound head of cabbage. To prepare it, slice it in half straight through the core. Then, cut that half in half, again through the core, so you have two quarters. You can then remove the core easily with one diagonal slice for each quarter. To create thin strands, as in the photo above, slice across the quarters perpendicular to the previous cut, creating twin sets of cabbage strings.
  • Once the oil has cooled to room temperature, strain it through a fine mesh strainer straight into your serving dish. You may not need the full ⅓ cup. I would start with 3 or 4 tablespoons and see where that takes you. Some of the celery seed dust will seep through the strainer, but that’s okay. It gives a lovely speckled look and lets you know what flavors to anticipate.
  • Add the salt, sugar, and vinegar to the oil in the bowl and whisk it up a bit with a fork. Add the cabbage, toss well to coat evenly, and then taste for seasoning and moisture. I found I wanted a breath of extra salt. You may want a bit more oil, or additional vinegar, to suit your liking.
  • Serve immediately, or let sit for 10-15 minutes to let the cabbage soften slightly and the flavors meld.

Breaking Bread

Last week I tallied up what remained on my Bittman Sides project and discovered, through careful calculations that included pointing to my calendar and counting on my fingers, that if I make two selections from the list every week, I will be finished with the whole thing at the end of the year.  And I mean the end.  The very last week.  Ambitious, yes?  I decided I could do it.

Guess how many I made this week?



So I’m not starting out well with this, but I’m going to try anyway.  I’m years overdue from my original goal anyway.  And in my own kind of backwards reverse engineering, I try to make up for this how?  By posting twice in one week.  So it goes, I suppose…

87. Combine 2 cups whole wheat flour with 2 cups white flour and 1 teaspoon each baking powder, baking soda and salt in a food processor. Pour in 1½ cups buttermilk or thin yogurt, and pulse until a ball is formed. Knead for a minute (fold in ½ cup raisins or currants if you like), shape into a round loaf, slash the top in a few places and bake on a greased sheet for about 45 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when you thump it.

I’ve tried bread in the food processor before and it didn’t go very well (what does “when the dough is shaggy” mean anyway?), but I was willing to give this a shot.  It looked like a basic Irish soda bread recipe, and though I’ve never put that in the food processor, I have made it with success on multiple occasions.  So, I pulled down my food processor, opened my pantry, and collected

2 cups wheat flour

2 cups white flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup Greek yogurt whisked with 1 cup whole milk (I had neither buttermilk nor thin yogurt – this seemed like a happy medium)

½ cup craisins

I followed Bittman’s directions to near disaster.  Either my food processor is too small, or this method isn’t all that reliable, because the dough never formed a ball.  Half of it just clumped into a solid mass in one side of the processor bowl and refused to budge.  I said some words in the quiet of my own brain and then held my breath while I tumbled the half-mixed contents out onto a floured board.

This is certainly not a ball.  But I sprinkled on half a cup of craisins and started kneading anyway, trying to ignore the hateful feel of dry dough on my hands.  After a minute or two I determined that things were just not coming together.

Flour-streaked hands reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the milk, dribbled a few tablespoons into a hollow in the dough, and tried again.  This time, things started to stick, to smooth, to pull into a ball.  I patched, I patted, I pushed and knuckled, and finally plopped one of the homeliest loaves ever made onto a greased baking sheet.  Slashed, scored, and enclosed in a warm oven, and I’d done all I could.

Bittman didn’t specify a temperature, but I estimated 375F and returned to grading papers for the better part of an hour.  The timer’s buzz 45 minutes later called me back to a crusty, mottled, flour-speckled loaf that sounded empty when I thumped the bottom, and smelled like humble sour sweetness.

I waited a few hours to try some.  When I cut into it, my knife scraping through the crust and scattering crumbly bits across the board, the interior was dense and moist and still just warm.

It tasted good.  A bit heavy, from the whole wheat flour, and not suitable for eating in large chunks like the one I’d carved off for myself.  But the craisins added a welcome punch, and I think if I’d used all buttermilk instead of my odd mixture of milk and yogurt, the tang would have come through and broken some of the one-note density of the texture.  This would be good, I suspect, toasted and buttered, or maybe – if you’re the daring type – transformed into French toast.  It might also be good made with 3 cups of white and 1 cup of wheat flour, rather than equal parts.

Both N. and I have some Irish blood, and although it doesn’t show too often (unless you count his beard and my very occasional temper), by strange coincidence we ended up eating this bread as part of an accidentally, avant-garde-ly “Irish” dinner: pan fried gnocchi and sauteed cabbage.  Potatoes, cabbage, and Irish soda bread.  If only we’d had corned beef, I told N., and a horseradish sauce to moisten it.

But here’s the good news: smeared with cream cheese, the bread was tasty and chewy and wholesome, with bright pops of cranberry sweetness here and there.  Shallow fried in a mixture of butter and olive oil, the gnocchi were amazing.  Tongue searingly hot, their exteriors crisped and browned like the perfect roasted potato.  Their interiors remained soft and creamy and rich, but the contrast of crusty brown outside to creamy chewy perfection inside was unbelievable.  I could eat these every day.  I could eat them for every meal.  Fried and rolled, still blisteringly hot, in cinnamon sugar, I would scarf these for breakfast alongside a glass of milk like tiny churros.  Tossed with pesto or roasted red pepper sauce, I would gulp them for lunch.  Folded into a mornay sauce with too much extra cheese, I would sub these for pasta in a beautiful perversion of oven-baked macaroni and cheese.  And well salted and perhaps tossed in garlic powder or red pepper flakes, I would happily substitute these for popcorn during a movie.  I might be obsessed.

So with one Bittman down for the week and an intense regimen in store for the rest of the year, it turns out I’m more interested in fried potatoes.  And I’m tempted to ask: who wouldn’t be?  But then I wonder… is that just the Irish in me talking?