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America is a wonderland of sandwiches. Every region, every city, every family, has its favorites, and it is rare indeed to find any two that are exactly alike. Some are austere, like the plain, perfect fried fish sandwich Coleman’s sells in the old market of Wheeling, West Virginia; others are baroque, like the goopy, soupy hot brown of Louisville, Kentucky. There are rich ones served in tumbledown shacks: the crab roll at Red’s Eats on the Maine shore. And there are plebeian ones made by cutting-edge chefs: liver ’n’ onions with firecracker sauce at the Old Post Office on Edisto Island, South Carolina. Sandwiches with ethnic roots abound: Italian roast pork in Philadelphia, the ubiquitous diner souvlaki, the multiple-meats, high-protein Uruguayan chivito, Nebraska’s Russian/German meal in a pastry known as a bierock. Many sandwiches are only-in-America delights: pimento cheese throughout the South, New Mexico’s roast green chile wrap, New Orleans’ oyster loaf, Great Lakes walleye (with beer on the side, of course).
You can travel coast to coast eating nothing but sandwiches, never having the same kind twice, and discover some of the most enjoyable one-of-a-kind restaurants along the way. This book’s sandwich sources are as varied as the landscape, from the film noir sawdust floors of Philippe the Original in Los Angeles (home of the French dip) to the al fresco picnic tables of the Clam Box on Massachusetts’ North Shore. A few of our favorite recipes come from quite civilized dining establishments: chicken Vesuvio at Harry Caray’s in Chicago; sardines on rye at the Pine Club in Dayton, Ohio; spiedini of beef at Louie’s Backyard in Key West. A lot hail from diners (Becky’s of Portland, Maine), street carts (Roque’s Carnitas of Santa Fe), butcher shops (In’t Veld Meat Market of Pella, Iowa), and bars (McBob’s of Milwaukee).
For so many Americans, sandwiches are a vital part of our culinary selves, an identity marker nearly as distinct as DNA. Tell us what you call a sandwich of warm roast beef with gravy, and we will tell you where you’re from. If you call it Italian beef, you are from Chicago. If it’s beef on weck, you are a Buffalonian. If you ask for it with debris (succulent scraps from the roasting pan or cutting board), you are from New Orleans. Call it wet beef or beef Manhattan, and we’d bet you live in Kansas or the western plains. Hot beef is strictly an Upper Midwest term. French dip used to be southern Californian but is now more generally western.
The tubular segment of bread that is sliced lengthwise and filled with cold cuts or hot meats has enough variations and aliases to make a book: hero and submarine throughout the East (except in Westchester County, New York, whereinexplicablyit is known as a wedge, and in much of Connecticut, where it’s a grinder). It is nowhere more popular (or better) than in the Delaware River Valley, where the term “hoagie” supposedly began as “hoggie” because during World War I, Italian ship workers in Philadelphia’s Hog Island became known for the gigantic sandwiches they brought for lunch. “Hoagie” usually is applied only to cold variations (although we’ve seen hot hoagies, too). Midwestern state fairs offer a hot or cold variation of the theme as an Italian sandwich, or by its politically incorrect name, Guinea sandwich. In Portland, Maine, the word “sandwich” is redundant. Step up to the counter and order an Italian.
Similarly, throughout Florida, as well as in New York City, the term “Cuban” refers not only to a person from Cuba or a Havana cigar, but also to a layered sandwich that contains two kinds of pork, white cheese, pickle, and mustard inside a tube of fluffy-centered Cuban bread. Louisiana Acadians call their multilevel variant a pirogue, after the old-time bayou canoe, and in New Orleans it is a po’ boy, because back in 1929 the sandwiches were offered by French Quarter restaurateurs to striking streetcar workers, who were “poor boys.” Egalitarian-minded readers will notice that this book’s contents are not equally balanced among states and regions. Rather than include two recipes from each of the fifty states, we have focused on what we know and love and can recommend wholeheartedly: the best sandwiches we have eaten in our travels around the country, as served at our favorite restaurants. It has long been our belief that a dish, or a sandwich, is far more interesting when you know who makes it, who invented it, who eats it, and where and how it’s served.
You’ll notice that there are no hamburgers, barbecue sandwiches, or hot dogs in this book. The omission is not because we disrespect them; on the contrary, each deserves a book of its own. The question is: are they sandwiches? They fit the most basic meaning of the termingredients enclosed by or supported by breadbut they are defined less by tttttheir sandwichness than by other, more important measures. Hamburgers are a matter of meat and condiments, and while the quality of the bun can surely make a huge difference, a great hamburger satisfies a different facet of human hunger from a great sandwich. The same goes for barbecue and hot dogs. To think of these three as sandwiches is like thinking of handguns, shotguns, and rifles as tools. Yes, they are, but if we were writing a book on the subject, we wouldn’t think to include them along with hammers and saws.
Sandwiches are not uniquely American. Many of the world’s fine cuisines have ways of neatly pocketing meat or vegetables inside breadstuffs (what would we moderns do without the Mideast’s pita bread?). The sandwich as we know it was actually invented in England, when, two centuries ago, the fourth Earl of Sandwich ordered meat brought to him on bread so his meal wouldn’t divert him from the gambling tables, but it’s this country that’s gone hog wild with the concept. Perhaps that’s because sandwiches are, by their very nature, casual food. They are at home on a picnic table, perfect for snacks, easy to eat as well as to make at any time of day. What could be more truly, democratically American than a meal at which you don’t have to worry about which fork to use or what wine to serve?
Sandwichcraft Is there anyone who cannot make a sandwich? Most of us admit to at least a few self-doubts when we have to engage in serious cooking (mixing, souffléing, grilling, and the like), but when it comes to sandwiches, who does not consider himself or herself a master? We all have our own version of the classicstuna, PB&J, BLT, and the ever-popular what’s-in-the-refrigerator?- on-white. But there is more to sandwichery than these comfortable fundamentals. Sandwiches can be the world’s easiest way to create novel meals without producing a lot of unwanted kitchen heat.
After all, the only things you need to construct a great one are some interesting ingredients and a condiment or two. If you’ve got the supplies, you can put a great sandwich together nearly as quickly as shuffling a deck of cards.
Here are a few basic guidelines for happier sandwich making and eating.
BREAD The exoskeleton of a sandwich can be almost any kind of bread that doesn’t crumble too easily. The importance of the bread ranges from a plain vehicle whose purpose is little more than transporting ingredients from plate to mouthas in, say, a BLTto the raison d’etre for a sandwich in which the ingredients play second fiddle. A good example of the latter is the traditional Cuban morning bread: a toasted length of feather-light, crisp-crusted baguette spread merely with butter. Or a hot-fromthe- oven salt bagel containing only cream cheese to cushion its saline punch.
There are four basic bread forms for sandwiches: the slice, the loaf, the wrap, and the roll, the last category including bagels, croissants, biscuits, and any other individually sized hunk of bread that can be sliced and stuffed. Local variations of rolls and names for them are near-infinite, including bulkies, kaisers, hard rolls, long rolls, and Ports (short for Portuguese rolls).
Sliced bread tends to make the most wieldy sandwiches, even for triple-deckers, because slices can be hoisted easily in one hand (or possibly two hands) and because their planar shape is generally good at containing all but the sloppiest ingredients. While crustless sandwiches are pretty, crust does serve a purpose, shoring in juicy things between the slices. As a rule, the thicker the sandwich, the more essential a sturdy crust.
Small loaves can be quite manageable, especially if they are not overstuffed and if the ingredients aren’t really goopy, like an Italian Parmesan with lots of sauce. Some loaves are slightly scooped outtheir soft centers removedso the filling will fit better, which makes for a sandwich that is easy to pick up but still runs a high risk of disintegrating after a bite or two. The extreme example of this latter problem is the New Orleans oyster loaf, aka oyster boat, which tends to be more knife-and- fork fare than something you’d consider eating out of hand. Some New Orleans restaurants make their oyster boats not in tubular French breads but in whole, full-size sandwich loaves, one entire loaf per sandwich!
A great dilemma for many bread-loving sandwich makers who use loaves, rolls, or such Italian breads as ciabatta or focaccia is that the best of them are chewy and sturdy-crusted, meaning that the firm bite required almost inevitably causes malleable ingredientslike tuna salad, peanut butter, and soft cheeseto squish out. The only solutions are to make mini sandwiches, deconstruct the sandwich and eat the top and bottom halves separately, or live with the drippage.
Every bit as much as top-quality ingredients, good bread can make or break a sandwich. Corned beef on supermarket rye cannot hold a candle to the same corned beef on slick-crusted, chewy sourdough rye. Likewise, a Delaware Valley hoagie demands to be made on a rugged length of fresh-baked Italian bread, and no matter how good the beef is in Buffalo, it is not a real beef sandwich unless the roll is a genuine kummelweck spangled with coarse salt and caraway seeds.
CHEESE Some cheese exists for sandwiches: Swiss, American, Muenster. And while provolone is fine when melted in a casserole, its true destiny is to be the rich, heat-softened blanket atop sauced meats in a hot Italian hero.
Modern sandwichcraft tends to include many cheeses not formerly found between sliced bread: disks of fresh mozzarella (known in all delis of the Northeast as mutz), wedges of runny Brie and triple crcme, even such unwieldy crumblers as Maytag blue and Gorgonzola.
The most basic use of cheese in a sandwich is as a solo act. God bless grilled cheese, even when it doesn’t include bacon or tomato, and even if the bread is supermarket white. The balance of silky melted cheese and a crisp griddle-cooked envelope of bread around it is fundamental. (But please, let’s at least have pickles on the side!) Likewise, we salute a thick pile of thin- sliced Swiss on fresh, crusty rye (preferably with butter and mayo) as well as the ultra-kitsch but hard-to-resist standby of Velveeta on supersoft Wonder, adorned, of course, with Miracle Whip.
Who doesn’t love the classic combos: ham and Swiss, salami and provolone, roast beef and American? But there’s also great joy to be had in mix-’n’-matching cheeses: American and Swiss with liverwurst, or a tuna salad patty melt topped not with a usual cold-cut companion but with see- through tiles of heat-softened hard cheese such as Parmesan or Asiago.
Aside from taste, the primary issue to consider when choosing cheese for a sandwich is texture. A really rugged salami requires an equally substantial cheese, lest the meat’s chewiness totally eclipse the velvet-soft character of, say, Cheez Whiz. On the other hand, the uniformity of Whiz, especially when melted, makes it a perfect foil for the tender shreds of griddled beef in a Philly cheesesteak.
OTHER INGREDIENTS There are few sandwiches that don’t benefit from a film of butter spread on the bread, not only because the flavor of butter is complementary to so many things, but also because the butter seals the bread and thus prevents moist ingredients from leaching into it and turning it soggy. Needless to say, softened butter is best for spreading, especially on soft slices, and it’s important to spread it everywhere and all the way to the edges.
Consider flavored butter. Starting with slightly softened butter, you can add crushed garlic, a bit of anchovy paste, mustard, herbs, lemon juice, wasabi, or curry powder to fit the ingredients.
Lettuce, parsley, cilantro, and any other leafy things should be patted very dry after they are washed. Similarly, you can limit the sog factor of very juicy tomatoes by laying the slices on a paper towel before putting them into the sandwich.
LEFTOVERS AND LEFTOVER SANDWICHES The best-known leftovers sandwich maker is cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead, whose culinary gift is heaping an impossibly high tower of disparate leftovers between slices of bread, usually straight from the refrigerator in the middle of the night. Dagwood’s heroic heaps of cold cuts, chicken parts, and hunks of roast gained such popculture notoriety in the 1930s that the name “dagwood” has endured as a term for any sandwich that is based on a pile of seemingly incongruent ingredients.
For serious fans of gravy-drenched sandwiches, leftovers are the best part of Thanksgiving dinner: day-after hot turkey sandwiches. Slices and scraps of white and/or dark meat are warmed (preferably in a microwave oven, so they stay moist) and arrayed on a couple of pieces of good soft white bread. The bread is sided by a volcano- shaped mound of mashed potatoes, either left over and reheated with a few extra shots of warm milk and butter or freshly made, and the whole shebang is blanketed with hot gravy. Like the potatoes, the gravy can be from the day before or it can be freshly made, or, when time and energy are limited, it can be store-bought. If you have some cranberry sauce from the turkey-day feast, so much the better; its sweet tang and bright red color add zest to the plate of beige leftovers that many consider the ultimate comfort food. Needless to say, this is a sandwich that demands utensils.
The possibilities for using leftovers in sandwiches are only as limited as your imagination. The only thing you don’t want between the bread is something with bones (although we’ve seen bone-in pork chop sandwiches that work). Of course, any carved hunk of meat is a natural, hot or cold: turkey, chicken, ham, beef, pork. Have a few deviled eggs left over from a party? Chop them fine and make egg salad sandwiches. Yesterday’s roasted vegetables, layered with creamy cheese between sturdy tiles of peasant bread, are irresistible. We love thin slices of leftover meat loaf on whole wheat bread with ketchup, lettuce, and mayo.
Then there’s the issue of leftover sandwiches. That is, sandwiches you’ve made that don’t get eaten. Well, what’s better than ham and Swiss refrigerated overnight, then dipped in egg and griddle-cooked in plenty of butter to become a breakfast sandwich?
TOASTING If you like toasted sandwiches, a kitchen tool well worth having is a plancha, a sandwich press that toasts both sides and squeezes the sandwich together. It compresses the ingredients, not only making for a less messy sandwich but also creating a great harmony of multiple layers. If you don’t have a plancha, the effect can be approximated by cooking the sandwich in a large frying pan while using a smaller one to weigh it down (and of course flipping the sandwich once).
SERVING Cutting a sandwich in half is almost always a good idea for easy eating. When cutting one with ingredients that are likely to squish out, consider assembling it without the top layer of bread, cutting through the ingredients and the bottom layer, and then cutting the top slice before applying it. When cutting a fully assembled squishy sandwich, use a sharp serrated bread knife and steady the sandwich with the fingers of the hand that isn’t doing the slicing.
Always have more napkins than you think you need. The messier the sandwich, the more important this principle.
SIDEDISHES So as not to suffer the sight of a lonely sandwich on a plate, most people like some kind of accompaniment. Proper kosher-style restaurants serve large bowls of pickles and pickled tomatoes that customers can nab to accompany an overstuffed sandwich. We find that pickles are particularly welcome alongside anything made from brisketcorned beef, pastrami, or brisket itselfbecause their briny smack sings in fine harmony with meat that is luxurious (i.e., fatty) and their crispness is an ideal contrast to the tenderness of long-cooked brisket and the brawn of good rye.
Lunch counters frequently escort sandwiches with a pickle spear or two or a sheaf of pickle chips, from sour dill to sweet bread-and-butter. One of us Sterns, who never met a condiment he didn’t like, believes no grilled cheese sandwich is complete without a significant pickle presence.
Mini servings of salad are another option to round out a sandwich plate, although they bring the process of eating into another dimension, requiring a utensil. Non-kosher- style deli counters frequently offer little cups of potato salad and macaroni salad, along with a plastic fork. These sweet, tender lagniappes are a good foil for meat with substance: roast beef, ham, salami.
Some hot sandwiches are well-rounded meals unto themselves, such as the Kentucky hot brown (page 120); others, such as hot beef (page 117) and hot pork (page 122), absolutely demand mashed potatoes and gravy. Sometimes French fried potatoes will work in this context, especially if they can stand up under a blanket of gravy.
When it comes to cold sandwiches, chips are always in good taste. As a general rule, potato chips work best with seafood or such lightweight meats as chicken and turkey. Despite the recent explosion in artisanal chips, or whatever the rosemary-and- olive-oil boutique ones are called, plain potato chips are generally best if what you’re looking for is a bit of salty crunch to balance the sandwich. Deluxe, high-priced chips tend to hog the flavor spotlight.
Any sandwich with pepper’s heat, whether in the meat itself or in the condiments applied, needs a chip with earthy character to help cushion the fire. Corn chips are wonderful on the side of Iowa loosemeats (page 137) and Clementine’s Meaty Chili and Cheddar (page 140), and in fact they are an essential companion for any sandwich that includes chili meat.
Copyright © 2007 by Jane Stern and Michael Stern. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.