My promise for a unified theory of sandwich making may have been premature. Turns out, unified theories of anything are hard to formulate. Even rigorous ones tend to be abstract, general, and difficult to apply to workaday kitchen scenarios. For example, Aristotle’s Ars Ruebenica declares that the essence of the sandwich must be understood in terms of the four causes of aition. First there is the material cause of the sandwich, which is bread and other stuff; he doesn’t list essential ingredients, but he’s pretty sure it starts with bread. Then there is the formal cause, which dictates that the filling goes between the bread, or sometimes on it or in it. The efficient cause is the hungry person making the sandwich, and the final cause, the satiation of said hungry person. This is why Aristotle didn’t get invited to many luncheons. His theories couldn’t account for onion marmalade, pickled mustard seeds, or lemon confit. Plato also took issue with his bloody marys.
It’s hard to formulate a theory of sandwich making, because most sandwiches are a product of convenience, not science. When I bought Tom Colicchio’s ‘wichcraft, I assumed that sandwich making was a fallen art, another byproduct of the current eras rage for efficiency, factory farming, and the reckless slaughter of innocent Velveeta. But as much as I can figure, sandwiches have been about convenience all the way back. In the dark ages, people snacked on “trenchers,” large rounds of stale bread used in lieu of plates, because they didn’t have Martha Stewart to help them pick out china patterns. The name sandwich is associated with John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who was either too busy gambling or too busy being a magistrate to eat with both hands. Then came the industrial revolution in Spain and Italy and with it a beehive of busy, busy people, all eating sandwiches because they needed something convenient to eat when they were busy getting mercury poisoning at the local mill or black lung at the bottom of a coal mine.
So what motivates Colicchio’s sandwiches? The same thing that motivates your mother brown bagging lunches or Cuban immigrants experimenting with ham: they’re busy, and they’re using up leftovers. After a hard day of restaurant cooking, “You grab two slices of bread, nab the odds-and-ends of the short ribs that were too uneven to be served to patrons, add a slice of cheese, round it out with a swipe of onion relish, and, standing up, enjoy your meal”. But this is also where Colicchio departs with tradition, because what is easy for Colicchio is not necessarily going to be easy for the rest of us. Most of us don’t have beer-braised beef short ribs lying around in the kitchen, let alone the right combination of pickled vegetables, aged cheddar, and homemade horseradish.
But the recipes are mighty tasty, and isn’t time that we rescue the sandwich from the shackles of convenience?
Tom Colicchio’s theory of sandwich making starts with idea that good sandwiches come from good meals. “Why is a sandwich made from Thanksgiving leftovers so good? Because everything in it was originally crafted for a great meal.” So now you’re thinking to yourself, that’s all fine and good for Turkey sandwiches, but how would that apply with French onion soup? Okay, smartass, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every meal can be made into a sandwich; it has to be something that you can make hold together. Which leads us to Colicchio’s second axiom, it has to be something you can hold with one hand. And just to set the record straight, Colicchio does make a Gruyere and caramelized onion sandwich that pretty much is French onion soup broken down and reconstructed. There’s just more bread, less onion, and about the same amount of molten, cheesy goodness.
I started cooking through the recipes that seemed most familiar to me. Gruyere with caramelized onions was easy enough, if a little time consuming for self-important grilled cheese. From there I went to progressively more complicated fare:
- Cheddar with smoked ham, poached pear, and mustard
- Chicken breast with roasted peppers, mozzarella and spinach-basil pesto
- Sicilian tuna with fennel, black olives, and lemon
- Cured duck breast with caramelized apples and endive
- Roasted turkey with avocado bacon, onion marmalade and mayonnaise
- Chicken salad with walnuts, roasted tomatoes, pickled red onions and frisee
Chicken salad may not sound complicated, but it has more ancillary recipes than almost any other in the book: homemade mayo, pickled mustard seeds, roasted tomatoes, and pickled red onion. I skipped the mayo, this time, out of deference for Jim Spring, but not being one to try and make things easier, I substituted Alton Brown’s slow roasted tomatoes for the Colicchio version, even though it takes about twice as long to cook. (Just cut tomatoes in half, sprinkle them with a little olive oil and salt, lay them out, cut-side up, on a baking sheet, and leave them in the oven overnight on the lowest setting. You get to wake up in the house to the overwhelming smell of tomatoes. Or maybe to fire. Cooking is about taking chances.)
I used to despise all things pickle. I associated them with jars of noxious, soggy things that looked suspiciously like embryonic aliens in formaldehyde. But it’s quite different when you make your own, and Colicchio’s “pickles” are often just things given a quick dip in vinegar. He doesn’t explain this, but soaking onions in vinegar “deflames” them, one of my favorite words, though Word 2008 spellchecker refuses to recognize it. The same principle applies to the pickled mustard seeds. I had to buy two bottles of mustard seed to fill out the recipe, but it was worth it. After a five minute simmer in 1 cup white wine vinegar, 1 cup sugar, and 1 tablespoon dry mustard, the seeds swell up or “bloom,” grow fat in the vinegar syrup, and they take on a texture a bit like caviar. It seems like a lot, but it disappeared from the fridge more quickly than any of my other condiments.
After Colicchio had earned my trust, I made some more exotic recipes from the “breakfast” section of the book—though I still fed them to Ann as dinner.
- Stewed apricots and fennel with ricotta, pistachios, and black pepper
- Smoked salmon with avocado, green mango and basil
- Bucheron with grapefruit and crispy olives
The last was the only disappointment, but even that introduced me to one of my new favorite cheeses. I’d probably even still serve Bucheron with grapefruit slices, but I’d alternate between eating the two rather than heaping them on canapés.
Working through the recipes, it’s easy to see what some of the guiding principles are, beyond “making a meal into a sandwich”. They are in a sense, entailments of the first principle.
- By local, buy fresh, and buy in relatively small quantities. Don’t use your sandwich as an excuse to get rid of something in the fridge that’s “a little bit funky”.
- Buy bakery bread, but not diva bread. “It is literally a supporting role; the bread should be gracious enough to take second billing to the inner ingredients.” Think ciabatta for sloppy sandwiches, multi-grain bread or country bread for general all purpose sandwiches, baguettes for squiggly multi-textured stuff like fried calamari or the tuna with fennel fronds, and pullman white bread for soft ingredients or delicate flavors. Bread is usually only toasted in the oven on one side, the inside, or grilled lightly, because Tom Colicchio is a dainty fellow and worries too much about his soft palette.
- Don’t include more elements on your sandwich than you would on your plate. Keep your salad on the side; forgo “such ‘fillers’ as lettuce and tomato”. The sandwich should be compact enough that you can hold it with one hand.
- The items you do choose should be full of contrasts, so you get the full registers of sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savory. Think of a Mondrian painting, where each field of color shines brighter because of the contrasting color beside it. This goes for texture too. Sometimes you need crunchy things. If you don’t like pickles, or even pickled onions, try the green mangoes soaked in orange juice and cut into matchsticks.
How do you know what goes well together? I don’t think anyone looks at a stewed apricot and says, that’ll go well with fennel fronds. Pork sausage? I know, ricotta and arugula. But that’s why it’s called ‘wichcraft and not ‘wichscience, and why Colicchio probably gets invited to more lunches than Aristotle. Because some of it will still always be about what you have lying around, and some of it will always be about improvisation and experiment. This week, I made sandwiches from left over Mock Porchetta ala Judy Rodgers.
It was a bit overcooked, but the leftovers made a perfectly serviceable sandwich with piquillo peppers and manchego. Sure, I’m probably just assuming things will taste good together if they all sound Spanish, but I’m doing this one step at a time. I genuinely believe that working through this book has not only made me more aware of what might make a good sandwich, but what might go well together on a plate generally. What goes well with cassoulet? And how can I make cassoulet into a sandwich?
What meals do you make into sandwiches?