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Feature Wed Oct 10 2007

Sensational Sandwiches

The origin of the sandwich is mysterious. The oft told legend is that the name came from the Earl of Sandwich (John Montegue) who asked to be brought a piece of meat between two pieces of bread while he was playing poker He didn’t want his hands to become soiled, as he was holding cards. Whether this is true or not, we do know that the Earl did not invent the sandwich. The earliest form of a sandwich (though not by that name) was mentioned by Hillel the Elder in the first century B.C.E. As the story goes, he placed charoset between two pieces of matzo, a practice which would become a Seder custom at Passover.

Despite elusive beginnings, sandwiches can can be found in every culture. Each has its own version of some kind of filling eaten inside some kind of bread. The sandwich is multi-cultural and the varieties are endless. From hamburgers to reubens to veggie gyros, we here at Drive-Thru love all kinds of sandwiches. This week a few of us thought we’d share some of our thoughts on sandwiches, including where to find the best ones and how to make our favorites at home.

Lori Barrett — Surprise Sandwich

Although I make sandwiches almost daily for school lunches, I've had a hard time coming up with a favorite of my own. But the yummiest sandwich that comes to mind is from this place in New York, Pret a Manger (a chain that ought to come to Chicago; perhaps we can start a letter writing campaign). The sandwich is on a sort of country bread and has avocado, parmesan, pine nuts, arugula and basil. When I read the ingredients, I first thought, "Yuck. Avocado and parmesan?" But it's really tasty and something worth trying at home, at least until Pret a Manger opens in Chicago.

Chris Brunn — Mole, Plantain and Hummus Wrap

I've been thinking of how well hummus and mole go together since July when I was making appetizers for some 100 possible visitors to Neighbors Project's DIY Logan Square. The event celebrated being a good neighbor, and one of the event's 11 how-to tips was to shop locally. My friend Nick was hosting DIY Logan, and he took me around on bicycle to point out the best local groceries within 15 minutes of his place. That's when Armitage Produce (3334 W. Armitage Avenue at Kimball) came in to my picture. Garbanzo beans from their aisle-long selection of canned items made me think of making hummus. In the next aisle were jars of mole that would add depth and a little heat to the hummus. Their produce section has an extensive selection of root vegetables, but I took plantains, red cabbage, red and green bell peppers, carrots, cucumber and large tortillas. I picked that up the night before the event, on the way to Nick's home to prepare roll-ups to slice into small appetizers, held together with toothpicks. These ingredients work well for sandwiches, too. The recipe:

Sautéed plantains are key to making these roll-ups or sandwiches satisfying. Their banana flavor goes very well with the chocolate in mole sauce. Plantains need to be quite ripe less they taste more like a potato than a fruit. With more starch than conventional bananas, use them when their skin is nearly completely black and a bit soft but not mushy. Then, they'll be richly sweet after cooking. Caramelized onions add another layer of depth. Start them early, because they take the most time. But don't feel bad about skipping them altogether if you want to be quick. I often make my own hummus because I think it's fun, but you can simply use a pre-made variety. If you add fresh raw garlic to your own hummus, it'll add a sharp bite. I like to use peanut or olive oil for a full flavor.

Caramelized Onion (optional)
1 red onion
Oil for sautéing

Slice the red onion into quarters along the center from the root. Then thinly slice each section across so that you have quarter circle arcs. Heat a pan with enough oil to make it shiny, and then stir in the onion. Heat on low, covered, until the onion is soft and tender. Then cover, and continue heating on low until the onions turn light golden brown. Whenever the onions begin to stick or look dry, mix in more oil, enough to make it all just a bit wet. If they look like they're getting crisp, turn down the heat.

Bread or Tortillas
Large tortillas or your favorite bread

Sautéed Plantain Recipe
1 ripe plantain (black skin), peeled and sliced
Oil for sauteing

Add enough oil to your pan so that it has just a little oil to roll back and forth when you tip the pan. Heat it on medium. When a tiny bit of plantain sizzles as you put it in, you know the heat is hot enough (if it turns black or the oil starts smoking, the oil is too hot). Sauté until the plantains are slightly crispy on each side. Take them out and put them aside on towels or in a colander to drain.

Hummus Recipe (or use store bought)
1 14-ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed
2 to 4 cloves of garlic (optional)
Water for blending

In a food processor, whiz the garbanzo beans until mealy. Whiz in just enough water for the mixture to become smooth. Then, mix in oil until the hummus is slightly runny. Add salt, an eighth of a teaspoon at a time, until the hummus tastes full. If it tastes like your licking salt, get out another can of chickpeas and whiz in a handful. Blend in garlic, if desired.

Vegetable Filling
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 carrot, shredded
1/4 head red cabbage, shredded
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 jar mole sauce, mixed well

Slather hummus all over one side of each piece of bread (for sandwiches), or all over one side of each tortilla (for roll-ups). For the latter, lay down the sautéed plantain, mashing it into the tortilla as you go. Lay the plantain across in a one- or two-inch wide strip, about an inch or two from the tortilla's end. This way when you roll it up, you'll have your filling in the center, instead of spiraling around with the rolled tortilla. Cover the plantains with the vegetables and caramelized onions. Drizzle mole across and roll, starting from the end of the tortilla closest to the vegetables.

For sandwiches, mash the sautéed plantains in a bowl, and then spread them on a piece of hummus-coated bread. Next, cover with vegetables and caramelized onion and drizzle mole all about. Cover with a second piece of bread.

Yu Kizawa — East Meets West Between Bread

Something I haven't had for a long time is a strange concoction: a red bean paste sandwich. It's sweet azuki bean paste (anko) sandwiched between buttered pieces of bread, then "toasted" in a hot sandwich maker. I don't even remember where I had it, and I only had it once, possibly at a rest stop along one of the expressways in Japan, or maybe in a mom-and-pop coffee shop somewhere in the mountains of central Japan. In my mind's eye, the sandwich exists in an extra-temporal mist. It's golden brown and crunchy on the outside, and you have to be careful when you bite in, though, because there's hot vapor trapped inside that wants to escape and burn your lips as you take your first bite. But if you overcome that challenge, the salt in the butter and the sugar in the azuki bean paste work like miracles. Warm, weighty and moist in your hands, it's oddly soothing. Here, the marriage between the West and the East is a happy one, at least for my palate, and thinking about it, I realize my mouth is watering. I do have some red beans lying around somewhere. Maybe I'll make some for a weekend snack.

Meghan Murphy-Gill — On My Sandwich Habit

As a child, I had a habit of making "roll-overs" with a slice of bread and whatever was I eating for dinner, or whatever was available in the refrigerator. I distinctly recall two favorites: peanut butter roll-overs (sometimes with a slice of bacon, or bacon bits in a pinch) and spaghetti sandwich involved buttering a piece of Italian pan bread from Esposito's (in Saugus, Massachusetts) and scooping onto it a mound of spaghetti and Grandma's marinara. Then I'd fold the bread over and take a bite into the folded side. The texture thrilled me as my teeth sank first into the soft bread and then into the slight bite of the perfectly cooked pasta. If no one was looking, I'd be particularly generous with the butter, which would melt as I mushed the bread against the noodles.

My family had a response to my sandwich making: "Meghan, you are definitely a Meehan, because Meehan's make sandwiches out of everything." The Meehan's were my mother's side of the family, and it was true, they did make sandwiches out of everything, but, in my older, wiser age, I assume that this tendency of mine was less instinctual and more of a learned behavior. Still, I can remember how positively included I felt, how connected and enveloped (sandwiched?) I was as a result of a silly little way my family and I would eat.

I recall the first time I made a soup sandwich in front of my husband. He eyed me as if to say, "I really did marry a weird one." The soup was a hearty mushroom barley, and as I spooned the chunks of celery and mushrooms into a slice of buttered bread, I responded to his look of disgust. "Don't look at me like that. You know you want to try it. The butter melts against the hot veggies and it is sooooo delicious." He did try it, and now he gets a bit crazier than I do with the sandwich-making.

As far as conventional sandwiches go, having spent a lot of time in both Texas ad Virginia, I'm partial to barbecued meats between bread. Smoque does a particularly delicious sandwich in these parts. Both the pulled-pork and the brisket (and I am aware of the combo, but have never ventured so far as to try it) are some of the best you can get outside of the Southern regions of the U.S.

Andie Thomalia — Stuck in the (Subway) Loop

I believe that people eat good sandwiches downtown every day. I believe that they don't over think where to find these sandwiches, or what these sandwiches should consist of. I believe that they derive sustenance and even a passing sensation of pleasure from these sandwiches. I also believe that I am not one of them.

There are decent sandwiches in the Loop, to be sure. One-trick ponies, like Subway or Jimmy John's, though I've always felt them to more of the workhorses of the sandwich world. And there are their slightly more haute chain counterparts, like Au Bon Pain or Corner Bakery, which can deliver a plastic-wrapped ray of hope into the nighted search for the transcendent sandwich, but so often suffer from breaking one of the major commandments of sandwich making: Thou Shalt Not Over-Combine Interesting Ingredients or Thou Runneth the Risk of Canceling Out Any Real Flavor (Also known as the "Sin of Sandwich Hubris." A related follow-up sin is the Over-Use of Lettuce.) or, even worse, have sat in their fluorescent-drenched refrigerator case too long, and are now nothing but Soggy Sandwiches, for which there is no cure — for either the sandwich or the spirits of its unwitting victim.

And this is not to say that I haven't had a decent downtown sandwich. Shikago has a surprisingly good five-spice rubbed Chinese Pork sandwich, served up with siracha and pickled cabbage and only slightly too much lettuce on a chewy roll. Fox & Obel, should they ever open a deli-to-go in the financial district, would have me at their mercy with not one, but two creations: the turkey, cranberry and brie sandwich and the grilled Cuban panini. Both haunt my dreams. Which is a little sad, maybe, but they're good sandwiches.

And then, when it seemed there was no hope, "Good Morning America," improbably saved the day with its list of the best sandwiches in the country. Perry's deli, at 174 N. Franklin, surfaced near the top of GMA's judgment, with its triple-decker Frenchy's Fantasy feat of gluttonous structural wonder. Three slices of bread are not nearly enough to contain the layers of roast beef, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, bacon and Russian dressing. It is literally a sandwich as big as your head. Possibly bigger. One should anticipate a food coma midway through eating.

And here's the kicker: it's a damn good sandwich. Everything is fresh and flavorful, nothing competes, and while the bread may get soggy towards the end, it's not with condensation, and it remains edible. Assuming you can actually eat the entire thing.

It's worth the walk, worth the wait, worth the staff member outside blaring hip hop and shouting Perry's rhymes over the tunes. "This one goes out to my friend R. Kelly." "I say corned, you say beef! Corned! Corned!" Moments after finishing my sandwich (not the afore-mentioned monster, but the slightly more modest Perry's Favorite, corned beef with jack cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing), I got an instant message from a friend in Barcelona. "I wish they had sandwiches here," he started, with no prompting by me. "I miss US sandwiches. Have you ever had Perry's?" Clearly, this is a transcendent sandwich.

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Joanna / October 10, 2007 8:45 AM

Lori - Ponte Fresco in the Illinois Center pedway has a sandwich almost exactly like the one you described. It's on more of a soft whole wheat bread though. They sell them pre-made in their refrigerated section, but they're really fresh and really good.

Andrew / October 10, 2007 11:38 AM

Long long ago, near the beginning of this site, I wrote a column for "One Good Meal" about how to make a proper sandwich. That advice still stands.

dan / October 10, 2007 1:03 PM

My favorite loop sandwich is the roast turkey at Jaffa Bagels. It was previously located on Michigan Avenue, across from what would become Millennium Park if memory serves. That location closed, but thankfully they reopened in the Illinois Center.

Jaffa roasts up many whole turkeys every day... they come right out of the oven and are carved in front of you. My usual order is mixed (white and dark meat) on a wheat bun, with hummus, mustard, white cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion. And a pickle and two hot peppers on the side. There's all kinds of other stuff to throw on there... you can do the thanksgiving sandwich with cranberry sauce and the whole nine.

The resulting food coma is intense, but well worth it.

Dyan / October 11, 2007 5:12 PM

reading this was painful- i've been trying to forget how amazing the avocado sandwich from pret a manger was ever since i moved away from new york, but now i just can't shake the memory of it's incredible deliciousness. i will contribute any efforts needed for a letter-writing campaign.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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