A decent sandwich deserves decent effort and time
The humble sandwich is one of my favourite foods.
When I was a little boy mum used to tempt me to eat, when I reached that difficult picky stage that kids often go through with food, with banana and strawberry jam sandwiches. I know this memory sets my teeth on edge too now that I recall. No wonder I endured such a regular, recurring and drill driven relationship with dentistry through my childhood.
Mum did discover after a year of making nothing but banana sandwiches that anything put between two slices of bread and cut in four was consumed without complaint. Here, I was also blessed by my father’s wonderful skills as a baker. Dad baked bread like no one I’ve ever known since. It was a gift.
And so I grew up with a passion for good bread that all my family share.
Near my home in London, round the corner from the Kennington Oval, we’ve a little Italian family baker. I go there each day. It’s a mouthful of my childhood….bread that smells good; tastes better and lasts and improves over a day. It’s called Di Lieto.….you must go there to buy bread.
Bread that makes delicious bread crumbs: crumbs that comfortingly coat scallops or filets of veal or pork or with which to stuff a chicken. Bread crumbs to crown a queen of puddings or mix with butter to make Brown Betty…or sliced and buttered and moulded in a shallow dish to cook to the crisp melting heaven of apple or gooseberry or plumb charlotte.
To make a decent sandwich your bread must a day old. You cannot cut fresh bread readily into neat slices. You may not wish to cut fresh bread or any bread indeed. From this you’ll gather that a decent sandwich can’t be confected in my opinion from the wonders of Mother’s Pride…with perhaps one single exception.
However, I’m a realist: if you must use factory produced sliced bread for sandwiches at least ensure it’s not still at the claggy stage of its interminable shelf-life that dooms the smallest addition moisture to transform it from a sticky mass into glue. Take the loaf out of its plastic wrapper, separate the slices and leave them stand for half an hour before making the sandwiches. Honestly it makes the better sandwich.
There’s no need to use both butter or a spread with a soft sandwich filler like egg mayonnaise or coronation chicken. When it comes to reducing intake of calories as one of our larger food chains puts it – every little helps.
And the presentation of a sandwich speaks to the soul. Take the trouble to cut them in four and place them nicely on the plate. For afternoon tea or a buffet sprinkle a bit of chopped parsley or some mustard & cress over the sandwiches. Salmon or prawn sandwiches should be made with brown bread and simply demand little twists of lemon as a simple garnish. The trouble you take will be rewarded with empty plates rather than empty compliments.
Here are some sandwiches or sandwich fillings from my years of thoughtful consumption….
The Cucumber Sandwich
Ever since its starring role in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest where the cucumber sandwich is destined by Algernon to preside over the afternoon he’s preparing for Lady Bracknell, the cucumber sandwich has reigned supreme over afternoon tea…Tea is a meal as English as Henley. It was the Empire’s gift to gastronomy. Like a viceroy it should be treated with respect. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s eaten a cucumber sandwich at any of the fancier London hotels will confirm, the cucumber sandwich that’s served today with afternoon tea, is hardly worth the effort of eating. How are the mighty fallen.
This favourite of Victorian summer gardens is a deceptively hard sandwich to make well. It isn’t merely a matter of cutting the cucumbers very, very thinly… though this poses its own problems…but the cucumber however sliced more importantly requires timely preparation for its encounter with English high society.
This alone of all sandwiches is the one where thinly sliced bread in vital. And here the white bread from the supermarket will serve in the absence of a decent bakery. Don’t forget to leave to air get to the loaf as outlined above. Whilst the bread airs the cucumber can marinade.
Take two cucumbers and peel them either entirely or leaving some thin strips of green skin. It’s essential to cut the cucumber as finely as possible. This can most readily be done either with the slicing attachment of a Magi-mix or even better with the culinary mandolin – watch your fingers. Sprinkle the cucumbers with a little table salt and leave for 30 minutes. After the water is drawn pour off excess water and pat the sliced cucumber dry with paper towel.
Place the cucumber in a clean bowl. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon and two tablespoons of white wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar with a generous grinding of fresh black pepper. Set aside to marinade for about an hour. Once again drain off excess water and very important…once again pat the cucumber slices until dry with absorbent kitchen paper or a clean linen teacloth. Finally sprinkle over the cucumber slices some finely chopped fresh mint and mix them together lightly with your fingers.
Finally butter the bread…and for this only butter will do…unsalted by preference. Before filling the sandwiches with the cucumber check the seasoning. You may feel more salt is in order. Fill each sandwich generously with the cucumber. Stack them one on top of the other….like pancakes on a breadboard or clean chopping board.
Then, using a good quality bread knife, press firmly down on the stack of sandwiches with one hand, whilst, with the other, you cut off the crusts of the bread with the knife. After each cut, turn the board. This ensures you’ve easy control over the sandwich stack…repeat the cutting of the crusts three further times. Whenever you cut sandwiches use this method of turning the board after making each cut…whether or not you are cutting off the crusts. Controlling the sandwich stack ensures the sandwiches and their filling won’t slide all over the place.
By the way, these crusts need not be thrown. They will make delicious croutons once fried in olive oil. These will keep in an airtight jar and will grace any soup hot or cold or of course crown a Caesar salad.
Finally cut the sandwich stack either diagonally into four, or alternatively cut the stack into strips of four and then cut it in half – down the middle.
What a performance you think…but like all great performances this one will bring repeated encores.
Avocado and soft boiled egg sandwiches
Egg mayonnaise, or this avocado filling, require softly boiled eggs…by that I mean eggs with a solid white but with their yolks not set. Julia Childs in Mastering the Art of French Cooking gives the method to achieve, what will seem, doubtless to many, an unnecessary culinary madness. Hard boiled eggs are fine for a packed lunch or a robust egg and tomato sandwich or indeed the Gals pie but for a proper egg mayonnaise or avocado and egg filling, you need the soft yolk to hold the gently mashed mixture. Then as it goes cold the creamy yolks imbue the mixture with softness, akin to the gentle set of homemade jelly rather than the rubbery set of a bought jelly which is what overset egg whites do to egg mayonnaise.
Finding a ripe avocado in England could be the subject of a PhD thesis. Despite the promise of the supermarkets ‘ripe and ready to eat’ labels as often as not mean the fruit is unripe and unready for use – even as a ball in a game of cricket – let alone being fit to serve to cricketers for tea. Ripe avocados need only to be mashed with a fork. Over-ripe avocados can have the black and stringy bits removed before being lightly mashed. Semi-ripe avocados can be pulsed by the Magi-mix into a form of submission that makes them eatable. But if they’re hard as rocks nothing known to man can make them edible. That said once lightly mashed a little olive oil and a tablespoon of vinegar and some sea salt will improve the dullest of tasteless avocados and finally, a shake of Tabasco…at least three drops…added to this mixture, Tabasco will transform the dullest of pedestrian pears into the fleetest of foot. Only once you’ve mashed the avocado; and separately and gently mashed the soft boiled eggs should you combine them in a single bowl with a tablespoon of homemade mayonnaise and plenty of coarse ground black pepper…probably twice the amount you might think. Gently fold the ingredients…you don’t want to turn this into a swamp of lumpy green. Instead, you should end with a marble effect of the egg and avocado. Again, mayonnaise binds the mixture it mustn’t drown it…otherwise all you have is a slop which tastes of nothing in particular.
Use brown bread by preference…if it’s sliced follow the rubric of airing the loaf. Assemble the sandwiches as before. These should never but cut smaller than into four.
Steak and Onion Sandwich
Enough with the afternoon tea stuff here are the sandwiches that are really a meal. For these you really must have un-sliced bread. A crusty sandwich loaf is always good for this one but equally a nice wholemeal or a sourdough. You need good thick slices cut and brushed with good quality olive oil and then covered with a generous amount of black pepper and salt. If you let these marinade into the bread for ten minutes or so it cuts down on the salt you feel you need with the steak….never a bad thing…
Take a large English style onion and fry it gently as possible in the smallest amount of fat. A tablespoon of hot water will prevent it from sticking. Leave the lid on the saucepan until the onion softens then take it off. If you slightly turn up the heat after 4 minutes the onions should start to colour lightly. They don’t want or need to go all brown….a bit is better.
Take your steaks (5 oz per sandwich is more than plenty) season… remember you can severely reduce the amount of salt you may think you need….and grill for the time you like your steak under a very hot grill. Rump steak is best for this guy but sirloin will be great too…not filet steak…too little fat. I usually do mine medium rare. Once cooked, leave the steak to stand on a cold plate for a few minutes until the juices run red. Pour these on the bread and put some English mustard on one slice…as much as you like… put the onions on the sandwich and then slice the steak into thin strips and place on top. Add brown sauce or tomato ketchup to taste. Some like horseradish sauce as well. Serve with a tomato and onion salad…and ice cold beer. Guaranteed cure for the excesses of Friday night without having to go to the trouble of making the full English….
You can make sausage sandwiches with this basic idea but remember never, never, never buy cheap sausages….they’re not good to eat, not good for you and like a cheap Chinese take-away only give the illusion of filling you up….these days even supermarkets sell good sausages. I know its counter-intuitive on a tight budget but although the higher meat content the higher the price of the sausages they do leave you feeling more satisfied and you’ll eat fewer…the bread gives you the carbohydrates you need…increase the amount of onion, add mushrooms…make a little go further with stuff that’s good for you and not good for the profit margins of food manufacturers….
By the way hot lambs liver works very very well in this sandwich too and its cheap as chips as they say. Cook it pink…like steak and not like shoe-leather. This with onions is a lovely little sandwich…and liver is ludicrously cheap….
Devised for the coronation of George VI this is one of those odd mixes that succeeds where you think it might fail. Of course the curry element of this dish presents problems…originally raisins and chopped were used in the rather Victorian Anglo-curry beloved of Victorian cooks. Equally you don’t want something overcomplicated. I use a good old fashioned Madras curry paste. You can of course make the curry base with your own blend of spices. If you choose to do this make sure the spices cook on a high heat but don’t burn and then add a little yoghurt to the cooling mix to give the paste a smooth texture.
Fry a small onion and two cloves of garlic in a small amount of fat…almost dry fry….when the onions soften add one de-seeded tomatoes and three finely chopped mushroom as these soften as 1 desert-spoon of the paste. If you like it hot add one fresh green or red chilli….NO POWDER…. Cook on medium heat for a few minutes and then allow the mixture to cool.
The sandwich is best with chicken breast but there’s no reason on God’s earth not to use leg, thighs from a supermarket chicken. You will need six ounces or so for a decent sandwich. now, again don’t be tempted to chop the chicken finely or you’ll miss the point. Add the chicken to the cooled curry and onion base. Add two desert-spoons of home made mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon juice. Combine then gently….there’s the filling. Great on proper baps, or ciabatta rolls or just plain good bread.