How to elevate the humble sandwich from a mere snack to a gourmet treat.
The art of the sandwich
From the shawarmas that are devoured all over the Middle East to France's croque-monsieur, not forgetting American po' boys stuffed to bursting with fried oysters or Florence's famous lampredotto with its veal stomach filling, the sandwich is enjoyed in various different guises all over the world.
Today, the earl's midday-meal solution remains as popular as ever. In March this year, it was reported that Subway had overtaken McDonald's to became the largest fast-food chain in the world. This rise in popularity has been attributed to a number factors, not least that the general public tend to view sandwiches as healthier than burgers and fries. Subway's "Eat Fresh" mantra has no doubt helped to reinforce this perception.
As generalisations go, this may well be true, but in the case of Subway it very much depends on the size of your sub and how you choose to fill it. Consider that a six-inch version of Subway's signature meatball marinara contains 580 calories and 9g of saturated fat (almost half the recommended daily allowance) and you don't need to be a nutritionist to conclude that this is far from diet food. That's not to say that Subway doesn't offer healthier choices; a six-inch Veggie Delite contains only 230 calories and 0.5g of saturated fat. Unsurprisingly, though, the meatball marinara outstrips it on the sales front.
Prepared without due care and attention (think mass-produced fillings and fridge-cold bread with dry curling crusts) a sandwich can be an altogether forgettable experience. Done well, though, it can be truly delicious. Both bread and filling have their separate roles to play in the construction of a great sandwich. The choice of bread is important, but it's the filling that is capable of elevating this portable meal into something really special.
In many ways the sandwich is at its best when it is kept simple: egg and cress made with free-range eggs, good-quality mayonnaise and peppery leaves; slabs of ripe Brie perched on top of freshly baked baguettes, or triangles of fresh white bread enclosing paper thin slivers of salt and pepper-specked cucumber. These classic flavours more than hold their own amid a sea of curried chicken wraps and pesto-marinated vegetables on tomato-infused focaccia.
If you add too many different ingredients to your sandwich, it often starts to go wrong: the key here is knowing when to stop. Or, in some cases, realising that you shouldn't have started at all, as was surely the case when the UK supermarket giant Tesco launched the "lasagne sandwich" last year. This monstrosity consisted of slices of white bread filled with minced beef, sheets of pasta and a creamy cheese sauce - a lesson in calories and carb loading if there ever was one. To make matters worse, the packaging was emblazoned with the colours of the Italian flag, presumably to reinforce the authenticity of the product.
So what makes a good sandwich? Well, it's important to remember that different types of bread suit different sandwich fillings. As a general rule of thumb, the more moist the filling, the crustier the bread should be. Ratio is also important: if there's too much filling then it spills out of the sides and the bread goes soft, too little and it seems stingy and tastes dry. Due to their high water content, ingredients such as lettuce and tomatoes have a tendency to seep liquid into the bread and cause it to turn soggy, so if possible they should be added at the last minute. Think about the ingredients that you are using and whether they go well together. If they do, then layer them on top of each other, rather than just flinging on to the bread in a jumbled mass.
The pivotal factor determining whether a sandwich is any good or not is the person doing the preparation, which is why homemade is nearly always best. Below are a few ideas for those who fancy pepping up their lunch, but don't quite have the stomach for lampredotto.
Steak sandwich with roasted garlic and crispy shallot rings
The steak sandwich is a well-loved classic that relies on quality ingredients; a piece of well-aged rump, fresh ciabatta bread and crisp lettuce leaves are the key players here. The shallot rings and roasted garlic just give it a bit of a twist.
Serves 2 (generously)
1 tbsp olive oil
350g rump steak
For the roasted garlic:
1 bulb garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
For the crispy shallots:
2 shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rings
50g corn flour
vegetable oil for frying
1 ciabatta loaf, sliced in half lengthways
a few lettuce leaves
tomato chutney (optional)
salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200ºC/fan 180ºC/gas 6. Slice the top of the garlic bulb, just enough to remove the tips of the individual cloves. Drizzle over the olive oil, season with salt and black pepper and wrap in a double layer of foil. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes or until soft to touch.
Pour the milk and corn flour into two separate bowls. Season the corn flour with salt and pepper. Dip the individual shallot rings into the milk, shake off the excess liquid and tip into the bowl containing the flour. Toss to coat. Pour enough vegetable oil into a small saucepan so that it is a third full. Heat to 180ºC. To check whether the oil is hot enough, drop in a cube of bread. It should become golden brown in 20 seconds. Deep-fry the shallot rings for one to two minutes, until golden and crispy. Drain well and then keep warm in a low oven until you are ready to serve.
Place a griddle or frying pan over a high heat and leave for two to three minutes, or until piping hot. Drizzle the meat all over with the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Rub the seasoning into the meat and then place the steak in the hot pan. Cook for two to three minutes on each side, or longer if you prefer your meat well done. Remove from the pan and leave to rest in a warm place. Slice the meat on the angle.
Place the ciabatta loaf cut-side down in the pan and toast for a few seconds on each side.
To assemble, squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of their skin and spread over the toasted ciabatta. Arrange a layer of lettuce leaves across the bottom. Place the sliced steak on top and scatter over the shallot rings and a spoonful of tomato chutney, if using. Slice in half and serve.
Roasted prawns on rye bread
A mixture of prawns and mayonnaise, or marie rose sauce, has long been a favourite sandwich filling. Unfortunately, mayonnaise is high in fat, so although the prawns are a great source of low-fat protein, this can still end up being a calorific snack. I've updated this recipe a little, using crème fraîche instead of mayonnaise and sun-blushed tomatoes in place of ketchup. Serving this as an open sandwich not only looks pretty, but also cuts calories.
For the sauce:
120g low-fat crème fraîche
zest of a lemon
6 sun-blushed tomatoes, finely chopped
For the prawns:
1 tbsp olive oil
10 large prawns
juice of a lemon
a few green lettuce leaves, very thinly shredded
4 slices rye bread, cut into strips (if you wish)
salt and black pepper
Tip the crème fraîche into a bowl. Add the lemon zest, paprika and chopped tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the prawns and cook for one minute before squeezing over the lemon juice. Sauté for a further two minutes, or until just cooked through. Remove from the pan, allow to cool slightly, then slice the prawns in half lengthways.
Spread the crème fraîche mixture over the bread and top with the sliced prawns. Sprinkle over the shredded lettuce just before serving.
Portable picnic loaf
This all-in-one loaf travels well and is much less hassle than preparing lots of individual sandwiches. Feel free to swap the ingredients around.
1 sturdy loaf of bread (eg bloomer loaf or large cob roll)
1 small aubergine
3 tbsp olive oil
175g cream cheese
small bunch basil
75g roasted red peppers (from a jar or deli section), sliced
75g roasted artichokes (from a jar or deli section), sliced
salt and black pepper
Cut the aubergine into slices approximately 1cm thick. Place in a colander, sprinkle lightly with salt. After 30 minutes wash off the salt and any liquid and pat dry.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the aubergine slices and cook for two to three minutes on each side, or until tender and starting to blacken slightly. Drain on a plate lined with kitchen roll.
Slice the top off the loaf and set aside for later. Remove most of the inside of the bread to create a shell. Spread a layer of cream cheese over the inside base of the loaf. Scatter over a few basil leaves. Arrange a layer of roasted peppers over the top. Follow this with a layer of artichokes and then aubergine. Continue this layering process until the bread shell is full. Make sure the ingredients are firmly packed, then replace the bread lid and wrap the whole thing in cling film. Place a weight on top of the loaf and leave for a few hours or overnight. Cut into wedges to serve.