Archive for the ‘Sandwiches’ Category

Travelogue – High Seas Edition

Lemon Bars

Lemon Bars

Passover? Check. Easter? Check. Let the games begin. I have an unfailing, infallible, city-boy barometer that tells me every year when Spring has truly sprung: my eyes itch, my nose runs, and my throat gets raspy—a timbre somewhere between the earthiness of Bea Arthur and the pan-pipe squeak of Walter Brennan. Appealing.

No, this isn’t one of those city-boy rants about disliking nature, for Spring is to be celebrated. Even after the mild Winter we had, I still get the drift of the whole reborn/renew thing. It’s nice, right? I get it.

The change can be jarring though. Just about a week ago I was up in Massachusetts actually shivering and freezing my gougères. Today is warm and sunny. Spring weather makes me want to go on a picnic. I’ve always loved picnics since I was a tot in front of the TV watching Yogi Bear steal “pic-a-nic” baskets.  Just how die-hard of a city boy can I be if I like picnics?

The key is that I believe the word “picnic” can be very broadly defined.

When you mention the word picnic most people’s minds go straight to the image of the classic wicker picnic hamper. One summer during college I worked in a store that sold very elaborate (and very overpriced) picnic hampers fitted out with china, flatware, drinking glasses, gingham napkins, and a wet bar. (Kidding about the latter; just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.)

All that frippery is nice, but I think it is totally unnecessary. Admittedly the dishes and flatware were eco-green before their time, but that’s a sidebar to the main conversation.

My favorite picnic was a very New York experience, and while I do not remember the cost, I doubt it would be much of a stretch to call it dirt cheap. No wicker hamper. No blanket set out on the ground– in fact, no ground…but more about that in a moment.

First, I must cop to an embarrassing problem: I am rather prissy about washing my hands. If I eat something messy I am usually compelled to immediately wash my hands. Even too much vinegar in my salad triggers this compulsion. When I say “wash my hands” I mean wash my hands—little wet wipes usually will not satisfy. Obviously on a picnic this could present a problem, but I have it well under control via menu choices that support my apparent hand-related OCD.

Even under the best of circumstances it can be a trial to watch me eat a sandwich. No, I’m not messy. What I am is: annoyingly fastidious about everything staying in the sandwich. If anything falls out, then the entire operation must revert to fork and knife, except for the bread which at that point may be too soaked through with whatever for me to enjoy.

The other popular choice for picnic time is cold chicken. Based on my sandwich travails outlined above, how well do you think I’d do gnawing on a cold chicken wing? (Actually, this is a trick question. I just don’t like cold chicken. Put me next to a sink generously supplied with fluffy towels and skin nourishing soap and I’ll still be indifferent to cold chicken.)

By now you are likely under the impression that I am completely averse to eating anything without a utensil, but that it far from true.

Okay, enough of my soap and water blues; on with the picnic, city-boy style.

Let’s stop by Zabar’s on the way. While there we’ll be grabbing a baguette and avail ourselves of their slicing services.

We shall also step back into the cracker aisle (it’s next to the coffee). Any cracker is fine as long as the label is in a foreign language (and not ridiculously overpriced.) An alternative to crackers are my beloved Ines Rosales Tortas. I’d recommend getting both, but we’re going on a picnic and I like to travel light.

Next, depending on the weight of our purse (don’t you carry a purse? Mine is flat, plastic, and bears my name and a bank logo) we will choose a selection of thinly sliced meats and cheese. I’m a fan of Parma ham. (Sounds like a bumper sticker…) There’s also salami, speck, prosciutto—the beauty of a place like Zabar’s is that they’ll give you a little taste before you buy.

Let’s reverse course into the cheese aisle…a bit of razor-thin sliced Jarlsberg before we make our final and most important stop: the selection of chocolate bars up front near the cashier. I’m taking Damak pistachio-studded milk chocolate from Turkey, long my favorite , but go ahead and pick a dark chocolate so we can tell ourselves it’s actually health food, and then we’ll be on our way. (Grab a couple of bottles of water and I’ll meet you at the cashier.)

Because this is a city-boy picnic the first leg of the trip is—natch—the subway. We’ll jump on the 1 train and take it all the way down to South Ferry where we’ll meet our picnic destination: the Staten Island Ferry.

And I have a little surprise for you: hidden in my backpack are Lemon Bars that I baked just for this occasion. Is there anything that sings warm weather and sunny days better than a homemade Lemon Bar?

No, no, they’re all for you. Too messy for me…


Here’s the Lemon Bar recipe.


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Drift away


A cherished old photograph of my grandfather hung on my wall until recently when it mysteriously crashed to the floor. The glass broke, and the frame cracked, but thankfully the picture, probably a century old, survived intact.

It was kind of fun to take it to be re-framed for I hadn’t really looked that closely at it for a long time. As I studied the face of my twelve or thirteen year-old grandfather I noticed how much my Mother looks like him. The resemblance in some cases may only be apparent to me—the straightness of the upper lip and the set of his eyes— but nevertheless it is there. This drew me toward my mirror. How much of those little jigsaw pieces found their way to my face? The older I get the more I notice the resemblance to my Mother, so therefore I must have some of his features too.

I have always noticed that I also have a similar attention span to that of my Mother: zero.

This becomes apparent when I watch movies or TV or go to the theater. Five minutes and my mind has gone elsewhere. I will often catch myself and remind myself, “You’ve been looking forward to watching this show for days, PAY ATTENTION!”

Often I find myself with a particular group of friends for a night of watching some special event or another on TV. This usually involves Chinese or Vietnamese food, and dessert. Sadly, whatever knockout attire Brad and Angelina may have been wearing on the red carpet goes swiftly off my radar in favor of a second taste of “Goi Du Du”, an amazing green papaya and spicy beef salad we always order.

That answers one vital question: just where does my mind go when it drifts away? Answer: the buffet. Fortunately I have retained some measure of self control over my appetite, along with a sense obligation to my friends. “Put down the fork and PAY ATTENTION!”

(I became aware of this one time when a friend said he had the impression that the rest of the world disappeared when I eat.)

Okay, sorry. I enjoy my num-num, what can I say? But it isn’t just idle daydreaming that is happening when I drift away. Generally I am thinking, “How did they make this?” or “What’s that little flavor in the background.”

If the food is terrible—or even worse, non-existent (No!), I start thinking, “I wonder if I can pick something up on the way home?” This is accompanied by a quick estimate of how far out of my way this will take me.

The worst, of course, is “the bad sandwich.” I have used quotation marks to indicate a bit of drama. We have all been held captive by “the bad sandwich.” The unique selling points of “the bad sandwich” are: rubbery wraps, flavorless cold cuts, and unidentified sauce.

Not long ago while choking down a bad sandwich I made a vow to never be guilty of such a sin. As we’re about to enter Super Bowl / Award Show season I am prepared to make good on this commitment and naturally I am starting with the bread.

As we live in the era of the wrap I understand that many people consider the bread portion of the sandwich to simply be an edible bit of dinnerware—a food carrier. I consider the bread to be an integral part of any sandwich. Bad sandwich bread is like bad frosting on a cake.

I cherish the crunch of the crust and the chew of the inside. (Too intense?) Here’s my acid test for good sandwich bread: if it squishes when you go to cut your sandwich the bread is unsuitable for sandwich use. Here’s my suggestion. Use Pan Cubano, Cuban Bread.

This bread has a hearty, crunchy crust, and a sturdy interior that doesn’t melt away when you throw a bit of mustard on it. By design Cuban Bread is meant to be squished and take it with a smile. A Cuban sandwich is pressed like a Panini but without the grill marks. It is usually filled with ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, but don’t feel hemmed in by its habits. Just pay tribute to me, and fill it with lots of flavor. This is no place for mild deli meat; this is the land of tangy cold cuts, and a bit of pepper.

Cuban Bread’s stocky demeanor also lends itself to a bit of off label use because it makes the best garlic bread ever.

If you’re a beginner to bread baking you’ll find this to be one of the simpler bread recipes around, although I don’t recommend attempting it without a loyal, trusty Kitchen Aid to do the work for you.

On the other hand, if you choose to do without the stand mixer, you can always log baking Cuban Bread as an upper body workout.


Click here for the recipe for Cuban Bread


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Looking forward to the warmer tweets…

Mother of All Breads


Challah holds an interesting place in the lore of my family. My Mom has been known to speak longingly of her Grandmother who, according to the lore, was a legendary baker. Mom’s Grandmother had two sons and two daughters. If we could transport our selves back in time to visit her kitchen on a late Friday afternoon we would see a kitchen table holding – among other things – a challah for each of her kids to take home to their families, plus mini-challahs for the grandchildren.

(Okay, scorecard: That’s five challahs (one for her), plus several mini ones, plus strudel (which deserves a blog of its own), plus untold other goodies. Oh, and yeah, a little thing called Sabbath dinner too. And that was just Friday. What can I say? The woman, may she rest in peace but frequently haunt me with her skills, was a machine.)

This speaks volumes to me. Here was woman from “the old country” likely carrying out the household “duties” that generations of “her” women carried out and bequeathed to her. Yet the little challahs always make me think that she expressed a great deal of love and caring through the simple execution of her “duties.” It can be tempting to bake something and be boastful about it, but the love expressed through that baking is what really feeds people.

Nothing surprising there. Moms of my generation have more ammunition in their arsenal of ways to express their love. Some still do it by baking bread, others do it by bringing home the bacon, but I’d be willing to bet that “Eat, eat! You look too thin!” is a maternal exhortation that easily crosses generational and cultural lines. I expect that as I write this there’s a Mother Elephant in the African wild trumpeting it to her youngsters.

You could almost say that challah is the mother of all bread. Bread itself is called the staff of life, but there’s something about challah, supercharged as it is with eggs, that seems particularly life sustaining.

(Before we go any further, it is important to explain that the correct pronunciation of challah – at least where I come from – is chalee. I have no idea why or if it is indeed a regional aberration. For the record we did the same thing to matzo. It was always mutzee.) (And don’t stress over the “CH” sound. If you can’t do it, no worries.)

Anyway, the lesser bit of challah lore in my family pertains to the large, elaborately braided, ornamental challah that was served at my Bar Mitzvah. It was baked by my Mom’s Aunt’s Brother-In-Law (did I lose you?) whose last name was Oven. A baker named Oven? I love it!

As you can tell, challah was traditionally a “special event” bread. Besides the weekly Sabbath, a big challah is always ceremoniously broken at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. What is more elemental than symbolically breaking bread with friends and family?

As breads go, challah is a star. Let’s face it, the rich eggy inside and the sweet shellacked crust are almost magic opposites; an odd couple that only the god of French toast could have created. It is no surprise that challah has been transported from an ethnic, special event food to sandwiches everywhere.  Would my great-Grandmother have approved? (I say yes.)

Having now gone to great lengths to sing the praises of a loaf of bread, you may have assumed that I have baked challah before. The truth is that the challah pictured above is the first one I have ever baked. And having now baked challah, I will forevermore consider it my “go to” bread. It’s really easy.

As with any bread, the work is all front loaded. You wonder, “What about all that kneading? Isn’t it hard work?” No: I have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. It does all the manual labor. I just measure the ingredients. The Kitchen Aid does the mixing and kneading, the yeast does the rising, and then the oven takes over. If anything my skills were organizational more than anything else. I will admit that it is a process that takes several hours, but they are hours you can spend on other tasks. The shiny, imperious loaf you see above? I made that while I watched a movie.

“Ah,” you smirk, “What about the braiding?” Not necessary. The loaf you see above was made for Rosh Hashanah; for this holiday, challah is traditionally shaped into a spiral round loaf. The symbolism is vague: it either represents God’s crown, the spiral progression upward through life’s cycles, or the wheel of the seasons. For other times of the year, I’ll just plunk the flabby, puffy dough into loaf pans and bake them as big, fat loaves. If you’re ambitious and want to braid then I applaud you.

As I scanned the internet to read about challah I did find one tidbit that interested me. Some folks add saffron to their challah. What a brilliant idea! Saffron will add just the right amount of subtle and mysterious character to challah, almost making the eggs “eggier.” My next challah will definitely have saffron.

As I mentioned, challah makes amazing French Toast, but you may get better results if you allow leftovers of this rich moist bread get about 24 hours of staleness under its belt before practicing your French.

Leftovers? Now that’s funny!


Click here for the recipe for Challah.


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The Fisherman’s Wife

Anadama Bread

Anadama Bread

My version of the legend goes something like this: a Gloucester fisherman comes home hungry after a long day of working on his boat. Bone tired, dead hungry, his mouth watering in anticipation of a good meal, he heads straight to the kitchen to see what his wife has waiting for dinner. Instead of his wife, he finds a note: “Out with the girls. Dinner in the ‘fridge – Anna.” Opening the refrigerator, he finds Anna’s culinary masterpiece, a bowl of cooked cornmeal and molasses. “Again!” he fumes, his anger boiling before he explodes with the plaintive wail, “Anna! Damn her!”

The happier version has it that the fisherman came home to the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread and a smiling, doting Anna. After sampling her newly created cornmeal-molasses bread, the fisherman shakes his head, and coos gratefully, “Anna. Damn her, she did it again.”

On reflection, the lazy wife in my first version sounds like one of those trashy attention hogs from a reality TV show they might have named, “I Married a Fisherman.” Apologies. My Baby Niece may have corralled me into watching one too many episodes of “Keeping up with the Kardashians.”

Anna and her malnourished hubby are actually the featured players in a food legend that is as old as it is apocryphal. The fisherman’s expletive, “Anna, damn her!” became “Anadama” as the cornmeal-molasses bread is now more commonly known. This bread has been a standby in New England for many years. When Pepperidge Farm was still a little regional bakery, their version was a staple in supermarkets all around the Northeast.

Suddenly its day had passed, the bread seemingly relegated to the category of Thanksgiving specialty.

Growing up, the bread basket at Thanksgiving dinner was something I anticipated long before the call to the table. In those days, its contents could have passed for dessert: sticky buns, corn muffins, and the obligatory sweet-something-studded-with-cranberries. For this kid those goodies were like Pooh’s honey pot.

Also huddled in the bread basket—and likely overlooked (pushed side would be more accurate) by my grubby little fingers—was Anadama bread. As a kid Anadama bread didn’t hold the same appeal as its icky-sticky basket mates, but as an adult, it has my apologies for years of snubs. It’s good stuff.

Our Thanksgiving tables are reflections of our ethnic and regional backgrounds, so if you grew up outside of New England you were unlikely to have had Anadama bread. But now that you’ve been indoctrinated in the lore, let’s eat, shall we?

Anadama bread is a case of promises fulfilled. It tastes exactly as it looks. The dark, chewy crust quickly gives way, making you pause only long enough to get a gratifying whiff of toast, while the caramel-tinted center is only delicately sweetened: first, with the earthiness of the cornmeal, then with the snap of the molasses that follows a few steps behind. It is full of Yankee self confidence and doesn’t need to show off like those flashy sticky buns. How did I miss this as a kid?

Maybe it was because some of the Anadama bread of my youth was supercharged with generous portions of whole wheat flour and a dash or three of uncooked cornmeal. These unnecessary additions made the loaf heavy on colonial ambiance, but light on appeal. If I want a lesson about early Americans I’ll visit Plymouth Plantation. In the meantime, keep your gritty mitts off my Anadama; mine is made with white bread flour to mellow the cooked cornmeal.

Baking Anadama bread is slightly different from baking other breads because you must first boil the cornmeal. Boiling the cornmeal softens it so that its natural grittiness melts away as it is kneaded with the other flours. Some older recipes require cooking the cornmeal for five hours, then letting it soak further overnight. That is unnecessary. A quick boil followed by a gentle cool down achieves the same end. You then add the molasses and yeast to the cooked cornmeal creating a sort of abbreviated version of a “biga”, the sponge used as a starter in denser Italian breads.

If you’ve never made bread before, don’t let all this techni-trivia throw you; you’ll find baking this bread is a fairly easy process. Just be prepared: this is a project that takes about five hours from start to taking the first bite. But the good news is that the labor is all front-loaded. The five hours includes two rises and the baking. Your participation in those steps is minimal at most; you are really only needed for the first 45 minutes or so.

If you’re new to bread baking and you’re also the Field Marshall of an entire Thanksgiving feast, you may want to do a dress rehearsal, or at the very least bake this bread a day or two in advance (store the tightly-wrapped loaves in the freezer, and gently reheat in the oven before dinner.) If you’re availing yourself of others’ hospitality, this is a perfect “bring-along.” Let someone else bring pie.

As with most Thanksgiving dinners, there are likely to be a lot of leftovers, although I doubt your Anadama bread will be among them. But if you’re lucky enough to have a few slices in reserve the next day, you’ll say, “Merci” for Anadama French toast.  

While we’re on the subject of leftovers: how about the “Plymouth Rock”? Turkey and stuffing, dab of cranberry sauce on Anadama. Thankful, indeed!

(By the way, I made up the name “Plymouth Rock.”  Feel free to name the sandwich anything you like.)

I’ll be munching on Anadama bread next week, but I’m not too proud to admit that I still hope there’ll be a sticky bun with my name on it…

Click here for my Anadama Bread recipe.

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Alice In Onionland

An onion sandwich?

An onion sandwich?

One night many years ago I found myself in the center of the rink in Rockefeller Center. No ice:  it was a hot summer night. Uncomfortable. Humid. Crowded. I looked around, blinking, trying to make sense of the crowd moving me around like a rip tide at the beach. Through circumstances lost to the mists of time, I had found myself at “Taste of the Nation,” the annual event that benefits Share Our Strength, an amazing organization that has been working to eradicate childhood hunger for over 25 years.

I don’t remember the year, but it was definitely BFN (Before Food Network). In the swirl of people, the center of the vortex was Paul Prudhomme, the ample king (in pre-Emeril days) of New Orleans food. He brought blackened food to the fore, a modest idea that unfortunately became a vogue as outsized as Prudhomme himself. The whole thing got a bit out of hand: if it swam or walked, chefs everywhere were suffocating it in too much spice and burning it in a cast iron skillet. 

Can you tell that I never connected to blackened food? I always felt like I was fighting hard to like it —and losing. That’s just my humble opinion, and is certainly not a slam against Prudhomme. He’s forgotten more about food than I will ever know, and he is certainly about more than just blackened redfish.

But on that humid night, in the middle of an ice-less skating rink, Paul Prudhomme may as well have been Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. People just had to be near him, touch him, and eat his purposely-burnt food. 

I am not built for summer. I am bald, pale, and chilly Eastern Europe lurks vaguely in my background. When the mercury goes over 55 degrees I start to sweat. So that night one of my main missions was to find enough water to drink to replace the water that was rapidly sweating out of me and onto my clothes. (Bald, pale, and sweaty: Attractive, no?)

It was in my quest for yet another bottle of water that I found, tucked away in a corner and under the stairs, a kindly-looking, tidy little woman, making tidy little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. She was not attracting a crowd. The only way to explain how bad the location was that she’d been given is to say that if the event had been inside on a cold night, people would have tried to check their coats with her.

My heart went out to this poor ignored woman, so I approached her and asked what she was serving. 

“These are onion sandwiches. Have one!”

Oh, this poor misguided woman. Everyone around her was cooking up a storm, and here she was making these quaint little sandwiches that looked like something Norma Shearer would eat in an old MGM movie. Is that all she knew how to do? Mostly out of pity, I took one and ate it.

How do you best describe in words those moments in life when your perceptions of the world have been changed in a flash? If I were filming the moment, there would be a choir singing “AHHHH” on the soundtrack, and the camera would circle around me while streaks of sunlight would break though misty clouds and hit me like pin spots.

The sandwich was as sweet as sugar. The “onion-ness” we all expect from an onion was only an accent to the sweetness—more like the reassuring presence of a parent at a child’s recital. Understand that this was a sandwich about the size of two fingers, a slice of onion on buttered hearty farmhouse white bread, and as I said, no crusts.

I simply had never eaten anything like it, and quickly asked if I could have another. 

I am blushing as I admit that my next question was, “Is there sugar on the onion?” 

(Picture it: a bald, pale, sweaty, man asking if this woman had sprinkled the onions with sugar. And quite a picture it is, yes?)

The kindly-looking, tidy woman tilted her head to one side, a gesture not unlike a teacher addressing a first grade student, and explained patiently, “No. That’s the onion.”

“But it’s so sweet!”

With almost heartbreaking empathy she replied, “Yes, well, they’re Sweet Onions.” Clearly the kindly-looking, tidy woman was on an educational mission.

I’m sure I ate a lot of food that night, but I only remember the onion sandwich. At the time I had no idea that the kindly-looking, tidy woman–Alice Waters–is considered the pioneering mother of cooking that uses only fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The influence she has had on American chefs is profound to say the least.

Such a simple philosophy. So easily demonstrated by an onion sandwich. 

I have never tried to recreate this simple, beautiful sandwich. Why? Alice Waters didn’t, after all, invent the onion sandwich. (I think hers was actually modeled after James Beard’s, and I doubt that he invented it either.)

Am I intimidated by being able to find the perfect onion? I am. I think the onion sandwich demonstrates that shopping with an open mind for just the right ingredients is just as important as refined cooking technique–perhaps more so. And to me, that’s a bit daunting.

It is likely that when she woke up that morning, Alice Waters had no idea what she was going to cook that night. She probably decided after she had poked around a greenmarket and found the wonderful Sweet Onions she used in the sandwiches.

My shopping is so passive. I go to the supermarket. I buy whatever is there. I don’t ask questions like, “Is this in season locally?” or “Where did this come from?” I experience frequent disappointment with apples and tomatoes.

I have the exercise backwards! I shop with a recipe in mind, instead of seeing what potential ingredients are at their peak, and then figuring out what to do with them.

I should know better. When I was a kid we lived a short foliage-viewing drive from an apple farm, wonderfully named Honey Pot Hill Orchards, a place where the smell of apples was intoxicating.

My favorites were the small, crunchy, sweet Macouns. I have, at times, tried buying Macouns at various supermarkets here in New York. My ritual is always the same: as the apple approaches my mouth, a rush of memories floods my consciousness. Then the first mealy, dull, bite jolts me back to the present, not unlike being jostled awake because of a mildly disturbing dream.

My parents would never have gone to the orchard at any other time of year. Everyone knows that fall is apple season. I need to apply this same logic to the other things I eat.

Is it time for me to recreate that onion sandwich? The answer would be found at the market.

The bread and butter part is easy. But for the Sweet Onion, as an experiment I decided to try four sources: my neighborhood market, a fancy gourmet market, Whole Foods, and the greenmarket in Union Square. No agenda here: I really like all four markets for different reasons.

I have learned that there are onions, and then there are Sweet Onions: higher sugar and water content, lower sulfur content. Sulfur is what makes your eyes water when you slice onions.

My neighborhood market had navel orange-size faux Vidalias labeled as being from the “Western United States.” But slicing this onion made my eyes water: not a promising sign. Indeed, the onion was very harsh raw; overpowering in a sandwich, but delicious cooked.

The fancy gourmet market had smaller Sweet Onions from Peru whose thin skins held out great promise. These made a decent sandwich, but one not nearly as sweet as Alice’s. And it violates the fresh, local rules: I had at the very least hoped to stick with an onion from the USA.

Whole Foods and the greenmarket were not selling any Sweet Onions the day I went foraging.  Lesson learned. Sweet Onions are advertised as being available all year round. But the prime season is late spring through mid-summer, so I’ll wait to make the sandwiches then.

For now I’ll stick to apples, which are also advertised as being available year round, but are truly coming into their season now. It is still a bit early, but I found some outstanding, crisp, sweet, Courtland apples from Massachusetts, and some better than OK Macintosh apples from Upstate New York.

So now that I have the apples I have to figure out what to do with them.

An apple sandwich? Oh! Even better: Pie, anyone?

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