Posts Tagged ‘Sandwich’

Drift away

Cuban

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.

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Click here for the recipe for Cuban Bread

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Looking forward to the warmer tweets…

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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