For those of us who don't work in an office or who don't have the luxury of sandwich shops around the corner, it's not always easy to figure out what to do about lunch. After driving to the dry cleaner, the ATM, the post office, the garden center and soccer practice, we finally land back home and realize there's not much in the refrigerator.
But I've come to realize that I can put together something far more impressive than turkey with lettuce and tomato on white simply by opening a few doors, none of them being the front one. I just turn to my pantry.
At the small cafe and bakery I co-own in SoHo in Manhattan, we have a straightforward sandwich-making formula. It begins with the main ingredient, what we call "the goods," and we let it guide us through our selection of the remaining components, from the bread to extra ingredients that give the sandwich a little oomph. Think of creating a sandwich as analogous to planning a dinner party. The entree choice should dictate complimentary side dishes. That's how it goes with sandwiches, too.
Now just apply this concept to whatever is in your pantry.
As main ingredients, canned tuna and sardines are easy favorites. Other satisfying, shelf-stable proteins include canned beans, hard cheeses and nut butters -- peanut, cashew or almond -- are not only nutritious but compatible with many fruits and vegetables that most people tend to have on hand. Hard and semi-firm cheeses such as Parmesan, pecorino, cheddar, Jarlsberg, Gruyere, Emmentaler, aged goat, feta and blues have good shelf lives. The beans can be quickly mashed with olive oil, salt and pepper to create a spread, and the hard cheeses last in the refrigerator for a number of weeks and make terrific melts.
The foundation for every good sandwich is bread. Pair the main ingredient appropriately. Consider all the types, including Wonder white, whole-grain, pita or English muffin. While some breads have a decent shelf life, most fresh bakery breads do not last more than a day or two; freezing bread may become an important step in stocking up for impromptu pantry sandwiches.
For the other filler ingredients, strive for a combination of tastes that work well together to achieve a flavorful foundation. If something can be paired together in a salad or on a cheese plate, chances are you can make a sandwich out of it. Combine tuna with celery or fennel, sardines with pepperoncini (those thin red chilis), almond butter with sliced bananas or apples, or farmhouse cheddar with dates.
Finish the sandwich with a condiment of some sort that can turn an ordinary sandwich into something special. Use plain mayonnaise (you can make your own or stock up on a quality store-bought brand), or flavor it in any of several ways. Try stirring in some tahini, soy sauce, garlic and herbs, mustard and honey, for example.
Or switch to mustard, which can be embellished just as easily with jarred chutney or salad dressing.
Keep the sandwich open-faced and warm it under the broiler, or finish your sandwich by topping it with another slice of bread and serve it at room temperature. And there, lying before you, without opening the front door or waiting in line, is lunch.
With a little bit of pantry planning, a sandwich can come together easily. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Farmhouse Cheddar, Mustard and Chutney on Seven-Grain Bread: Spread mango chutney evenly over one slice of bread. Layer sliced cheese and on top. Spread coarse-grain mustard on a second slice of bread and place on top of the sandwich. If a melt is desired, spread butter on top and place in a preheated skillet over medium heat, buttered side down, then cook until golden brown. Flip and continue cooking until cheese is completely melted and other side is golden.
Almond Butter and Apple Sandwich: Split an English muffin in half, toast and allow to cool a bit. Spread one half with almond butter, covering the bread completely. Arrange apple slices on top and then drizzle with honey. If desired, add freshly ground black pepper and top with the other muffin half.
White Bean Pita Sandwich With Garlic and Olive Oil: In a small bowl using a fork, mash the beans and some finely chopped garlic and slowly add enough olive oil until the mixture forms a spreadable paste. Warm the pita bread in the toaster or oven. Spread the bean paste over the bread and, if desired, top with some black olive spread and drained roasted bell peppers packed in oil. Fresh oregano or basil would be a nice complement if you have it on hand.
Sardine Sandwich Brush both sides of two slices of bread with olive oil. Heat on a preheated grill pan or skillet, turning once, until crisped on both sides. Then arrange several sardines on one slice of bread, top with arugula, watercress or frisee and, if desired, some drained pepperoncini.
Flavor your mayonnaise: Start with either store-bought or homemade mayonnaise, then add a spoonful, a squeeze or a modest portion of any of the following:
Garlic, lemon juice and cracked
Finely chopped fresh or dried
Chipotle peppers in adobo
Black or green olive spread
Roasted and minced bell
Soy sauce, tahini and lemon
Capers and finely chopped
Lemon zest and juice
Jazz up plain mustard: If you prefer mustard to mayonnaise, add a spoonful of any of the following to either Dijon-style or coarse-grain mustard:
Fresh or dried thyme
Other jarred condiments: Pepperoncini
Roasted red peppers packed in
Sun-dried tomatoes packed in
Chipotle peppers in adobo
Soy sauce or tamari
Freezing Bread: Although all bread can be frozen, some types defrost better than others. A few favorites are sturdy loaves, English muffins, bagels, whole-grain breads and pitas.
It is important to prepare the bread for a sandwich before it goes into the freezer by slicing the bread, halving a bagel or splitting a pita. When you want a sandwich, simply thaw, grill or toast as many slices as you need.
No matter how many precautions are taken, frozen and defrosted bread won't taste as good as fresh. So enhance the bread as much as possible. Grill the finished sandwich in a cast-iron skillet or brush the bread with olive oil and sprinkle with dried herbs, or rub with fresh garlic before placing it on the grill or under the broiler.
Frank Mentesana is co-owner of Once Upon a Tart, a bake shop and cafe in Manhattan, and the co-author of "Once Upon a Tart . . . Soups, Salads, Muffins, and More," written with Jerome Audureau and Carolynn Carreno (Knopf, 2003). He last wrote for Food about grain salads.