Cooking for One
Cooking for One: Picture-Perfect Sandwiches
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Here's a challenge: Look at an up-close, cross-section, nooks-and-crannies image of a well-made sandwich, and try not to salivate.
I can't do it, but I love trying. That's why I'm one of the more than 10,000 people a day who log on to a New York graphic designer's blog for a daily dose of hero worship. On Scanwiches.com, I can while away the time scrolling from one beautiful scanned image to the next. Each is labeled with the date, name of the sandwich shop and product. What'll it be today? If it's April 17, it's "Parisi Bakery: Bologna, Lettuce, Cheddar, Mustard, on roll"; on March 31, it's "Alidoro: Salami, Fresh Mozzarella, Arugula on a baguette."
Staring me in the face, poised to be bitten, they render me slack-jawed for a good 10 or 15 minutes. And then my stomach starts to rumble, and I start to feel a little ridiculous, ogling another virtual sandwich instead of pursuing a real one.
Jon Chonko, the 24-year-old designer I think of as the Earl of Scanwich, works in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood near Chinatown, so it's plenty easy for him to run out every day and pick up a different bahn mi, sub or panino to pose cut side down on the glass of his flatbed scanner.
For those of us who don't live in an area full of delis, the daily sandwich hunt is more of a challenge. Which is why we make them ourselves. Sandwiches, in fact, may be the most universally accessible and beloved homemade creation there is, possibly because in their most basic form they don't require any cooking. Just stack your ingredients, cut and serve.
That's also what makes sandwiches perfect for the single cook. They're just as easily eaten over the sink at midnight as at your desk at lunch or on the couch, in front of the tube.
They're also pretty easy to take for granted. Looking at Scanwiches in recent weeks inspired me to pay better attention to what I was putting between slices of bread, but it also made me scout around for more direction than mere visual depiction, as captivating as Chonko's scans are. Coincidentally, Tom Colicchio's new " 'wichcraft" cookbook picks up nicely where Scanwiches leaves off. In it, Colicchio and co-author Sisha Ortuzar give detailed instructions for 80 sandwiches that span cold to hot, breakfast to dessert.
The book is an outgrowth of the restaurant chain that Colicchio and Ortuzar co-founded, which, in turn, was inspired by Ortuzar's staff-meal sandwiches at Craftsteak in Las Vegas. "The appeal of sandwiches is, anything kind of works," Colicchio said in a phone interview. "Leftovers. A roast. Two piece of bread, some garnish, some relish. It's always good."
Well, not always.
"You have to treat it like any dish you're making," he says. "It's about balance. You can't have too much meat, too much cheese, too much mayonnaise. You need good textures, good ratio of acid to rich flavors like cheese or mayo, but everything in balance."
Some of my favorite recipes in " 'wichcraft" (Clarkson Potter) are the simplest, such as the Smoked Salmon, Avocado and Mango Sandwich, which uses matchsticks of tart unripe mango as the sharp element and mashed avocado as the condiment. But many others are highly constructed affairs, in some cases taking hours of cooking that includes making sub-recipes for pickles, relishes, sauces and other condiments.
Once you've got those made and sitting in the fridge, of course, your sandwich making capabilities are greatly improved. But as a solo cook I have to choose such projects carefully. Will I find enough things to do with 1 1/2 cups of raisin-pine nut relish before it expires in a week?
In scaling down some of Colicchio's recipes to single-serving size, I couldn't help but also scale down the processes. I'm looking for sandwiches that, by and large, I can make start to finish after I get home from work.
For the Cubano Italiano, for instance, I'm sure the spice-rubbed pork shoulder is delicious after four hours at 250 degrees, but I broiled a pork cutlet instead. And there's no need to make a relish out of pickled peppers when you use Peppadews, already sweet, sour and spicy. Colicchio's hearty vegan Chickpea Sandwich calls for marinating the garbanzos in olive oil with onion, vinegar, celery, garlic, various herbs and lemon, then mashing a half-cup at a time for the sandwich, but I skipped right to the mashing, with fewer ingredients: chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, shallot and an Italian seasoning mix.
There's one sub-recipe I couldn't resist. Lemon Confit, a holdover from Colicchio's "Think Like a Chef" (Clarkson Potter, 2000), is too delicious to be ignored, too perfect to change and too simple to be simplified. It's basically a sped-up take on preserved lemons, thinly sliced instead of quartered and packed in olive oil after curing. These pungent beauties add a brightness to any sandwich, but they also can be used anywhere preserved lemons can: in stews, on salads, as part of an olive or pickle tray and more. And they're good for a month.
They also hold up well on a sandwich destined to be wrapped and taken to work. In the past I've pooh-poohed the idea of brown-bag sandwiches, partly because I prefer them fresh, but the no-utensils factor gives them an undeniable workplace appeal. After all, John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich himself, popularized the meat-on-bread idea in the 18th century because he was too busy to get up from his desk, at least according to one biographer.
"'Wichcraft" helps solve the soggy-bread problem that can plague a brown-bagger: Toast the slices of bread on one side, then turn those toasted sides inward. The technique blocks moisture and leaves the outside nice and soft for better biting. Brilliant.
It's just the type of technique that can help a sandwich's architecture survive, whether it's for eating or scanning. Besides pushing me to make better sandwiches, Chonko's blog inspired me to create images worthy of his Web site. I brought in the results of recipe tests. A colleague cleaned the glass on a flatbed scanner. I brandished a bread knife and placed a sandwich half on the glass. He selected "scan."
Once I saw the results, it wasn't long before I started salivating and my stomach began to rumble. This time, though, I was able to do something about that.