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Real Entertaining: Sandwiches for a crowd

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; E01

A card-shark friend of mine insisted she come over to teach me the ins and outs of Texas Hold 'Em, so a poker night was in order. I asked some regular players what foods they enjoy at the card table, and every response was the same.

"Don't get all esoteric and cheffy on us," one of them warned. "This ain't a ladies' luncheon. Make sandwiches."

She had a point. When you are entertaining around an activity or an event, such as playing games or watching the Academy Awards, the food part of the program should not be too distracting. Sandwiches are self-contained, can be cut into small portions, don't require utensils and don't need much attention from the host once they are put together.

As the snowstorm got underway a few weeks ago, I loaded up on all sorts of meats, cheeses, vegetables, herbs, condiments and breads with which to experiment. The "research sandwiches" would be vetted at a friend's potluck Super Bowl party.

First out of the gate was a banh mi of rub-crusted roast pork, truffled duck liver mousse, zesty radish kimchi, bean sprouts and cilantro leaves, stuffed into a crisp baguette. The dressing, fashioned from mayonnaise, Sriracha chili sauce and nuoc mam (fish sauce), accomplished what a condiment should: It made its presence known and complemented the fillings without overwhelming them.

With varying textures (crunchy, chewy, soft) and complex flavors typical of Vietnamese cooking (sweet, sour, salty, piquant, herbal), this banh mi illustrates what separates the wheat from the chaff in the sandwich field.

Architecture makes a sandwich superlative. Bread, spread and extra fillings are just as important as the main ingredient. And although some might be loath to concede the fact, the richness, dimension and mouth feel that fat adds to a sandwich, be it from cheese, butter, avocado or a smattering of excellent olive oil, are undeniable.

For the next effort, I built a veggie sandwich, starting with a foundation of kalamata olive bread and homemade pesto. To that I added broiled eggplant, zucchini and balsamic-drizzled portabello mushrooms; roasted red peppers; smoked mozzarella; garlic-infused spinach; broccoli slaw; a schmear of ricotta cheese.

Wrapping the sandwich tightly in plastic wrap and pressing it with a weight for a couple of hours serves as extra insurance that the flavors will meld optimally. Compressing it also makes the sandwich easier to cut (right through the wrap) and eat.

As the snow piled up outside, so did the sandwiches in the refrigerator, some topped with skillets and canned foods to weight them down. Layered roast turkey on focaccia with Emmenthaler, cabbage slaw, sprouts, avocado and arugula shared a shelf with a riff on muffuletta, the famed New Orleans specialty; I morphed it into an enormous rustic loaf filled with capicola, sopressata, mortadella, boiled ham, aged provolone and an Italian giardiniera salad spread.

The testing didn't stop there. I had borrowed a panini press: that hinged, crenellated griddle that compresses and toasts sandwiches (panini) and gives them those perfectly crisped ridges. Panini typically include melty cheeses, such as Gruyere, fontina or cheddar, that fuse the fillings and bread. They are best cooked to order but can be assembled well in advance. My interpretation of a tuna melt turned out nicely: smoked salmon and trout with cheddar and Boursin cheeses, thinly sliced red onion, jalapeƱo pepper and Granny Smith apples. (Seared fresh tuna worked, too.)

An attempt to turn falafel, cucumbers, hummus, brie and dill into a hot pressed sandwich failed miserably. Some things are just fine the way they are.

Planning to explore the pressed-sandwich theme to the fullest extent, I bought an appliance that has long intrigued me on infomercials ("As Seen on TV!"): a nonstick, double-slice electric grill that divides two sandwiches into four sealed empanada-like triangles. A little cooked ground chicken, cilantro, scallions, pepper jack cheese and chili powder, and voila! Hot pockets.

Despite my friends' warnings, it just isn't in me to not offer a little something to go along with the main course. Besides, what's a sandwich without soup? The pureed cauliflower and fennel cream I came up with filled the bill perfectly. It could be sipped straight from a mug and, more important, it freezes well.

Of course, dessert is de rigueur, even for serious card players. I filled two pieces of buttered brioche with chopped bananas, toffee pieces and dark rum, coated the sandwich in sugar and cooked it on the infomercial grill. Out came four gooey, triangular Bananas Foster pies that were made even better when served with scoops of vanilla ice cream. Ultra-easy, and restaurant-worthy.

At the beginning of the sandwich odyssey, my significant other, as chief taste tester, thought he had fallen into the honey pot.

What could be better than being snowed in with a chef who is testing recipes, he crowed on Twitter between bites.

His enthusiasm waned when the Super Bowl party was canceled. It became evident that nothing but sandwiches would be coming out of the kitchen for days to come. When the second storm hit and the weekend card game was nixed, he couldn't take it anymore.

I walked into the dining room. There he sat, with an untouched stack of veggies and bread, clicking away on his laptop. Over his shoulder I read his pleading tweet: "Help! Save me! I'm trapped with a chef who is testing recipes!"

I hit the delete key and suggested he get back on the job. I didn't have the heart to tell him the card party had turned into an Oscar-watching party, at our house this Sunday.

Guess what's on the menu.

Recipes

Bananas Foster Sandwich

Cauliflower and Fennel Soup

Chicken Hot Pockets

Pork Banh Mi

Pressed Muffuletta

Pressed Veggie Sandwich

Smoked Salmon and Trout Panini

Hagedorn can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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