It's Sunday afternoon. You're snuggled up in your favorite chair--the big cushy one with the fluffy pillows--smack dab in front of the TV. You've laid claim to the ottoman. The blinds are drawn, the remote is resting in your hand and you're perfectly content to spend the afternoon watching football or old Audrey Hepburn flicks. You are so relaxed you don't want to move a muscle.
And then your stomach growls.
If there is anything worth crawling out of a comfy chair for on a fall day, it's a perfectly constructed hot sandwich. There's something incredibly satisfying about a sandwich with bread that's toasty warm, filling that's heated through and crisp around the edges, and fixings held together by a gooey cheese that just barely keeps the sandwich filling from slipping out the sides and onto the chenille throw.
Cold sandwiches, such as the Dagwood, hoagie, submarine and hero, stave off hunger. But they have nothing over the Monte Cristo, the melt, the cheesesteak, the muffuletta, the Reuben, the Georgia Reuben, the croque monsieur or the quesadilla. Even the Napoleon--the elaborately stacked sandwich of the '90s--is nothing but a fancy name for a pile of carbohydrates separated by noncarbohydrates.
The perfectly constructed hot sandwich often begins with the simple grilled cheese. Take the perfect amount of cheese, put it between two slices of bread and fry it in exactly the right amount of butter at the right temperature so the bread becomes crisp, not soggy.
Go one step further: Grill bacon, tomato and American cheese on sourdough bread and you have what James Beard called a Cheese Dream.
Humble? Yes. Elementary? Perhaps. Limited in scope? Only by the imagination.
Name a bread--from thick slabs of dense white bread to whole-grain--and there's a sandwich that can be made from it. Add some flair with fry bread, naan, flatbread, pita or tortillas. Keep in mind that most breads freeze well and, if the bread will later be toasted or baked, any compromise in quality will go largely unnoticed. Even plain old white bread is fine--in fact, preferable--for many sandwiches, though it can be jazzed up with a Parmesan crust (see recipe).
Gooey melted cheese assists in the adhesion process. Cheeses that rank high on the meltable chart include Brie, cheddar (don't forget white cheddar), fontina, goat cheese, Gruyere, Havarti, Monterey Jack (with or without hot peppers), mozzarella, Muenster, provolone and Swiss. Or throw a little Taleggio on if you please.
Basic sticky elements go beyond cheese, mayonnaise or mustard. Add onion confit to a roast beef sandwich. Or a dollop of fig jam to a pork sandwich. Add zing to mayo by stirring in hoisin, hot pepper or horseradish sauce; mustard; curry powder; or lemon or lime juice.
Fillings? A number of plausible contenders are pantry staples. And foods that were great the first time become even better as leftovers between bread.
Now that you know the components, there are three fundamental types of hot sandwiches.
Hot Closed Sandwich
This category includes classics such as the BLT or the grilled cheese. The heat can emanate from the just-toasted bread, a filling or a quick turn in the skillet.
Consider the diversity: the lobster club, Reuben, Monte Cristo, any type of quesadilla, or a breakfast sandwich of scrambled egg, ham and cheese on toast, croissant, biscuit, English muffin or bagel.
First, assemble the sandwich of your choice. To fry a closed sandwich, heat oil or butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Place the sandwich in the skillet and cook until golden brown and crisp, three to five minutes per side. Remove from the heat and serve immediately.
This sandwich--made on a roll cut in half--includes the cheesesteak, lobster roll, fried oyster po' boy and blackened steak with pan juices on toasted French bread.
Fancy yourself a grill cook? Chop up some chicken and saute it with sliced onions, hot peppers and spices, plunk it on a roll and top with cheese. The heat will melt the cheese and hold everything in place.
To heat a roll for a split sandwich, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wrap the bread in foil. Bake about 10 minutes; if you want a crisp outside, unwrap the foil for the last five minutes. Garnish with lettuce and tomato, if desired.
The third type of hot sandwich is the melt, most often seen in the form of a tuna melt. Just top any open-faced sandwich with cheese and scoot it under the broiler. This category includes roasted vegetables with fontina or smoked mozzarella on focaccia; ham and apple with cheddar on raisin-pecan or pumpernickel bread; avocado with Monterey Jack on a baguette; the Hot Brown (turkey and bacon with cheese sauce on white bread); prosciutto and red onion with fontina on ciabatta; and chopped herbs and olive oil with Boursin or goat cheese on a baguette.
To make a melt, preheat the broiler on high. Broil the sandwich at least four inches from the heat until the cheese melts, about four minutes. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Some people top a melt with a second piece of toasted bread.
But there are also a few elements that can ruin a hot sandwich. In "How to Cook Everything" (MacMillan, 1998), Mark Bittmann addresses common problems: soggy bread, wilted lettuce, dissipated tomatoes and leakage.
Skip moisture-laden lettuce and substitute sturdier spinach, watercress or arugula. Add tomatoes just before serving.
And beware: Microwave ovens turn great bread into leaden mush too; don't even consider it.
And unfortunately, some of those same things that pull the whole sandwich together can also create quite a mess. Be aware that some sandwiches are best consumed when you are all alone, when no one can see the fallout of your overzealous creation. And don't forget the napkins.
Duck and Caramelized Onion Quesadillas
Quesadillas can be as plain or as complicated as you want. Try throwing whatever foods you like between two tortillas, heat it on both sides for about 3 minutes and see what happens. This recipe is adapted from "Sheila Lukins U.S.A. Cookbook" (Workman, 1997).
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for the skillet
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
4 flour tortillas (6 inches in diameter)
About 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese (with or without hot chili peppers)
1/2 cup shredded, cooked duck (may substitute dark meat chicken)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Velvety Mango Cream (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Have a baking sheet ready.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the sugar and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Drizzle the onions with the vinegar and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside.
To assemble the quesadillas, place 2 tortillas on a work surface. Sprinkle 1 tortilla with 1/4 cup cheese, 1/4 cup duck or chicken, 1/2 the onions and 1 tablespoon cilantro. Sprinkle with another 1/4 cup cheese and top with a second tortilla, pressing slightly. Make another quesadilla in the same manner.
In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat about 1/2 teaspoon oil. Carefully transfer 1 quesadilla to the pan, press slightly with a spatula and cook until the cheese begins to melt and the bottom lightly browns, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully turn over and cook until the other side is lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to the baking sheet and keep warm in the preheated oven while making the remaining quesadilla.
Cut each quesadilla into quarters, drizzle with the Velvety Mango Cream and serve immediately.
Per serving (with 1 tablespoon Mango Cream): 724 calories, 34 gm protein, 57 gm carbohydrates, 40 gm fat, 103 mg cholesterol, 16 gm saturated fat, 807 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
* Chopped cooked chicken, sauteed shiitake mushrooms and cilantro
* Cooked steak or shrimp and cilantro
* Boiled, baked, mashed or fried potatoes and green chilies
* Mozzarella, prosciutto and red onions
* Smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers
* Goat cheese and chopped herbs
Velvety Mango Cream
(Makes about 1 cup)
1 mango, peeled, pitted and cut into chunks
1/2 cup sour cream
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco) to taste
Salt to taste
In a food processor or blender process the mango, sour cream, lime juice, cumin and hot sauce until smooth. Transfer to a bowl; season to taste with salt. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or as long as 24 hours.
Per tablespoon: 22 calories, trace protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 15 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
(Makes enough for about 8 slices of bread)
This is a simple restaurant trick that jazzes up sandwiches; it goes particularly well with ham, roasted vegetable, chicken salad or grilled chicken sandwiches.
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
8 slices dense white bread
In a small bowl, use a fork to stir together the butter, Parmesan and salt to taste. Spread about 1 tablespoon of the mixture on each slice of bread to the edges being careful to distribute the cheese evenly over the bread.
Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium; place 1 slice, cheese-side down, in the skillet. Cook, untouched, until the cheese melts and browns lightly, about 4 minutes. (The cheese initially will stick to the pan, but will adhere to the bread when melted.) Repeat with the remaining cheese mixture and bread.
Set aside to cool slightly, about 1 minute. Add fillings and serve.
Per slice: 145 calories, 3 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 211 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber