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Archive for the ‘Sandwiches’ Category

It is highly regrettable that, in some circles, arugula has become a code word for effete yuppie snobbery.  Good, honest, salt-of-the-earth Americans apparently will eat romaine, Boston bibb and the occasional bunch of spinach, but, for reasons unknown, arugula seems to smack of elitism and pretension in a way that Swiss chard, say, doesn’t.

This is regrettable because arugula is nothing less than the greatest food on the planet.  That was not a misprint:  It is THE greatest food in the world.  I could eat arugula every day and never tire of it.  I’m sure it’s chock full of vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals and all sorts of things that will improve my blood pressure, peace of mind, inner harmony and credit history, but I could care less, to be frank.  I’m in it for the flavor.  Arugula just tastes great.  I crave it.  I crave it the way some people crave a seared medium-rare ribeye (which, as it just so happens, is the perfect accompaniment to an arugula salad).  I crave it the way some people crave bacon.

Speaking of bacon, I have a request for the United States of America:  Can we please chill out on the bacon, just a little bit?  Please?  Don’t get me wrong:  I love bacon as much as the next man.  The insistence of some restaurants to slip bacon into seemingly meatless dishes, however, makes it rather more difficult than it needs to be for me to have an enjoyable dinner out with my Lovely Vegetarian Wife.  Does that curried pumpkin soup really need a garnish of lardons?  Must the green tomatoes be fried in bacon fat?  And are you seriously offering a Bloody Mary made with bacon-infused vodka?

I have a sense that bacon has become many a poor cook’s crutch:  When in doubt, throw some bacon on it.  This does a disservice to many wonderful foods whose opportunity to shine is snuffed out by bacon’s overweening smokiness; conversely, when I feel like mainlining all of bacon’s saturated fat, sodium and nitrates, I want to get my money’s worth and put the bacon flavor front and center.  Rich, smoky, salty, meaty—bacon that tastes like bacon.  What could be more American than that?

One food that is assertive enough to stand up to and pair beautifully with bacon?  How did you guess that it’s arugula?  Now we’re back to our much improved version of the BLT:  the BAT, a sandwich that allows sweet, smoky bacon and spicy, peppery arugula to share the spotlight.  The one thing left to do for this sandwich is to upgrade the standard supermarket Cardboard Tomato.  A little roasting does the trick (since we’re baking the bacon, we can just roast the tomatoes right alongside), as does grinding the tomatoes with some almonds to make a quick pesto.

For a vegetarian, bacon-less sandwich, almost any grilled or roasted vegetable you want would pair beautifully with the arugula and tomato-almond pesto.  Cheese would also be a natural addition:  I can imagine a few slices of fresh mozzarella wedged amidst the arugula.  To compensate for the missing bacon’s smoky edge, I would add a little pimentón to the tomato-almond pesto (or just go whole hog, as it were, and use romesco).

  • 3 thick slices of good bacon
  • 1 handful of grape tomatoes
  • 1 sandwich roll or 2 slices of bread
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 handful of blanched slivered almonds
  • olive oil, as needed
  • 1 handful of arugula

Place the bacon on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet.  Place the tomatoes in a separate baking dish.  Put the bacon and the tomatoes in the oven and heat the oven to 400 degrees.  (Whenever baking bacon, start with a cold oven.  It stays straighter this way.)  Roast, stirring the tomatoes occasionally and flipping the bacon after about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are cooked to death and the bacon is brown and crispy on the edges.

Slice the roll in half and toast it.  Rub the cut side of the bread with the garlic; discard the garlic clove (or, better yet, put it in your vegetable stock bag).

Add the tomatoes and almonds to the food processor along with enough olive oil to get the mixture moving.  Pulse a few times until the almonds are coarsely ground and a loose pesto is formed.  Add a few grinds of black pepper and perhaps a little salt (but, remember, you’re putting bacon on top of this).  Add a few tablespoons of this mixture to one side (or both sides!) of the roll.

Layer on the bacon and arugula.

Put the other half of the roll on top, smoosh the sandwich flat (you could even give it the panini treatment, if you want), cut in half diagonally and enjoy.

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I heard somebody say once that it’s important to be really passionate over completely trivial and inconsequential things; otherwise, you end up fixating on the stuff that really matters, and that’s no good at all.

There’s much to be said for this idea.  Therefore, I have decided to devote myself with courageous conviction and unseemly zeal to the cause of promoting the use of cast iron cookware over nonstick impostors.  I believe that there is a proper way to do things in this world—an order, a reason that aligns things correctly with the cosmos.  Pitchers should bat for themselves; guitar amplifiers should have vacuum tubes in them; and if a drink contains anything besides gin and vermouth, it’s not a martini.  It goes without saying that the proper, cosmos-approved way to make a frying pan does not involve Teflon.

I’ll admit that much of my enthusiasm has to do with the fact that cast iron is simply cool:    It evokes campfires, down-home cooking, someone frying chicken with Sunday morning coming down—no frills, no frou-frou, no fuss.  Teflon, on the other hand, strikes me as all frills, frou-frou and fuss:  It can only be heated to certain temperatures; it’s not necessarily oven safe; you have to use special utensils on it so that you don’t scratch the nonstick surface.  What a pain.  Besides, can you really picture cowboys cooking on the open range with polytetrafluoroethylene and heat-resistant silicone utensils?

Mystique and machismo aside, cast iron skillets are eminently useful (and dirt cheap).  They can go straight from the stove into the oven; they can endure fiercely hot temperatures; they are easy to clean; they distribute and retain heat well; they are pretty much indestructible; and they are virtually nonstick when properly seasoned.  (And what’s the point of buying pre-seasoned cast iron?  The cosmos tells me that that takes all the fun out of it.)  So, you may use your George Foreman Panini Press if you want, but when I want to make pressed, grilled sandwiches, I’ll stick to my tried and true two-skillet combination.

I learned from my mother-in-law that panini make great roadtrip food.  Make a panino or two, wrap them in foil, and save yourself a disheartening pit stop at McDonalds (or, even worse, a meal on an airplane).

(By the way, I think trying to carve out a space for the singular form panino in the English language is a lost cause, but it’s fun to try, right?  Speaking of getting worked up about trivial things:  Kudos is singular; data are plural; panini are plural.  Pedant is singular.)

When you have leftover kale rabe (or broccoli rabe, or kale), you have the makings for absolutely delicious panini. The addition of a little chorizo makes for an excellent carnivorous variation; I wish I had had some red pepper puree on hand when I made these, because that would have just been dynamite.

And just look at those grill marks.  Can your Teflon pan do that?

  • olive oil, as needed
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled
  • 1 onion, peeled, cut into thick slices
  • 4 c leftover sauteed kale rabe, broccoli rabe or kale, roughly chopped (you’ll use a good handful—let’s say a cup—per sandwich)
  • 8 slices of bread or 4 rolls (I actually bought something labeled “panini rolls” for these sandwiches, and they turned out to be exactly what I wanted.  Capitalism:  It can be a beautiful thing.)
  • 1 c thinly sliced sharp provolone or cheddar

In a flat-bottomed cast-iron skillet, heat up the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic, onion and a generous pinch of salt, and saute until tender and golden brown, about 10 minutes.  Add the kale rabe and stir until heated through, about 2 minutes.  Set aside.

Heat a ridged cast-iron skillet over medium heat.  If using rolls, split them in half.  When the skillet is nice and hot, put one slice of bread (or half a roll) on the skillet.  Cover the bread with 1/4 c of cheese and a generous handful of the kale rabe-onion mixture; top with another piece of bread (or the other half of the roll).  (Feel free to throw any other ingredients you want in there:  chorizo, prosciutto, aioli, romesco sauce, tapenade…)  Cover with a piece of aluminum foil, and then set a second cast-iron skillet on top of the foil.  (If you’re using the one that you just heated for sauteing the onions, be very careful with the hot skillet.)  Using a spatula, press down on the skillet so that you squash the sandwich underneath; keep applying pressure for about 10 seconds.  Let the skillet rest on top of the sandwich until the bottom piece of bread develops nice grill marks, about 2 minutes.  Remove the top skillet and aluminum foil, flip the sandwich, re-apply the foil and top skillet, and press again.  When the second side has nice grill marks (about another 2 minutes), remove the sandwich.

Repeat this process with the remaining three sandwiches.  Eat immediately, or wrap in foil to keep them for later.

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Not having been raised by wolves or in a barn, I was brought up to be polite and not to discuss sex, politics or religion in formal company.  I usually fail miserably at this, but I will maintain decorum here insofar as I will not delve into a religious discussion on this blog, except for noting that, when it comes to holiday feasts, I am completely ecumenical and all-embracing.  I’ve never met a celebratory dinner, whatever the religious or secular occasion, that I didn’t like.

So it is that my Lovely Vegetarian Wife and I were invited to a friend’s house for an absolutely fantastic Easter dinner, which ended with our Gracious Hostess shoving our arms full of leftovers to take home.  (I hope our Gracious Hostess realizes that there is no surer way to forge a lifelong pact of friendship with me than to insist upon my taking home a container full of Easter ham.)  So it is that I found myself on the Monday after Easter in the same position that many of you probably found yourselves:  with a whole lot of ham, and so little time.

Best get cracking early, I figured, so I went to one of my “go-to” dishes, a breakfast sandwich that I’ve been making since I was an overly ambitious and absolutely clueless teenage cook.  This is one dish I got right, though:  With a little sweetness to balance the ham, and a little cheese to make the whole thing a tad more decadent than it needs to be, this is a fantastic way to greet the morning, the spring and the post-Lenten world.

  • 1 English muffin or biscuit, sliced in half, or 2 slices of toast
  • 1 T butter or olive oil
  • 3 oz. leftover cooked ham, roughly chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1 oz. grated Cheddar cheese
  • a drizzle of honey or maple syrup, or a spoonful of brown sugar (I used some buckwheat honey that we recently splurged on, and it is wild, wild stuff:  dark, funky and barnyard-y—highly recommended)

Make sure the English muffin, biscuit or toast is ready to go (i.e., toast the English muffin, slice the biscuit, etc.).

Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat.  When it is melted and sizzling, add the ham and saute for about 3 minutes until it is brown around the edges.  Crack the egg right on top of the ham.  The beauty of this recipe is that it doesn’t matter if the egg stays whole or gets scrambled:  You haven’t even had your coffee yet, and it’s too early to worry about such things.  Add the cheese and honey right on top of the ham and egg.

Cover the pan until the egg white sets, about 30-60 seconds.  Scoop the ham-egg mixture onto the waiting muffin/biscuit/toast; add lots of freshly ground black pepper.  Attempt to eat it like a sandwich until you make a complete mess of things.  Revert to a knife and fork, or keep trying:  It’s breakfast.  Nobody’s watching.

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Cheeseburger

Wait a minute, I hear you say.  Cheeseburgers aren’t vegetarian.

Right you are, I reply.  Sometimes my Lovely Vegetarian Wife works late bringing home the… well, not the bacon, but some sort of local, crunchy, organic foodstuff, certainly.  On such nights, the Inner Carnivore needs to cut loose, and there’s no better way to do so than to pursue the Holy Grail of Carnivory:  the Perfect Cheeseburger.

Spoiler alert:  This recipe isn’t for the Perfect Cheeseburger.

But that’s because the Perfect Cheeseburger, like all idealized creations, is ever-elusive, as tantalizingly close as your next door neighbor’s charcoal grill and as constantly receding as the sun setting on the horizon on a perfect summer evening.  We aspire to it, we strive to be worthy of it, and though our efforts to attain it will, invariably, fall short, we are better people for the struggle and, more importantly, happier eaters.

Okay.  Enough neo-Platonic tomfoolery.  This is a cooking blog, after all.  I decided to try a few new techniques here to see if I could make any headway on my quest.

First, I ground my own meat.  (I mean, do *you* know where that ground beef in the grocery store has been??)  I decided to start with 12 ounces of chuck (for two burgers), frozen for a few hours for ease of cutting; I cut this into rough chunks…

…and pulsed it a few times in the food processor with a couple hefty pinches of salt and a few big grinds of pepper.

Yum.

I pulsed the meat until it was coarsely ground.  Meanwhile (and this is crazy technique #2), I preheated the oven to 300 degrees.  Yes, the oven.  Because after I formed the beef into nice inch-thick patties, I put them on a rack over a baking sheet and baked them for twenty minutes.

Why did I do this?  Have I taken leave of my senses?  The burgers emerged from the oven looking like Death warmed over, if Death turns out to be gray and mottled and vaguely mucilaginous in appearance.  What in the world was I thinking?

Not to bog everything down in a bunch of chemistry lessons (mostly because I haven’t the faintest idea what is taking place here, chemically speaking), but I’ve read some accounts of cooks reversing the usual procedure of searing a steak first and then finishing it in the oven.  The problem is that the steak can’t brown and form a nice crust until all of the moisture on its surface evaporates and the meat rises to a certain temperature.  When you put a cold steak on a hot pan, it takes several minutes for this to happen; meanwhile, the inside of the steak starts to cook and turns gray and livery.  If you heat up the steak slowly in a low oven, though, it not only cooks more evenly throughout (and doesn’t turn gray), but the surface also dries out so that a quick sear at the end suffices to give it a nice brown crust.  I’ve done this a couple times with thick steaks (rib-eyes and porterhouses) to reasonably good success.

Why not try it with a hamburger?

So I did, and I took my gray, mottled, Death-like burgers and put them on a preheated cast-iron skillet for 2 minutes a side, putting sauteed onions and thinly sliced cheddar cheese on after I flipped them (I also covered them after flipping to help the cheese to melt).  They seared beautifully.  The gray mottled surface was replaced by a gorgeous brown sheen.  When nestled between two slices of bread, it looked like this:

The Perfect Cheeseburger?  The Platonic Idea of meat sandwiches?

No, but not bad for a Carnivore’s Night In.  And a helluva lot better than Wendy’s.

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