SPRING FOR A SANDWICH
by Chef Tara Davis
The days are finally getting longer. I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to shake off the winter doldrums. With all of the spring cleaning and yard work that goes on this time of year, I find little time to spend in the kitchen. When in this frame of mind, I try to maintain a simplistic approach to cooking.
Recently, I’ve been making a lot of sandwiches. They might sound pedestrian and dull, but if you take some classics and add your own spin, a quick, easy meal is readily prepared. I assure you, a cheesy Croque Monsieur served with a lightly dressed salad and a glass of cold Sancerre can be pretty romantic.
My friends give me a fair amount of flak because I pack my husband lunches each day. His colleagues, however, give him a lot of longing gazes and order requests. Some days it’s leftovers, but many times it will be a sandwich. One of his favorites during the spring and summer is my chicken salad. I take a roasted chicken — this is a breeze if you buy one from the grocery store or use leftover meat — and add plump red grapes, toasted walnuts, and a lot of fresh herbs. I don’t use too much mayonnaise, and I add a good amount of lime juice to brighten up the flavor. This salad is great on its own, in a wrap, or served on a bed of greens or a toasted Kaiser roll. This is a sandwich that he never seems to tire of, which is good because it yields enough for six to eight servings. It would be a nice thing to serve at a luncheon or during afternoon tea.
I’m also a big fan of the toasted sandwich. In my opinion, there are no better examples than the French bistro standard — the Croque Monsieur — and the Italian panini. When I was in college, I was lucky to study in Paris. While there, I ate my way through many of these ham and gruyère sandwiches. I guess you could say that they conjure up good memories; whenever I make them, I feel happy. While the ingredients are simple, this is not your typical ham and cheese. In France, they’re offered at all meals because of their versatility and universal appeal.
There’s another version called a Croque Madame that’s topped with a fried egg and makes a delicious breakfast. When making this, I like to use a really good, full-flavored, Black Forest ham. I then add some grated nutty gruyère and a little Dijon mustard to the bread. Once the sandwich is assembled, I lather a thick coating of béchamel — or classic white sauce — and more shredded gruyère, then broil it until the cheese is bubbling and golden. I can’t emphasize enough how good this is. It’s wonderful to make for a crowd because you can put the sandwiches together ahead of time and then finish them at the last minute.
I was given a panini press as a wedding gift, and it gets a lot of use. For those without one, two pans work just as well to make this Italian-style pressed sandwich. I love that you can constantly change ingredients to come up with new and satisfying flavors. One of the most common paninis I make includes fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers, artichokes, basil and soppressata. There’s not much to preparing this aside from slicing the cheese and rubbing some garlic on each side of the bread. Simply place it on the grill and press for five to eight minutes. What begins as a simple, cold amalgam of meat, cheese and vegetables is transformed into a warm, crunchy yet gooey panini.
This spring, I urge you to give your knives, pots and hands a break. Cook up these sandwiches the next time you’re in the mood for minimal effort with delicious, comforting results. And hopefully you’ll never think of the poor old sandwich as dull again.
Tara Davis is a personal chef and cooking instructor based in Chapel Hill. An active member of Slow Foods USA/Triangle and a supporter of the local farm-to-table movement, she frequently offers group cooking demonstrations through her company, The Studious Chef. To learn more, visit www.studiouschef.com.
Recipes by Chef Tara Davis | Photography by Flint Davis
(yields three cups)
2½ cups cooked chicken, chopped
½ red onion, minced
2 cups red seedless grapes, sliced in half
1½ tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
1½ tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonaded (very thinly sliced)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
½-cup walnuts, chopped and toasted
3 tablespoons light mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons lime juice
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients together, season with salt and pepper to taste, and chill. Serve with crackers, mixed greens or on your favorite bread.
(makes four sandwiches)
For the Béchamel:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1/4-teaspoon ground nutmeg
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
For the Croque Monsieur:
8 slices rustic French boule or Italian bread
1/2-pound Black Forest ham
1 pound gruyère, grated (Swiss, emmenthal or a favorite cheese can be used as well)
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
To make the béchamel, melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Once butter is melted, whisk in flour. Cook for about 2 minutes until mixture smells slightly nutty and color is a pale blond. Add nutmeg. Gradually and constantly whisk in milk, making sure that no lumps form. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, or approximately 10 minutes.
On a clean surface, place four slices of bread in a row. Spread each slice with about a teaspoon of mustard. Place a few slices of ham on each, and top with half of shredded gruyère. Top with remaining slices of bread. Spread the top of each sandwich with béchamel, then sprinkle each with remaining cheese. On a lightly greased cookie sheet, broil sandwiches for eight to 10 minutes or until cheese is golden and bubbling.
Roasted Pepper and Artichoke Panini
(Makes two panini)
4 slices rustic Italian bread, such as focaccia or ciabatta
1/2-pound fresh mozzarella, sliced thin
1/4-pound soppressata (salami and prosciutto also can be used)
1 small jar marinated artichokes
1 roasted red pepper, sliced into strips
Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing on sandwiches
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 garlic clove, halved
6 leaves fresh basil
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
On a clean surface, arrange bread slices in a row. Rub each side with a halved garlic clove. Discard garlic. Pile mozzarella, soppressata, peppers and artichokes on the bread. Top each sandwich with three basil leaves, drizzle with balsamic vinegar, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Top each with the remaining slice of bread, brush with olive oil and place on a preheated panini press. Press for eight to 10 minutes until cheese is slightly runny and bread is golden brown. If using a large skillet, heat sandwiches on medium and place a cast-iron or similar heavy skillet on top. Flip and repeat after five minutes.