The humble sandwich is ubiquitous in most of our lives; just think about how often you’ve slapped together a PB & J or downed a “to-go” breakfast sandwich on your way to work. And how many times has a grilled cheese or BLT or Reuben just hit the spot, speedily satisfying hunger in a way few other things can? Author and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, along with his partner Sisha Ortuzar, recognized that most people enjoy and eat a lot of sandwiches– so they decided to kick it up a notch (so to speak) and open a café where sandwiches were produced with the same care and quality that goes into a “real” restaurant meal. Accordingly, the partners opened ‘wichcraft in New York City; and this month’s title, ‘wichcraft, is a compendium of many of the sandwiches served at the café. Did our group enjoy their month of meals served between two slices of (artisan) bread?
This book easily drew us in with its lush, up-close photographs. There’s a full-page photo of every sandwich next to its recipe; and the table of contents also has a photo next to each sandwich’s name. This made things easy to find, and easy to drool over! The book is divided into breakfast sandwiches, cold or warm sandwiches, and sweet sandwiches. Since it’s still winter, most of us focused on the warm sandwiches! Surprisingly, no one tackled a sweet sandwich; these were mostly of the cake-and-ice-cream variety. Perhaps it’s still too chilly out to think about eating ice cream?
When we all got down to cooking, there was one complaint that was repeated several times: many (if not most) of these sandwich creations required substantial advance work. Meat had to be roasted, or onions had to be caramelized, or relish had to be made. Some of the condiments had multiple components that all required prep. In a restaurant, it’s likely that many of these items would be regularly made in large quantity and therefore be readily available; but at home it seemed like a lot of effort to assemble all the elements of a given sandwich. And most of the time you didn’t use up the sauce or relish you had made, and were left finding another use for it. So there were some practical aspects of these recipes that could be a bit frustrating.
But we persevered nonetheless…a few people tried the gruyère with caramelized onions, which was tasty, though of course you had to roast the onions first! One person mentioned a similar recipe from the first Smitten Kitchen book which she felt was better– but it’s probably pretty hard to go wrong with onions and melted cheese! The meatloaf with cheddar, bacon, and tomato relish was an excellent combination; the meatloaf itself, though very simple, was just right for the recipe. Be forewarned, though– you need to make the tomato relish, which requires that you first make the pickled mustard seeds that go into it! Another yummy meat-based sandwich was red wine-braised flank steak with roasted peppers, onions, and gruyère. This definitely required planning ahead, as the meat had to braise for 2 1/2 hours; also peppers had to be roasted and onions grilled. But it was a fantastic, if messy, meal. Roasted pork loin with prunes, dandelion greens, and mustard was commended for its top-notch sauce; and the roasted turkey with avocado, bacon, balsamic onion marmalade, and mayonnaise was a satisfying, if not totally original, combination. The onion marmalade was “good enough to eat on its own” and even made a fine topping for crackers, as we discovered at our meeting.
Roasted pumpkin with mozzarella and hazelnut brown butter was a winner– the hazelnut brown butter was exceptional. This was one condiment for which it was easy to imagine finding several other uses. At the meeting we sampled pan-fried eggplant with buffalo mozzarella, white anchovies, and raisin-pinenut relish; all the ingredients melded into a delicious whole. We also tasted chicken salad with walnuts, roasted tomatoes, pickled red onions, and frisée. As with many other recipes, the condiments were what made this sandwich really stand out. Roasted shrimp salad with tomatoes and olives was “a perfect summer recipe!” The bread wasn’t even necessary, as this combination made a wonderful salad. Roasted asparagus with red onions, basil, and vacherin was an uncomplicated open-faced sandwich; if vacherin is a bit too pricey you can use any cheese that melts easily. And kumquat-rosemary marmalade with goat cheese, also open-faced, was a great way to try kumquats, which are in season from November to March. The tart, slightly bitter marmalade was a perfect foil for the creamy goat cheese.
Despite the time involved, most of us had to agree that the various condiments added flavor and sophistication to the recipes; they were delicious on their own and had many potential uses. And once all was assembled, the sandwiches themselves were quite good. But since we think of a sandwich as a quick meal, it was hard to change our mindset; these sandwiches were really a full meal that just happened to be eaten between slices of bread– and took as much time to create as a complete dinner! We also noted that many of these sandwiches were pretty messy to eat, and wondered whether this ever bothered customers at the café. Perhaps café staff are better at stacking and containing ingredients than we are? We thought this book might be nice to have on hand for certain types of entertaining, like a special lunch or an upscale tailgate. The recipes are definitely a cut above your everyday sandwich, but it was enough of an effort that we just wanted someone else to make it for us. Perhaps we need a road trip to Manhattan to see how the experts do it! Our voting reflected this ambivalence, and we averaged out to 2.6 chef’s hats (out of a possible 5).
Next month we’ll be delving into Martha Stewart’s A New Way to Bake. This title features a wide variety of baked goods showcasing less-common sweeteners and whole-grain flours. Copies are available at the main desk. Our next meeting will be on Friday, March 30 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. Hope to see you there, and happy baking!