Tuesday, August 08, 2006
The act of making a good tomato sandwich is a truly refined art, which takes at least several good gardening seasons if not a lifetime of practiced experience to get it just right. Having been a tomato connoisseur for most of my life, I still consider myself as one who could further refine my skills at making a tomato sandwich “really good”. I tend to be a somewhat sloppy person in the way I go about doing some things. Therefore I must add that at least a part of the mystique that goes into creating this absolutely ecstatic gustatory delight is to know, or at least to sense, the right combination of chaotic messiness and orderliness that needs to go into your work. Bear in mind that there are certain things that absolutely must be in your sandwich, other things that are optional or could be in varied form, and other things that definitely must be left out. It is with these thoughts in mind that I share with you a little of what I have learned over the years of making and consuming these salubrious, savorous sensations.
Before you begin, keep in mind that you will be creating much more than a simple combination or stack of food articles put together in such a way that it is possible to eat in the hands without a plate underneath. You will be creating an experience. It will be an experience that involves not only the taste buds but also your visual, olfactory, and tactile senses as well. If you happen to have a loose hinged jaw like mine, you will also be able to add an auditory dimension to this experience as your jaw makes a popping noise when you open wide to bite into your work. Also if you have done the job properly, it will most likely be impossible to eat it without having a plate underneath, unless of course you don’t care about the sticky mess you will be leaving on the table or floor, all an integral part of the whole experience.
There are seven principal ingredients that go into a tomato sandwich that I consider necessary to make it really good. Of course, I’m a bit opinionated and I am willing to admit that there are those who could omit several of them and, as long as the most important part, the tomato, is still in there, they can still call it a tomato sandwich and they may still think it is good. I just think that unless all seven things are in there, it is not quite complete. Here they are:
Bread. It is most important that it is fresh and preferably home made. I like 100% whole wheat the best and rye bread, especially if I have Swiss cheese. Don’t mess with the white stuff from the store and if you insist on using store bought bread then get whole wheat, rye, or multigrain. A good test of bread freshness is to pick up a slice by the edge. If it is soft enough that it will hardly hold together by its own weight, then it is fresh. Now a slice of fresh store bought white bread might pass this test. Don’t be fooled! They shouldn’t even call that stuff bread! If you really prefer a bread slice that has a firmer texture, there are some multigrain breads that have this quality and are very good. You will immediately recognize that this bread has some real substance. The other option of course is to toast the bread.
Cheese. Any good quality cheese is fine as long as it is real cheese. I’m assuming of course that you already know that American processed cheese like you get at the store is a poor excuse for cheese. I favor Swiss cheese but sharp Cheddar is also great as well as others. I always like to put the cheese next to the bottom slice of bread as it gives enough form to the otherwise formless mass long enough to get it close to your mouth and when moist provides a slippery base for the juicy tomato and onion slices later to come. When they go slithering out the sides as you begin to chow down your creation your experience will be further enhanced and challenging.
Meat. As a self-confessed meat junkie, I consider some kind of meat in the sandwich to be pretty essential. Vegetarians may differ with me on this point and that is OK. Hamburger or sliced roast beef from grass fed and grass finished cows is the better choice. Ham is great but it should be country ham. Store bought ham will work if that is the best you can do and still must have ham. Ditto for pasture raised chicken or turkey versus commercially produced chicken or turkey. I would stay away from most bologna or other processed meats. An exception is Lebanon bologna, which I happen to like a lot on a tomato sandwich. Fish or other seafood might be a possibility but somehow the idea doesn’t appeal to me much.
Tomato. Ah ha the most important part! Get a vine ripened one from the supermarket! Ya gotta be kidding! Don"t even think of using a store bought tomato for gosh sake! Nothing but a genuine homegrown garden tomato either ripened on the vine or finished ripening on a table on the back porch will do! Obviously the best of the best are the old time heirloom varieties like “Brandywine”, “Old German”, “Pruden’s Purple” or “Blosser” to name just a few. Hybrid varieties like “Big Beef”, “Celebrity”, or Burpee’s “Big Boy” are still very good if home grown and properly ripened. These won’t hold a candle to the heirlooms for flavor though. Generally the juicier it is the better. Choose a well ripened one big enough that when you cut a one half to three quarter inch slice about midway between the stem end and blossom end it will be more than big enough to completely cover a slice of bread.
Onions. I love them. Others may choose to skip them. Even a store bought onion can work here. Sweet ones are good. I don’t mind if they are a little raunchy though. I usually end up getting the slices wedge shaped, not necessarily on purpose. This adds to the fun of eating your creation though as you try frantically to hold the thing together as onion slices go shooting out the sides as you crunch down.
Green Stuff. Yeah, I know that it is well nigh impossible to find decent lettuce during the middle of tomato season. If you can you are plain lucky! Now is your opportunity to be creative. Don’t go to the store and buy “Iceberg” lettuce for Pete’s sake! Swiss chard grows well in mid summer and the young tender leaves work quite well on a sandwich. Also worth trying are the leaves of various herbs, especially Basil. Recently I have learned that the common midsummer weed, purslane, is good (don’t laugh) eaten raw in salads or cooked slightly. I tried it once on a sandwich and it was not bad at all. It has a mild flavor and crunchy texture. Health nuts will tell you that purslane is high in omega 3 fatty acids and among the most nutritious of the edible weeds.
Dressings. This usually goes on top so it can work its way down through the layers as you eat, or on either or both pieces of bread before you begin stacking the goodies. My choice is real mayonnaise (not Miracle Whip)! Also good is spicy brown mustard rather than yellow mustard. Another excellent choice is extra virgin olive oil. Some might want ketchup but I think it can be a bit redundant considering ketchup is mostly tomato sauce and you already have tomato as your main ingredient in your sandwich. I have used my wife’s home made ketchup (made with good tomatoes and lots of herbs and spices) quite satisfactorily though. At any rate I would never recommend that red slop that everyone buys at the grocery store! That’s the same stuff people are always slathering all over their fast food in order to cover up an already “blah” taste! To use it on a good tomato sandwich simply doesn’t make a bit of sense! Finish it off with a big slab of dill pickle on top and you are ready to go.
So, there you have it, every thing you need to know to make a super tomato sandwich. If you are truly adventurous, you might want to repeat this sequence several times before you put the final slice of bread on the top. It helps to have a big mouth and a loose jaw though. Take it from someone who has both and knows!
Now comes the final test. If made right, it will take at least both hands to cradle the sandwich together as you bring it to your mouth for the first bite. If for some reason your hands are not enough to accomplish this feat, you might want to try using one or both of your feet. This assumes of course that you have been doing your yoga. Within seconds you should have tomato juice and mayonnaise dripping off both elbows and smeared from eyebrows to chin, and you should be experiencing something close to absolute sublime orgasmic ecstasy. Only then will you know that you have made a really good tomato sandwich. :>).