I have a funny history with sandwiches. I am a first-generation American, of German parents. We lived close enough to school that my sisters and I went home regularly at lunch hour, not for a sandwich, but to have our main meal of the day, European style, which most people would consider dinner. Later in the evening, we might have an open-faced sandwich, usually bread and cheese or “wurst.” Not my favorite meal.
Even after I grew up, I was not much of a sandwich eater, preferring a big bowl of soup, salad or leftovers for lunch. Sandwiches often disappointed me; they just didn’t satisfy.
My first sandwich revelation came after we moved to northern Michigan in 1989 from the San Francisco Bay Area. I had not lived in the Midwest before, and we decided we would rent out our home in California for a year while I decided whether or not I could adapt to living here. I discovered I absolutely loved the change of seasons and the warmth of the people I met in my new community but, 30 years ago, this was not a food lovers’ town (yet). And I am a food lover.
I missed Asian restaurants, really good bread and the abundance of produce available year-round in California. Almost a year had gone by, and I was not quite sure I wanted to stay. My husband proposed a road trip to Ann Arbor (he was a Michigan grad), so off we went. He was devious. Our first stop there was Zingerman’s. I smelled the bread as soon as I walked in and, because of this, we marched up to the sandwich line and ordered.
When I took a bite, I was smitten. The crusty bread cracked when you bit into it, drizzled with fresh, green, peppery olive oil on the inside. There was a slab of meltingly soft, perfect buffalo mozzarella, topped with a sweet, juicy tomato slice, large basil leaves and a smear of olive tapenade. Heaven. We sold the California house.
My second revelation came on a trip to Rome. Friends of ours had lived in Rome during their grad school years and befriended the owner of a deli (an “alimentari”) where they lived, near the Pantheon. They remained in touch and visited her whenever they were in Rome. We were instructed by our friends to go to the Alimentari Funari and we were greeted warmly by Marcella when we arrived.
I heard the sandwiches were very good, and at the counter, I attempted to order one. I was asked what I wanted on the sandwich. “Provolone and salami, with roasted, marinated peppers, please,” I said. “No” was the response. “No? Why not?” Turns out, only two ingredients per sandwich, no more, no matter what. Even my attempts to purchase a container of those delicious-looking peppers I hoped to secretly add to my sandwich later was thwarted. I had to take a bite of the two-ingredient sandwich right there in the deli, so that I would understand why before they would sell me the peppers.
The explanation, which sounds like an argument when spoken with passion in Italian, was that the purity of the individual ingredients gets muddled by having too many. These were quality ingredients, after all. I came to better understand this as all over Rome the menu descriptions for pizza, pasta and sandwiches followed a similar theme.
So when in Rome, we did as the Romans do; and in that environment, fully appreciated it. I had some pretty great sandwiches there. But the next part of this story would make Marcella quake.
We were plotting our Sunday supper gathering of neighbors, a task that involves figuring out what’s in season, and what to prepare to feed about 12 people. It was going to be a warm weekend as well. We decided to make the “Big Bread Sandwich” from a favored cookbook, and launched in. We started by making the bread dough with its full 12 cups of flour the day before. We picked up eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, arugula and parsley at the farmers market, and went to the meat market for sausages and prosciutto, olives and cheeses. We started marinating the eggplant.
On Sunday morning, we baked the monster loaf of bread, made the anchovy dressing, and sautéed the peppers and sausages. Our daughter started spreading the news around the neighborhood that something BIG was happening at our house. Faces kept popping into our galley kitchen as we assembled the ingredients. The bread was cut horizontally into four slices and laid at the ready. Let the sandwich building begin.
We read aloud the specifics for each layer: hot and sweet sausages along with peppers on the bottom layer. Anchovy dressing, prosciutto, tomatoes, fontina cheese and arugula on the next. Ricotta mixed with parsley and romano cheese on the final layer, crowned with the marinated eggplant. By the time we were finished with the assembly, there was a crowd. Someone wondered how much the dang thing weighed.
A bathroom scale was found and brought to the kitchen. Page, one of the younger children in the room, was asked to step up on the scale. We noted the weight, handed her the sandwich and checked the weight again. 15 pounds. That was one big sandwich. At supper time, the sandwich was brought to the outdoor table on a large wooden board. We cut it into wedges and passed them around on plates. It was so much fun talking about the process and marveling at how delicious it was. Someone wrote in our journal that night, “I broke my rule about never eating anything larger than my head.”
I don’t know how I will tell Marcella about this the next time I see her, but I will say that she is right; it is about the quality of the ingredients. That night, though, it was more than that; it was the enjoyment of many people eating it together, at one big table. Truly the sum was greater than its parts.
We have made the Big Bread Sandwich for dinner parties a few more times. We even made the assembly a sort of party game by asking guests into the kitchen to take turns creating a layer, using any of the ingredients we provided. It always came out well and was great fun. If you are not up for the task of making the bread, buy a delicious loaf of bread from one of the many artisan bakers in the area. Be sure to use the best quality and freshest ingredients that you can find for the filling. Maybe you’ll make another non-sandwich eater, like I was, a fan.
Here’s my version of the Big Bread Sandwich you can make with a loaf of local artisan bread. There are also recipes for making elements of the filling, but you can also buy many of the these from a good deli.
BIG BREAD SANDWICH (abbreviated)
1 large loaf bread, unsliced (I love 9 Bean Rows fennel sea salt or sourdough bread)
2-3 Italian sausages (hot or sweet)
1 sweet pepper, sliced thinly
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1/3 c. tapenade (recipe follows) or 1/3 c. chopped kalamata olives
2-3 T. anchovy garlic vinaigrette (recipe follows)
4-6 slices prosciutto
4-6 slices provolone (preferably imported)
4-6 slices tomato
1 c. arugula
1/2 c. ricotta
2 T. grated parmesan
1 T. chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
6 slices marinated eggplant (recipe follows, or use purchased)
For the sausage layer:
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add sausages, pepper and onion slices, and cook until sausages are browned and cooked through and the peppers and onions soften. Remove sausage and vegetables from the pan with a slotted spoon, reserving the oil in the pan. Slice the sausages lengthwise.
For the ricotta layer:
Mix ricotta with the parmesan, parsley, and some salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Slice the bread into four slices horizontally. On the bottom layer, spread the tapenade or scatter chopped olives. Layer the sausages and pepper/onion mixture on top of this and drizzle with a little of the reserved oil. If using olives and not tapenade, some chopped basil leaves would be nice here.
Top with the next slice of bread. To this layer, drizzle about 2 to 3 Tbls of the anchovy dressing, then lay on the slices of prosciutto, provolone, tomato and finally the arugula. Top with a little more dressing.
Place the next slice of bread on top, cover this with the ricotta mixture, then the eggplant slices. Pour some of the marinade on top of the mixture, then cover with the top of the bread.
Wrap the sandwich tightly in plastic wrap and set aside in the refrigerator at least one hour, or up to four hours, before serving. Unwrap and slice into wedges to serve.
— Rose Hollander, adapted from The Big Bread Sandwich recipe in “The Silver Palate Cookbook.”
Tapenade is great for sandwiches, and if you thin it out with some olive oil or mayo, you have a marvelous dip or as a base for crostini
(makes 1¼ cup)
1 c. pitted kalamata olives
2 anchovy slices (optional)
1 garlic clove
1 T. capers, drained
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1 c. fresh basil leaves, or parsley
2 T. olive oil
Combine the above ingredients in a food processor, and process until well blended, then add olive oil in a slow stream with the processor running. Scrape into a container and refrigerate.
— Rose Hollander
This will make a lot more dressing than you need, but it keeps well in the refrigerator. Feel free to substitute your own garlicy vinaigrette in the sandwich instead.
GARLIC ANCHOVY DRESSING
(makes 1 ½ cups)
3-4 anchovy fillets
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 egg yolk
¼ c. red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
1 c. olive oil
Coarsely chop anchovies, then place in a small bowl and mash them together with the minced garlic, using a fork to create a paste. Whisk in the mustard, then egg yolk and red wine vinegar.
Season with a bit of pepper to taste; reserving the salt to add if needed after the oil.
Drizzle the olive oil into the bowl, whisking all the while, until the all of the oil is incorporated. Taste and add some salt if desired. Refrigerate.
— From “The Silver Palate Cookbook”
You can find marinated eggplant in good Italian delis if you don’t have the time to this.
1 lb. eggplant, unpeeled and cut crosswise into ¼ inch thick slices
1 T. coarse salt
¼-½ c. olive oil, plus 1 cup for the marinade
2 crushed whole garlic cloves
Pinch red pepper flakes
¼ c. red wine vinegar
2 T. dried oregano
Place eggplant slices in a colander, sprinkle with salt and set aside for about an hour. Pat eggplant dry. Heat a 1/4 cup oil in a large saute pan. Have a sheet pan lined with paper towels ready.
Add eggplants slices in batches to the pan in a single layer and cook over medium love heat until the slices are golden brown on each side, about 4 minutes per side, adding more oil as needed. Set eggplant slices on the paper towels to drain after they are cooked.
Make the marinade by whisking together the remaining ingredients, using a cup of the olive oil.
Place eggplant in a container and pour the marinade over the slices.
When cooled to room temperature, cover and store in the refrigerator overnight.
It should keep about a week. Remove from the refrigerator about an hour before using.
— Rose Hollander, adapted from “The Silver Palate Cookbook”