There are few foods simpler than the sandwich, and yet it is so full of potential for showing how intentional, attention-driven cooking can yield a whole so much greater than the sum of its parts (though it should, of course, always start with the most optimal parts). Many of us eat a sandwich every single day. Sandwiches are the ultimate peoples’ food. They’re democratic. They’re usually pretty affordable. Because they are portable, they’re perfect for both working folks and schoolkids. They don’t require a ton of kitchen know-how or even many tools beyond a knife. But in their very everydayness, they are the kind of food that we take for granted and may, for that reason, find ourselves eating even when they’re not very good, which is often: Gluey bread with no taste or texture. Sad, limp lettuce that acts as a slip ’n’ slide for everything else inside, shooting pickles and tomatoes onto your lap. Over refrigerated rubbery meat that seems to have come from outer space. Even processed cheese.
But sandwiches deserve so much better. Precisely because they are humble and unassuming, sandwiches have a lot to teach us about what it takes to make good food. Most people are rarely prepared to answer the question of why they think a certain food is good (or why it’s not), and just taking the time to ask that question is the beginning of a great sandwich, or of any good cooking experience.
For a lot of us, texture is the first thing we recognize when thinking of why we like or hate a particular food. Is there a bigger letdown than a mealy apple or a soggy potato chip? Every food and every component of a dish has an ideal texture, one that best enhances its flavor. In cooking, we combine those textures and those flavors for maximum effect. We want that apple to be crisp, right? We want the taut skin to yield to a juicy, sweet-tart bite, the crispness of the flesh and the brightness of the flavor amplifying each other just so. Sandwiches are an object lesson in how elemental texture is when it comes to joy in food. There’s nowhere to hide when it comes to the sandwich—all of its components have to play well together.
So the best sandwiches, as with any foods, happen when you strive to be clear on what you like—or what the people you are cooking for like—and to figure out how to get there, and what you need, given the context. This is why I love making sandwiches for other people, because it is the ultimate opportunity to practice listening and then executing based on their preferences. In fact, a few years ago, for a couple of minutes, I thought it would be genius to do an entire book—The Architecture of the Sandwich—interviewing some of the world’s greatest architects about the type of sandwiches they would build. I gave up on that pretty quickly, but the principle still holds for me: A good architect builds a home to suit the needs—physical and emotional—of its inhabitants. When you build a sandwich, you should be arming yourself with that same kind of intention and attention—being thoughtful and present. Who are you making the sandwich for? (If it’s for a three-year-old, for example, you might want to cut off the crusts.) Then determine when they are going to eat it. If it won’t be for several hours, you need to be thoughtful about the order in which you layer the ingredients, using the cheese or meat or another fatty ingredient to insulate the bread against any juicy vegetables. Where are they going to eat it? If it’s at a table, great. Go crazy with a saucy meatball hero. Or on a quick lunch break? A tidy salami and provolone sandwich makes more sense.
I want to arm you with the idea that, no matter what you make, you need to draw on all the sensibilities you already have. Show up for yourself and the people you’re feeding, be present in front of the stove or the cutting board or the fridge. It’s almost never about already knowing the answer; it’s about remembering to ask the question. What makes good things good for me (or you), and for now?
Tuna Salad Sandwich
Being in the desert, we don’t do fresh fish at our restaurants, but when I was thinking about what kind of sandwiches to offer at Pane Bianco, my sandwich shop in north-central Phoenix, I knew I wanted to include a tuna sandwich. There were two reasons motivating me: The first was that a tuna salad sandwich is a classic, and I’m always thinking about how to revitalize a classic, how to shine a light on and elevate the qualities that make the dish enduring. The second was that I wanted to undermine people’s tendency to order automatically, to order something that’s a known quantity just because it’s pretty much the same everywhere. I wanted to surprise my customers, to please them, of course, but also to give them a new way to think about tuna salad. For most of us, our expectations for tuna sandwiches are pretty low. When I was growing up in New York, tuna salad was served up in ice cream scoops, drowned in mayonnaise and icy-cold from the fridge. It felt processed. You didn’t even really compute that it came from the sea. It wasn’t vegetable, animal, or mineral, it was just tuna. In this sandwich, I didn’t want to lean on a monsoon of mayo—in fact, there’s no mayo at all. Instead, it’s crunchy and fresh with celery, salty, slightly sweet with raisins and apples, bright with lemon, and tart with vinegar—all brought together with the olive oil.
We get our tuna, one of the only nonlocal products we use, from a fishing and canning co-op in Seattle. The tuna is sustainably caught off the coast of Alaska by local fishermen. Increasingly, tuna is being overfished and netted in ways that damage the environment. A huge reason for this is the history of treating tuna, especially canned tuna, as a “less-than” product. At Pane Bianco, we want to correct that—and our tuna sandwich is the most expensive one on the menu.
1 5-ounce can High-quality tuna in olive oil (such as Wild Planet)
.5 cup Peeled, diced sweet-tart apple such as Granny Smith or Fuji
.5 cup Loosely packed chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
.25 cup Extra virgin olive oil
.25 cup Diced celery
2 tbsp. Red wine vinegar
4 Gaeta or Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
Juice of 1 Lemon
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. raisins, chopped
Flake the tuna, along with its liquid—I like it to be a little chunky—into a medium bowl. Add the apple, celery, olives, raisins, parsley, oil, vinegar, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste and mix until well incorporated. Taste the tuna salad and season it with a little more salt and pepper if you feel it needs it, then mix again. Cover and refrigerate if not using immediately. There’s enough tuna salad here for two sandwiches— if you’re making just one for yourself, refrigerate the leftover tuna in an airtight container and use it within a day.
Tuna Fish Sandwich Recipe
Half the recipe Tuna Salad
A piece of ciabatta, a hunk of crusty bread, or 1 large piece Focaccia, split in half
.5 cup Arugula
1 tablespoon Balsamic Dressing
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Spoon the tuna onto one of the halves of bread and spread it out so it’s evenly distributed over the bread. Quickly toss the arugula with the balsamic dressing in a small bowl. Top the tuna with the arugula and drizzle the whole thing with a little olive oil. Cover with the second piece of bread. Slice the sandwich in half on the diagonal
From BIANCO: Pizza, Pasta and Other Food I Like by Chris Bianco. Copyright 2017 Jamie Oliver. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.