My first memories of sandwiches are of warm, crisp, buttery brown triangles of white or whole-wheat bread filled with delectable melted yellow cheese. In the Kostyra household when I was a child, these were served with bowls of steaming tomato soup for lunch, and we all loved that meal. At some point, tomatoes were added to the filling, and I loved the mixture of sharp cheddar and tart slabs of homegrown Big Boy tomatoes between the unctuous toast. The sandwich had to be cooked in a big iron skillet, and the browning had to be even and golden brown and the cheese completely melted. Otherwise, it just wasn't quite right.
I can't quite recall when I started eating the tuna salad sandwiches of which I became inordinately fond, nor when I first had bacon, lettuce, and tomato (my current favorite), nor when I visited Houston Street in New York City with my dad and tasted a really good bagel for the first time. It was filled with the best cream cheese and thin, hand-sliced, tender smoked salmon. But those were my early forays into the world of sandwiches.
As Mother taught me, it was always about the ingredients, not complexity; freshness and contrasts, not quantity. But it was also about generosity. No soft white bread with a single slice of boiled ham and processed cheese was ever served in our household. Nor do I consider anything a sandwich today unless it is a very different creation, such as the ham and cheese baguette served at Lady M, on East 78th Street in New York City -- half a fresh baguette sliced lengthwise, slathered with butter, and filled with three slices each of ham and Jarlsberg cheese.
At my house in Maine, sandwiches are served at least once during a summer weekend. Why? They are easy, they are loved, they are generous, and everyone wants one of the delicious concoctions we come up with in the Skylands kitchen. There are still crab pickers on the island -- nimble-fingered workers who extricate the sweet peekytoe crabmeat from the hard shells. Crab sandwiches are delicate, so we prefer thin brioche toast with just crab, soft lettuce, a bit of creme fraiche, and perhaps some avocado.
Local lobstermen still bring in briny, sweet lobsters for us to whisk home and boil to bright-red perfection. That meat makes the ultimate lobster rolls. Yes, the rolls can be the best hot dog buns, the cut sides browned in a pan with sweet butter, lined with butter lettuce from the garden, and overflowing with cool lobster meat tossed with a bit of mayonnaise, a squeeze of lemon, sea salt and white pepper, and maybe some minced celery. Alexis's egg salad sandwiches are also favored by my friends. Thinly sliced bread enhances the bright-yellow salad made crunchy with celery and radicchio. We always try to use organic eggs.
Increasingly, local vendors and grocers are importing high-quality cold cuts and cheeses. But I often bring a great assortment from a place such as Murray's cheese store, in Greenwich Village, if I plan to have a panini lunch. The more variety, and the fresher and the higher the quality, the better. A good panini iron is ideal, but two cast-iron pans -- one for cooking, one for pressing -- also work well.
I could go on and on. We all have our favorites, but variations and new versions will creep into our repertoires. The more I think about sandwiches, the hungrier I become. Right now, I am going to the freezer for a hunk of pain de seigle for a grilled cheddar and tomato sandwich. What are you craving?