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Michael La Corte

Rethinking the not-so-humble sandwich

I have always adored sandwiches.

As I've written before, tuna sandwiches have a deep meaning in my life, but that adoration and importance also extends to open-faced hot turkey sandwiches, grilled cheeses, burgers, cold cut sandwiches and much, much more (the bulk of this was all imparted by my dad and I'd argue that my brother might actually like sandwiches even more than I do. We have even spoken about launching a sandwich shop of our own on multiple occasions!)

Someone who shares this affinity is Jason Skrobar, the author of "The Book of Sandwiches," which goes beyond "simple, lunchtime fare" and into open-faced, chic and even dessert sandwiches, bypassing and revamping the idea of sandwiches as some sort of unexciting, bland food to hurriedly eat for lunch.

A sandwich can be so much more.

Salon Food spoke with Skrobar about what inspired the love letter to sandwiches, his favorite kinds, under-appreciated ingredients and his ideal ingredients for the absolute best sandwiches, bar none.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What would you say first sparked your love of sandwiches? 

I would say my mum’s toasted tomato sandwich. She would make them for us throughout the summer months with tomatoes she would pick from our backyard. Homemade toasted sourdough bread would be slathered with creamy mayo and thick slices of freshly picked tomatoes would be piled high.

This sandwich is in the book, and it’s called "My Perfect Sandwich" — make it, and you’ll see why!  

Do you have a #1 favorite sandwich? 

I always say my favorite sandwich is the one I’m about to eat!

They’re all my children, so I don’t know how I could pick. But if you insist, a few favs would include "The Pretty Happy Drew" (named after the wonderful Drew  Barrymore), which has perfectly crispy homemade potato chips, freshly grated beet, wonderfully salty grilled Halloumi, finished with a tangy and slightly sweet dressing — oh, and [it's] on a perfectly toasted brioche bun. 

Another favorite is "The Big Dipper," my take on a French Dip. Crispy, crunchy fried shiitake mushrooms are piled high on a bed of shallot chilli butter, which sits on a crunch roll. The whole thing is dipped in a magical brothy mushroom jus. Delicious!

The book is divided into seven sections  would you say you're especially partial to one? 

I love them all equally! The great thing about each section is that there is a wide variety of sandwiches within each section: the Breakfast section doesn’t just work with bacon and eggs. We’ve got many unexpected ingredients: granola, cherry caramelized onions, kale chips, caramelized bananas, caviar, etc.

Each section was designed to surprise and excite.

What do you think is the best anchor  the best bread  for most  sandwiches? Or does it depend on the "genre" of sandwich? 

There is a rule I write about in the book that addresses this very question. In sandwich making, when working with a crunchy interior, think fried chicken, or anything fried for that matter; a pillowy soft bun is the perfect partner. That’s why you generally always see brioche as the bun of choice for fried chicken — a slice of baguette just would not cut it.

The opposite is true for when you’re working with a softer interior, say pulled lamb or pork — a crunchy exterior works best here — like a toasted baguette or ciabatta. But as with all rules, they’re sometimes meant to be broken. A PB&J sandwich is always pretty perfect on a plain slice of white bread. 

For some, the notion of a "sweet sandwich" is a wild concept: How would you break that section down? 

Many people scratched their heads when I told them about the sweet section.  But if you think about it, there are many iconic sweet sandwiches: ice cream sandwiches, cookie sandwiches, French macarons, and whoopie pies — all sandwiches. And I have versions of all of these in the book.

And there are creations of mine that are entirely unique to the book: "Crème Brûlée Cookie Sandwich" — my take on the iconic crème brûlée, but in cookie form. "This One’s for You Mom" is an homage to my lovely mum! A dark chocolate carrot cake sandwich with a not-too-sweet mascarpone and cream cheese filling. [It's] possibly one of the more challenging chapters to write, but also one of the more rewarding.  

Tell me a bit about what makes the "chic" sandwiches a bit fancier? 

A "chic sandwich" could be defined as a stylish and sophisticated take on the traditional sandwich, featuring unique combinations that elevate it from the ordinary. It's not just about what’s inside the sandwich, but how I present it.

These sandwiches not only taste expensive, but also look like they’ve come from a high-end restaurant. They work well for dinner parties and when guests are in from out of town. I tried to elevate the everyday sandwich into a sophisticated and luxurious experience.  

I love an open-faced sandwich. Would you say there's a standout amongst those included in the book? 

I adore this chapter for a few reasons. Not only was it a lot of fun to shoot these open-faced sandwiches (not having to deal with the tops felt so freeing!), but the flavor combinations in this chapter are out of this world tasty.

There is something for everyone in this chapter, from folks with a sweet tooth, savory friends and everyone in between. I may be in the minority here, but my love of anchovies would take the win with "A Shocking Hit! A Surprise Standout!" A buttery, toasty baguette is topped with a few jammy eggs, some tangy, salty white anchovies, and a pile of freshly chopped parsley and finished with a sprinkling of slightly spicy Aleppo pepper. Perfect!  

The notion of a Hawaiian pizza sandwich is pretty bonkers. How did you ideate that one?

I love a salty-sweet moment, so I wanted to feature a sandwich that played with this flavor combination. After several failed attempts, my brain went to the much-maligned Hawaiian pizza. But I ditched the traditional ham you would typically use and opted for my favorite, mortadella.

Grilling the pineapple seemed the only way to go, and whipping up a small batch of slightly spicy tomato sauce rounded it all up. How can I forget  a slice of melted provolone on one side and a slice of melted mozzarella on the other? It’s my way of giving thanks, in sandwich form, to my favorite slice of pizza (a Canadian invention, I might add!).  

Would a gluten-free person still be able to cook out of your book? 

Oh, for sure! The gluten-free options in the bakery aisles of every grocery store have improved dramatically in the past few years. The bread in every sandwich in the book can be swapped out for gluten-free. And in the sweet chapter, generally speaking, gluten-free flours are usually a 1-1 swap for all-purpose flour.  

Sandwiches often feel lighter or lunch-y or simpler, but in some instances, the prep might exceed even most dinner recipes. What  would you say is the most involved recipe in the book?  

The prep time for the sandwiches in this book ranges from a few minutes to sometimes a good part of the day. That might scare some people, but generally, the sandwiches that require a lot more prep time are ones where part of the recipe needs to be cooked away either in the oven or on the stovetop, so it’s not active work time.

Recipes like my bolognese, the braised lamb, or the beef short ribs all need some time before you can enjoy the sandwich, but you can do other things while they work their magic in the oven. The falafel is another sandwich that requires quite a bit of work, but that being said, you can skip some of  the steps.

Instead of making the pita, you could buy some. Instead of making the baba ganoush, you could buy some, and by skipping those two steps, you’ve saved a reasonable amount of time.  

Is there any common misconception about sandwiches you'd love to debunk? 

The biggest misconception about sandwiches is that they’re simple, lunchtime fare. There’s a whole chapter on breakfast sandwiches! And to that point, not all breakfast sandwiches need an egg or bacon to be called breakfast sandwiches. I say in the book, feel free to eat these sandwiches at any point in the day. And who wouldn’t want to have a delicious sandwich for dinner? I say sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and even dessert, my friends!  

What is the ideal grilled cheese?  

Dare I say there is no ideal grilled cheese?! There are numerous grilled cheeses in the book, and if I wrote another book on sandwiches, I would include a whole chapter on grilled cheeses! I love them that much.

Seriously though, you can have so much fun with grilled cheese: Make all the ones in the book and then go hog wild and start creating your own versions using ingredients that speak to you. Have fun with it.

If you had to pinpoint the best sandwich sauce or spread, do you have a favorite? 

All the sandwiches in the book have some sauce, whether it's a saucy sauce, a pesto, a jam, or a drizzle of hot honey — each one has some saucy component. But if I were to pick my favorite, it would have to be mayo. More sandwiches have mayo or a mayo-based sauce than anything else. I use mayo as a base for many sauces: spicy mayo, curry mayo, maple mayo, Russian dressing, lemon tarragon brown butter mayo, and more. Mayo for the win!

How did your love of sandwiches impact your career at large, leading up to and culminating in "The Book of Sandwiches?”  

Great question! As a food stylist and recipe developer, I had already been working in this space for years and loved that I was able to make a  career of it. The question of writing a cookbook had not only been in my head, but so many people would ask me about it. My love of sandwiches finally pushed me to do what I had always wanted to do: write a cookbook.

Being able to write this book has not only been a  career highlight, but on a personal level, it is the thing I am most proud of. I hope everyone lovely enough to buy it loves it as much as I do! 

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