Variations on a Theme: Sandwiches, Part I

One of my favorite sandwiches was served at a cozy Japanese cafe in the Lucky Plaza Shopping Centre in Singapore called Mitsubachi (Honey Bee). I have recreated their shiitake and melted cheese toast many times at home. Sandwiches can be an exciting lunch option, with infinite possibilites for fillings. Yet, the sandwich choices available on average menus are usually disappointing. Often the bread is too dense and the fillings are uninspired renditions of portabello mushrooms and pesto. There are so many unusual ways to approach the sandwich, from delicate tea sandwiches to grilled cheese and I've found that like pancakes, sandwiches are found in many different forms around the world. I have enjoyed and made some memorable sandwiches including Manfred's Popeye & Olive Oil Sandwich, filled with luscious spinach, from the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds website, and Vietnamese bahn mi, with its sweet-sour-salty seasoning in a French baguette. Below are some of my own sandwich recipes.

Shiitake & Melted Cheese Toasts
For each sandwich you will need:
4 shiitake mushroom caps, fresh or dried and reconstituted
1 piece thick-sliced Japanese white bread (found at Japanese bakeries and markets)
1-2 thin slices of cheese such as provolone or Swiss
soy sauce (not neccessary if using dried mushrooms)
1 Tbs oil

Heat oil in a pan over medium heat and add whole shiitake caps.
After a couple of minutes add a splash of mirin and a little soy sauce and cook a few more minutes.
Turn caps over and cook a few more minutes until the mushrooms are coated with a syrupy, brown glaze.
Arrange cooked shiitake evenly over bread, cover with cheese and place in a toaster oven or under a broiler until cheese melts.
Serve with a little honey on top.

This protein-rich snack can be made with canned red bean paste or the homemade version below. To make the recipe vegan, omit the butter or use a butter substitute.

Sweet Red Bean Toast
To make 2 toasts you will need:
8 oz. sweet red bean paste (store bought or homemade recipe below)
2 pieces thick-sliced Japanese white bread (found at Japanese bakeries and markets)

Heat a little oil in a pan over medium heat. Butter both sides of each bread slice and then gently smear each side with a thick layer of red bean paste as you would peanut butter. Place bread in hot pan, for a few minutes until golden brown. Flip, repeat, and serve.

To make red bean paste:

In a large bowl, cover 1 cup uncooked adzuki red beans with water and soak overnight. Drain, add beans to a saucepan, cover with water and cook until soft, about 30-40 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Puree cooked beans in a food processor with 2 Tbs brown sugar until well combined. Transfer to a jar and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 2 weeks).

In this multi-part series of sandwich recipes, I will be featuring a variety of sandwiches inspired by Nita Mehta's Sandwiches, which has led me to broaden my concept of how to approach the ingredients and preparation of a sandwich.

In the following recipes the chili toasts are made with delicious and easy quick-pickled chili peppers, which are slightly mellowed by the cheese topping. The macaroni sandwiches are my own invention, after I became intrigued by two sandwiches in the book that feature pasta with tomato sauce. I wanted to create something a little lighter and so my version is dressed simply with oil and spices wrapped in a soft and fluffy tandoori naan, the texture of which suits the macaroni well.

Pickled Chilies & Melted Cheese Toasts
For 2-4 servings you will need:

2 baguette loaves
pickled chilies (recipe below)
thinly sliced cheese such as provolone

Slice the baguettes into 2" rounds at an angle. Spread each slice with hummus and top with as many chilies as you like. Cover with cheese and place in a toaster oven or under a broiler until cheese melts. Serve with honey and black pepper on top.

To make quick-pickled chilies:

Take about 4 or 5 green chilies (about 3"long), seed them, and slice into 1/2" rounds. Place in a jar with 1/2 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp salt and enough white vinegar to cover the chilies. Screw lid tightly and shake well. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Bowtie Pasta Sandwich in Naan
To make 3 wraps you will need:

1 store-bought tandoori naan, divided into 3 slices
1/2 cup small macaroni such as elbows or mini farfalle (bowties)
1 1/2 Tbs canola or grapeseed oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
dash of asafoetida
1/2 tsp paprika
1 Tbs parmesan cheese
Coriander leaves, optional

Cook macaroni in boiling water, drain, and return to the pot, away from the heat. Sprinkle paprika and parmesan on top. Do not stir. In a small saucepan such as a butter warmer, heat oil and mustard seeds until mustard begins to pop. Add asafoetida, remove from the heat, and pour onto the macaroni. Stir well to evenly distribute the spices. Spread naan with hummus and a few spoonfuls of macaroni and coriander. Gather up sides of naan, secure with a toothpick and serve.

See Sandwiches, Part II

Spice Garden: Mahlab

The small, shrubby Prunus mahaleb is one of two species of cherry (the other is Mazzard) from which cultivated cherries are grafted. Also known as the St. Lucie cherry or rock cherry, the name mahaleb comes from the Arabic word that references its sweet smell. While Mahaleb cherries are not usually cultivated for their small and bitter fruit, the seed kernel can be ground into a fragrant spice, known as mahlab, that seems to carry the fruit's seminal cherry essence.

Drawing of Mahaleb leaves, flowers, and fruit courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 2: 328.

With its enchanting almond-anise-like fragrance, complex nutty flavor and surprisingly bitter aftertaste, mahlab is used to flavor baked goods in many European, Western and Central Asian cooking traditions. I have not found explicit mention of mahlab being used in savory dishes. A recipe for Vegetable Stew from a 15th century Dutch cookbook which translator Christianne Muusers calls Wel ende edelike spijse (Good and Noble Food), mentions the ingredient "kernellen van criekelsteenen" or "kernels of cherry stones" in addition to other spices such as anise. The Dutch criekel translates as "black cherry" but I would not be surprised if at the time the cookbook was written, this referred to the black cherries of Prunus mahaleb and not the Prunus serotina variety commonly known today as black cherry. I'm not sure if the latter can be used in seasoning; I have tried breaking open the pit and the kernel looks similar to mahlab, but I have never heard of the pits of any other cherry variety being used in place of mahlab. Any further information would be appreciated.

Mahlab's aromatic quality was also used in soap-making, combined with other essential oils, as mentioned in the 10th century Iraqi cookbook, Kitab Tabikh by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, translated in Nawal Nasrallah's excellent tome Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook, pp 495-498.

I like to grind a tablespoon or so of mahlab in a mortar and pestle and add it to cookies and breads. I recently experimented with using it in baklava, mixing it into a paste with sesame seeds and cashews. It adds such a lovely fragrance.

Recipe: Baklava
This recipe requires about 30 sheets of phyllo. I used 4-inch (10cm) wide strips but if your sheets are wider, simply double or triple the first 5 ingredients.
Serves 4

1/3 cup sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 Tbs mahlab, ground
1/4 cup cashews
3 Tbs brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
pinch of cardamom and cinnamon
frozen phyllo dough, thawed

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. To make the filling, finely grind the first 4 ingredients together in a food processor into a loose, crumbly mixture and set aside. Brush a rectangular baking pan with butter. Place 2 phyllo sheets on pan, brush with butter and repeat this step 4 more times ending with butter on top of the last layer. Evenly sprinkle 1/3 of the filling on top.

2. Place 2 sheets over filling, brush with butter and repeat 2 more times. Sprinkle 1/3 of filling on top.

3. Repeat step 2 using final 1/3 of filling.

4. Place 1 sheet on top of filling and brush with butter. Place 1 more sheet on top and brush with butter. Chill for 10 minutes. Cut into squares or diamonds and bake in oven for about 30 minutes, until golden on top. Serve with a little cinnamon sprinkled on top and a generous drizzle of acacia honey.