Wood and plastic do not belong in our mouths. Period. Metal utensils – be it a spoon, fork or chopstick – are the only things I’m happy to eat with. Because of this, I was never the one bringing pasta salads to picnics. And let’s not get into disposable plates. They too have no place in our world. Besides the bad effects they have on the environment, they just make the world uglier. But despite these self-imposed restrictions, I still really enjoy picnics. And at the heart of any good picnic is the perfect picnic food: the sandwich. The sandwich is the most democratic food in the world; it is the universal equalizer.
I once read a recipe for “rose petal sandwiches” in a book called The delicate art of cooking by Mrs CF Leyel and Olga Hartley from 1921. The recipe is made from “Hot Pink Damask or Old Fashioned Roses” layered in bread with unsalted butter. Although I’ve never made a rose sandwich, the idea sounds very romantic. What I have many eaten are baked bean sandwiches. Known as “wholemeal sandwiches” in Egypt, where I come from, they are served in pitta bread with a thick filling of stewed beans. Full sandwiches are most common for breakfast, but they are also eaten throughout the day. The idea of carbs over carbs may sound strange to some, but I’d always go for a bean sandwich or a potato sandwich when presented with the luxury.
The bread is perhaps even more important than what goes into the sandwich. Which brings me to the first (and arguably) most important principle of sandwich making. A good bread makes a good sandwich. Bad bread…should be used for something other than sandwiches. Bread is a vehicle for filler, and if your vehicle is old and nasty, the ride won’t be as good. And the simpler the sandwich, the more important the bread. Use any type of bread you feel is appropriate, as long as it tastes good. The same goes for most kitchens. Instead of being determined to cook a particular food before going to the market, take the trip and then decide what really tastes good. Uncertainty can seem stressful to some, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel and ultimately the better cook you will become.
Five fresh sandwiches
Grate the zucchini into ribbons using a mandolin or vegetable peeler. Salt the zucchini. Slice the focaccia and layer the zucchini ribbons with a slice of mozzarella. Add the olive oil and a little more salt.
Tuna and tomato were made for each other. Combine a tablespoon of mayonnaise (preferably homemade, but store-bought will also do) with some good quality canned tuna fillets in olive oil. Crumble with a fork. Cut the tomato into thin slices, add salt and spread the tomato, then the tuna, on top. Slice diagonally and you have a Venetian Tramezzino.
A classic, and probably my favorite sandwich of all time. Good quality butter, flaky salt, a few slices of Paris ham and you’re done.
I love mortadella sprinkled with little pistachio chips. Slice the focaccia, add a few slices of mortadella and finish with olive oil and salt.
Wild Card Sandwich: beans/pitta
Take the leftover beans from yesterday and continue to cook until tender and thick. Add the cumin to the beans then pour into a pitta and, you guessed it, add the salt and olive oil.
Once you have decided which bread to use, butter or add olive oil, then add the filling. I often find that the sandwiches are overfilled. Too much filling stuck between two pieces of bread that can barely hold together. Keep things light and don’t overload. The number four rule of sandwich making is to salt the sandwich. A little coarse salt before closing the sandwich does a lot of good. To me, a sandwich that isn’t salty feels incomplete. Finally, avoid softening by adding all the wet ingredients and salt at the very last minute. I also like to bring boiled eggs as they are the perfect portable snack. I wrap them in Gohar World egg lace dresses.
Once my picnic food is sorted, I spend time thinking about the setting and ambiance. It may seem obvious, but pick a spot in your local park with a view. I live half a block from Central Park in New York and have a favorite neighborhood that overlooks a lake. As for picnic blankets, I use any piece of fabric large enough to accommodate guests. This can be a tablecloth, a canvas drop cloth purchased from an art supply store, or even a large piece of fabric purchased from a fabric store. I also like to pack linen napkins.
Yes, you’ll have to do a little washing at the end, but I think it adds a nice touch. In keeping with the plastic-free picnic theme, I package the drinks served in glass bottles. I also like to pick up a bouquet of flowers. Why bring flowers when you’re sitting in a park, you ask? Well, because it’s kind of fabulous to have flowers not only around you, but also as part of the picnic itself. Don’t call me above. At least I’m not suggesting you choose damask roses for a sandwich.