Sunday, November 29, 2009

In defense of sandwiches for dinner: BLT and English Roast Beef Sandwich

Last winter term, my Wednesdays were particularly tiring: I had a three-hour seminar in the afternoon, followed one hour later by another seminar of equal length. Now, I know what the “real world” people (i.e. those who have regular jobs) are probably thinking: “Kid, most people work eight hours a day, five days a week. Grow up and quit yer whining.” This would be fair enough, if all graduate seminars could consist in hiding in the back of the room and pretending to pay attention. Unfortunately, my classes counted between 4 and 12 students, and were largely participation-based. In other words, my brain was drained by the end of the day, in a way that a full day of translating PR texts (a job I used to do) never achieved.

My last class ended at 9 pm, which meant that I was also very, very hungry by then. I could have just packed a sandwich and scarfed it down between classes or during break, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it: I love food too much to eat it under time constraint, especially when it comes to dinner. Inevitably, I’ve found myself in situations where breakfast and lunch had to be rushed, but dinner is sacred to me: even when the preparation is quick (because, like everyone, I don’t always have the time to make elaborate suppers), I like to take my time savouring it.

Of course, I probably couldn’t afford to be such a diva if I didn’t have Laurent to help me out. Every Wednesday night, when I finally got home, he would be waiting for me with a hot meal, usually comfort food like pasta or homemade pizza. Every time I walked through the front door and breathed in the scent coming from the kitchen, and saw him waving at me from the stove with a ladle or a spatula in his hand, I felt like the weight of my day was being lifted off me. That moment alone was worth being hungry for a couple of hours.

One evening, near the end of my second class, my stomach was rumbling even more than usual, and I complained out loud about being hungry. A classmate kindly offered me some almonds from her bag, but I thanked her and refused, explaining that my boyfriend was cooking for me that night, and I didn’t want to spoil my appetite.

“You guys still have time to cook?” she marvelled. “My boyfriend and I have stopped trying. We just eat sandwiches for dinner all the time.”

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but lately I’ve grown to realize that having sandwiches for dinner doesn’t have to rhyme with bad eating habits. On the contrary, I’m quite a fan of sandwiches for dinner, these days.

I think it began when I got into bread baking. I started off making flatbreads like focaccia and fougasse, which had a lot of fillings and toppings, and were great on their own. But this was also around the time where I started making soups more often and freezing them; thus, soup and homemade bread eventually became a pretty regular feature on the dinner table, usually accompanied by some light protein, like eggs or a mixed salad.

Eventually, I started making loaves instead of flatbreads. Now, homemade bread is fun to bake and it makes the house smell amazing, but it doesn’t keep all that long, so we had to figure out ways to use it up fairly quickly. And that’s when I started warming up to the idea of having sandwiches for dinner, with a soup or salad.

One of my first loaves was Marcy Goldman's BLT Bread (pictured above), which she claims is the perfect bread for tomato sandwiches. It’s enriched with milk, butter and egg, and is dusted with cornmeal for a crunchy crust. Mine came out looking a little more brioche-like than I would have thought (I added too much butter, perhaps), but it was still excellent for a BLT dinner.

Aah, the BLT… It took me years of living in North America to learn what a BLT is. In Francophone Europe, bacon is not much of a sandwich fixture: we see it in club sandwiches, but that’s about it. It’s a shame, because BLTs may well be one of my favourite North American discoveries (along with baby back ribs, hash browns, and cheesecake): a smidgen of mayonnaise, soft romaine lettuce, ripe tomatoes, über-crispy bacon (the only way I ever eat it), and my personal addition of alfalfa, what’s not to love? It’s not something I would have for lunch, because eating heavier meals during the day makes me want to take a nap, but I love it for dinner.

Another kind of sandwich I can’t have for lunch but will gladly indulge in after 6 pm is the grilled cheese. We do have this in Europe, most famously in the croque-monsieur version: ham and gruyere, sandwiched between two slices of white bread, buttered on the outside and fried in the pan until golden. There is also the croque-madame, which has a fried egg on top. Yum.

A couple of years ago, while I was building up my then-meagre cookbook stack, I discovered the Quebecer collection “Tout Un Plat!”, which consists in a series of books, each one centered on a particular dish or ingredient (pizza, chocolate, garlic, cookies, etc.). This isn’t an original concept by any means, as a lot of publishers now use it, but this was the first one to catch my eye. And one of the first books I bought was the “grilled cheese”-themed one.

A book filled with nothing but grilled cheese sandwich recipes seems a little ridiculous at first. For one thing, who needs a recipe to make grilled cheese? Or any kind of sandwich, for that matter? It’s true that, most of the time, the recipes in this book aren’t necessary; what’s important is the list of ingredients. The value of this book lies in the ideas it offers, in the inspiration it provides. I like to turn to it when I’m looking for a change from ham and gruyere or cheddar, and feel like mixing it up. You’d be surprised how many different kinds of spices and condiments can successfully combine in a simple grilled cheese.

Some of the recipes are indeed quite complicated, and require marinating or pickling things in advance. This is one of the simpler ones: roast beef, blue cheese and watercress. Very British, but cooked panini-style in a sandwich press.

You really don’t need a recipe for this, all the ingredients are in the description (and in the picture). For the cheese, I’ve tried both Bleu Bénédictin and Stilton; I was expecting the latter to be a better fit (since it hails from England), but the Bleu Bénédictin came out on top. For the bread, I used a (storebought) walnut loaf in this picture, which added a very nice flavour. I also once tried it on black olive fougasse, expecting the olives to be too strong alongside the blue cheese – but in fact, they complemented each other well. I still can’t decide which combination I prefer.

This seems to be a long post for something as basic as sandwiches, but I felt like reminding myself that good food, even for dinner, doesn’t have to involve complicated technique and preparation: just good ingredients, and the time to savour it.


  1. Je te comprends, lorsque j'étais candidate à la maîtrise et que je me plaignais d'être fatiguée et de manquer de temps. Mon entourage me répondait toujours: tu ne travailles même pas encore, que feras-tu lorsque tu travailleras? Et cela m'irritait vraiment, car parfois j'étais carrément lessivée (d'autant que ma mère est enseignante de niveau universitaire!). Crois-moi, le travail est vraiment moins fatiguant. J'aime beaucoup les sandwichs de toutes les formes et de toutes les couleurs et ils se retrouvent sur ma table régulièrement au repas du soir. Avec un bon pain et de délicieuses garnitures, c'est toujours un plaisir. Tes photos sont magnifiques Valérie et je prendrais bien une bouchée de ton sandwich!

  2. Thanks for explaining that to us, europeans!

    hahaha,...The BLT looks excellent to me!! Yummie,...Valérie!

    How can you go wrong??? MMMMMMMM,...

  3. Nummy, nummy! Who can resist a BLT or roast beef, especially yours? That bread looks phenomenal, and i'm about to drool on my keyboard at 6 am! Awesome photos too..hence why I must look

  4. A really good sandwich is a thing of beauty. I love making them at home on the weekends after buying French bread at the store. I usually use applewood smoked ham, an artisanal cheese, fresh tomatoes and make some soup to go along.

  5. I love a good sandwich any time of the day, wether that be dinner, lunch or breakfast! Especially when we are in the need for something quick and don't feel like cooking a good sandwich can always be thrown together from some leftovers in the fridge and well... I just love good bread!