As more of us bid a fond farewell to corned beef, pastrami, melted cheese and mayo -- the fattening stuff great sandwiches were made of -- it seems harder to construct a sandwich anyone would want to eat.
Harder for everyone except Tracy Ritter, that is.
Ms. Ritter, chef at the luxurious Golden Door spa near San Diego, loves sandwiches, and she loves the challenge of giving them a healthful new look and taste.
"Sandwiches and burritos happen to be my very favorite foods," she said while arranging zucchini and eggplant slices on a hot grill. "They're hearty, they're easy, you can really be creative in the layering process, and you can eat them with one hand while you work."
And now they can be low-fat and low-calorie, too, Ms. Ritter said.
Under the old rules, a sandwich's bread was accused of being the fattening culprit. Well-meaning lunchers took wimpy slices of extra-thin sandwich bread and piled on the egg salad or roast beef.
"Dieters thought they had to give up breads and pastas," Ms. Ritter said. "But they were giving up the wrong thing."
Now that carbohydrates are recognized as good for weight maintenance and health, and fat is considered bad, the sandwich is getting its first real overhaul since the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montague, ordered bread-and-meat combos so he could gamble without mealtime interruptions.
"The sandwich has really, definitely evolved from the old ham-and-cheese," Ms. Ritter said. "Regular sandwiches were between 800 and 1,000 calories each, and even the so-called 'California' sandwiches, you know, with sprouts and everything, blobbed on the mayonnaise and the guacamole, which usually already has mayo in it."
In contrast, Ms. Ritter's sandwiches range from about 250 to 400 calories each and many contain pork, chicken or beef.
"We figure 3 ounces of meat so it can be the protein meal of the day, but you could do it with less," said Ms. Ritter, adding that she doesn't use pork or beef in the sandwiches she prepares at the Golden Door.
For a foundation, Ms. Ritter favors sourdough or whole-grain breads, which she crisps on a gas or charcoal grill sprayed with vegetable oil spray. Next comes a variety of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, herbs and condiments.
"You can make a sandwich out of almost anything," said Ms. Ritter as she layered grilled apple slices, sirloin steak and red onion rings on a crusty chunk of French bread.
"We even flatten food that has never been in a sandwich before. Last night, we had stir-fry veggie sandwiches for the staff. We grilled some bread and heaped on all the ingredients."
Cucumbers are one of Ms. Ritter's favorite sandwich additions because "they give really good crunch," she said. "And since they're so liquidy, you don't miss the mayonnaise."
Uncooked tomato slices, grainy mustard, prepared horseradish and chutneys and a bit of shredded cheese are used as toppers to the grilled ingredients.
For some sandwiches Ms. Ritter uses a mock mayonnaise -- whipped non-fat cottage cheese, mustard, horseradish, Worcestershire and chives. For others she prepares a cumin-spiked puree of roasted eggplant. But most of the time she lets the flavors of the grilled ingredients and fresh herbs stand on their own.
"You have to be careful, though," Ms. Ritter warns weight-watching sandwich-lovers. To keep calorie counts down, she suggests making open-face sandwiches or adding extra vegetables to make the meal substantial yet low-cal.
Ms. Ritter developed the following recipes with good nutrition and great taste in mind.
Grilled chicken breast on sourdough
Makes 4 servings.
4 chicken breasts, trimmed of fat and skinned
8 slices sourdough bread
8 lettuce leaves
2 red bell peppers, each sliced into 8 rings
12 basil leaves
4 teaspoons chili sauce
salt and pepper to taste
2 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled
Prepare grill. Stack basil leaves on top of each other. Roll and finely slice into ribbons. Spray grill with vegetable spray; grill chicken for 4 minutes per side.
Assemble sandwich by layering bread, lettuce, red pepper circles, basil leaves, chicken, chili sauce, seasoning if desired, goat cheese and bread.
Grilled vegetable sandwich with sprouts
Makes 4 servings.
1 medium eggplant, peeled and sliced into 8 circles
2 zucchinis, each sliced into 12 1/2 -inch slices on the bias
2 yellow squash, each sliced into 12 1/2 -inch slices on the bias
2 teaspoons balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 cup alfalfa sprouts
1/4 cup shredded low-fat gouda or low-fat cheddar cheese
8 slices whole-wheat or bran bread
2 beefsteak tomatoes, each cut into 8 circles
Prepare grill. Wash and slice vegetables. Spray grill with vegetable spray.
Grill eggplant, zucchini and squash on both sides until slightly soft. This should only take half a minute per side. Place vegetables in bowl, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and cover with plastic wrap. Let vegetables stand for 10 minutes.
Assemble sandwiches by layering bread, half the sprouts, zucchini, eggplant, squash, cheese, sprouts, tomato and bread.