They're stacking up as fancy fare

Sandwiches go upscale with varied breads, more

March 05, 2003|By Sylvia Rector | Sylvia Rector,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Sandwiches, in case you haven't noticed, aren't what they used to be.

Classier, more creative and much, much tastier than the meat-in-white-bread lunchbox fodder of childhood, they've been reinvented and redefined.

Today, their breads are better. Their fillings are fabulous. And they're being served in tantalizing combinations that are spread with a whole new attitude.

At the Rattlesnake Club in downtown Detroit, you can lunch on a $24 grilled shrimp sandwich -- five jumbo shrimp topped with fresh cilantro and mango-pepper salsa on scallion focaccia bread with lemon-grass aioli. On the other end of the scale, for about $6, Panera Bread has a grilled turkey panini with spinach-artichoke spread, Asiago-parmesan cheese, caramelized onions and tomato on basil pesto focaccia.

There's everything in between at today's restaurants. Sandwiches were the largest group among new menu items offered by the top 200 chain restaurants last year, so it's no wonder the trade journal Food Technology recently called sandwiches one of the 10 top trends to watch for in the future.

But sophisticated sandwiches shouldn't be confined to restaurants. Made at home, they're perfect food for today's lifestyle challenges. Too busy to cook? Watching your budget? Eating healthier? Bored with the same six dinners every week? Sandwiches can be an easy, quick and endlessly variable solution.

If you're ready to shed your turkey-and-American past for a more contemporary style, there's no shortage of help and inspiration. There are new sandwich cookbooks by famous chefs, elaborate $100 panini grills from high-end appliance makers, scores of tempting ready-made ingredients at bakeries, markets and grocery stores.

Here are some tips:

To make a great sandwich, start with great breads. Chefs agree that breads with substance, texture and the earthy flavors of grain are the real key to today's more substantial, sophisticated sandwiches. Choose rustic hearth-baked or artisan-style breads. Experiment with different textures, shapes and flavors, and slice them yourself to get the thickness you prefer.

Add flavor by grilling the bread, and roast or grill at least some of the fillings, such as onions, peppers and other vegetables. Seasoning or marinating the meat adds complexity and more layers of flavor. You can grill bread slices individually before assembling the sandwiches, or you can grill the whole thing in a contact grill or a specialized panini maker, sold at high-end appliance retailers. Restaurant chains all over the country are jumping on the panini bandwagon, industry studies show.

Use grilled or roasted meats instead of sliced cold cuts. Even leftovers from a weekend cookout or Sunday night supper are preferable to processed products. Think oven-roasted turkey breast, succulent slices of rosy grilled steak, pan-seared salmon fillets, or even shredded, slowly braised beef pot roast. And if you love tomatoes on sandwiches, don't settle for tasteless winter ones; intensify their flavor by slowly roasting sliced or halved Romas in the oven. Add a few leaves of fresh basil or other herbs while you're at it.

Get beyond mayonnaise and mustard. Shop the aisles of almost any supermarket and you'll spot prepared chutneys, pestos and tapenade -- extremely flavorful condiments that aren't usually used as sandwich spreads. In the refrigerator section, grab containers of hummus, bottles of salad dressing and tubs of spreadable cheeses.

Rethink everything you assume about fillings. Both vegetarian and seafood sandwiches were strong new trends on restaurant menus last year, Food Technology magazine reports. Grilled eggplant, broccoli and asparagus are just a few of the vegetables showing up as sandwich ingredients. Don't overlook fresh vegetables. Pea shoots, rings of sweet yellow or red peppers, or long, thin slabs of crisp cucumber can add crunch, moisture and coolness to sandwiches. Try fruit; mango or pineapple salsas are cool, spicy and refreshing in knife-and-fork sandwiches.

Filling you in on sandwich terms

With so many new breads, ingredients and styles of sandwiches, it sometimes feels as though you need a dictionary just to know what you're ordering or shopping for.

Here are some of the sandwich words -- both old and new -- to watch for in cookbooks, on menus or while shopping.

Aioli (ay-OH-lee): A garlic mayonnaise from France's Provence region and a favorite spread for sandwiches at upscale restaurants. American chefs often tinker with the original recipe, adding flavors and ingredients such as citrus oils, herb oils or chopped capers, olives or herbs.

Baguette (baa-GHETT): A long, thin loaf of French bread with a hard, crisp crust and an airy, chewy interior.

Ciabatta (chee-BAH-tah): A rustic, oblong, flatbread whose name means slipper in Italian. Unlike focaccia, its top is usually unadorned with herbs and oil.

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