Lenten lunch challenge: crafting sandwiches without cold cuts

One of the lesser-known facts about me is that on Fridays during Lent, I don’t almost never eat meat. It’s not that I’m anybody’s idea of a devout Catholic… but several years ago, I thought that giving up meat on Fridays during those 40 days would be a good idea on a few different levels. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve stuck with it.

The challenge hasn’t so much been going without meat at dinner (except on a Friday in Austin during SXSW, when I feel like a dweeb for making this sacrifice) but figuring out lunch. I am an extreme creature of habit for mid-day meals: Unless I’ve got a lunch date, I make myself a sandwich.

And that sandwich has almost always been built around some sort of cold cuts: ham one week, turkey the next, roast beef afterwards, repeat. Why not? It tastes good (baking my own bread helps), I save money, I can make the sandwich fit my appetite, and having one instead of leftover pasta or whatever reduces the risk of having the same type of food for lunch and dinner.

I could revert to my childhood staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but they’re not too filling. So what else if the traditional sandwich formula is out? In case this season has put this question in your mind–or you just ran out of cold cuts and need to make something for lunch–here are a few options.

Grilled-cheese sandwichOne answer is another childhood favorite, grilled cheese, that’s particularly apt when it’s as cold out as it is now. But not just cheese between two slices of bread; you want to exercise some creativity. Here I have to credit the higher-end grilled-cheese options at Stoney’s in D.C. for making me think about including tomato slices, and I’ve since gotten into the habit of adding such extra ingredients as sautéed onions or apple or pear slices, avocado or garlic-scape pesto. The sandwich at right, photographed after I’d nibbled it into a vague resemblance of D.C.’s outline, features the first two additions on that list as well as whole-grain mustard, and was delicious.

The one downside: There’s actual cooking involved, which means both waiting in front of a hot stove and more stuff to clean up.

Credit for another veggie-sandwich choice goes to the Potomac Pedalers bike club, which on its annual century ride serves up these great cucumber and tomato sandwiches at about the 75-mile mark. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of those rides (can we not talk about my diminished cycling mileage these days?), but the recipe was a keeper. I will often top those thin cucumber and tomato slices with some cream cheese and sautéed bell peppers or caramelized onions. Or you can substitute hummus for the cream cheese.

One potential problem: In the winter, good tomatoes are scarce or expensive, and without one of the two main ingredients this sandwich becomes a little one-dimensional.

My third regular choice on these Fridays is a straightforward ripoff of any good bagel place’s menu: smoked salmon and cream cheese, plus maybe capers or thinly sliced red onions, sautéed or not. (I keep coming back to onions as an accoutrement because they are the easiest thing to cook alongside dinner–either in a pan you’ll later use for another ingredient, or in a foil packet on the grill.) Later in the spring, I can top this with some arugula if my tiny garden has come back to life soon enough.

Awkward issue: Despite all of my efforts, my wife doesn’t like seafood and so remains unconvinced of how awesome this sandwich tastes.

So anyway, hope that helps to diversify your lunch choices. Any other sandwich recipes I should be trying between now and April 5?

(Were you expecting more of the usual earnest musing about journalism or technology? I’ll try to get back to that next week.)

Updated 2/21 with a few editorial tweaks and additional suggestions.

Our weekly bread (among other recipes)

For an allegedly digital individual, I revert to analog ways more often than you might guess. I live in a 93-year-old house, dry clothes on a line in the summer, own a manual typewriter, and like to get my hands dirty gardening. And I haven’t bought sandwich bread since 2005 or so, because I bake my own.

I came across this recipe–after many years in which I couldn’t get sandwich bread to work–about eight years ago in the Post’s Food section. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s article, headlined “The Lazy Loaf,” promised bread in under four hours, and her instructions lived up to that advance billing. (In the spring of 2010, I was delighted to see Beranbaum post a few comments on my own blog.)

I’ve since made a few tweaks to the recipe, including variations for hot dog and sandwich buns as well as English muffins. I’m still seeing if I can get the hang of bagels.

FYI, I posted a version of this on my Facebook page in February of 2011. But the visibility of old Facebook notes is minimal, and I’d like to think that many of you missed this the first time around.

Sandwich bread

Our Weekly Bread

Makes a 9-inch sandwich loaf

  • 1 1/4 cup hot water out of the tap
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (one standard packet, although I measure it out of a Costco-size bag)
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 3 1/2 cups flour: I usually combine 2 1/2 c all-purpose unbleached white flour with 1 c whole-wheat flour, but I’ll use as much as 1/2 c and as little as 1/2 c of the latter, and sometimes I’ll mix in some rye or flaxseed flour for a heartier flavor.
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon of herbes de provence, Italian seasoning or dried oregano (optional, but recommended if you’re using all or mostly white flour).
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional for the bowl

Add yeast and honey to the hot water and whisk together. Let stand for 10 minutes, until the yeast foams.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flours and mix in the salt and, if using, any dried herbs. Pour in the water/yeast/honey mixture, then the oil.

Use a standing mixer’s dough hook to knead the dough until smooth and springy, about 7 minutes (the original recipe says you can knead by hand for 10 minutes, but I’ve never tried that). The dough should be soft and cling slightly to your fingers, not the bowl. Shape the dough into a ball, kneading a few times by hand.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot. Set aside to rise until the dough has doubled in size, from 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on the temperature.

Butter a loaf pan. Turn the dough onto a work surface, such as a clean countertop dusted with flour, shape it into a rectangle and fold the longer side over. Then flatten that into a rectangle and fold that over again. Finally, flatten it a third time, then roll that up tightly and pinch the seam with your fingers to seal it.

Place the roll, seam-side down, in the pan, then cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise until almost doubled, from 45 minutes to as long as an hour and 45 minutes depending on temperature. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees about 30 minutes into that second rise, longer if it seems to be going slowly; if you let the pan rest on top of the oven, the residual warmth will help the yeast do its job. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes.

Remove the bread from the pan and let it cool on a rack for at least an hour, preferably two.

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