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Make lunch something to savor with chef John Ash’s favorite sandwiches

What is a sandwich?

Originally, a sandwich meant any variety of fillings held together with two or more slices of bread. Over time, the bread has morphed into all manner of buns, toasts and rolls along with waffles, biscuits and, on the sweet side, cakes and cookies.

For savory sandwiches, anything goes for fillings and toppings, from conventional fish, meats and cheeses to French fries, spaghetti, fruits and vegetables. Each type of sandwich typically has deep ethnic and geographical roots and stories. We cherish those stories almost as much as we love the sandwiches themselves.

In “The Oxford Companion to Food,” Alan Davidson notes that sandwiches officially were born in 1762 in England when the fourth Earl of Sandwich, being an inveterate gambler, demanded meat between two slices of bread so he wouldn’t have to leave the gaming table to eat.

In today’s sandwich world, the classic definition has grown to include anything to hold a filling and eat out of hand. Think about the tradition of folding your pizza, which many believe is the proper way to eat a Neapolitan pizza to turn it into a portable meal. In-N-Out Burger is famous for their “protein”-style burgers, which are wrapped in lettuce and contain no bread at all. The list goes on. It would take many volumes to describe the world of sandwiches!

Here is a sampling of some special ones I like:

In his book “Heart of the Artichoke and other Kitchen Journeys,” New York Times contributor and former Chez Panisse chef David Tanis notes that “A well-made sandwich is a superb thing and not so easy to find in the world, despite the fact that so-called panini seem to be all too available everywhere. Why is it so difficult to get a good sandwich?

“If, for instance, you happen to be in Paris, you can still walk into nearly any bar and get a simple ham sandwich on a fresh baguette, and it will somehow be just right. Fresh bread, good butter, good ham. That’s it. ... A flawless sandwich must be built to order, quickly but perfectly. Not piled with lettuce, tasteless tomatoes, or sprouts and whatever else.”

Ham Sandwich in a French Bar

Makes 1 sandwich

1 baguette

Good cultured butter

Cooked ham or jambon de pays

Split the baguette, butter it generously and lay on the ham. Et voilà!

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A hallmark of Louisiana cooking, the po’boy is likely related to northern and eastern hoagie sandwiches, but has more local ingredients. One story is that in 1929, during a four-month strike against a New Orleans streetcar company, one restaurant served the strikers free sandwiches. The restaurant workers jokingly referred to the strikers as “poor boys,” and soon the sandwiches took on the name. The following recipe is called a “dressed” po’boy because it has bacon, lettuce and tomatoes.

Fried Oyster Po’Boy

Makes 4 sandwiches

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups yellow or white cornmeal

1 ½ teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons or more store-bought or homemade Creole Spice mix (recipe follows)

Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying

16 shucked “small” raw oysters

4 brioche or French bread rolls, toasted

Mayonnaise

4 thick applewood-smoked bacon slices, cooked crisp and drained

Iceberg lettuce leaves, whole or shredded

2 medium tomatoes, the ripest and sweetest you can find, sliced thinly

4 slices sweet white or red onion (optional)

Whisk together flour, cornmeal, salt and spice mix in a medium bowl. Heat 2 inches of oil in a deep saucepan to 350 degrees.

Toss the oysters in the seasoned flour, shake off excess flour and fry for about 3 minutes, until light golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

To assemble, spread the toasted buns liberally with mayonnaise then add the oysters, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and bun tops. Consume with gusto!

Creole Spice Mix

2 teaspoons sweet paprika powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon each dried thyme, basil and oregano

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all the spices in a spice grinder.

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There are two competing stories about the origin of the French Dip sandwich, and neither takes place in France, but in Los Angeles.

First, Cole’s, which still exists in Los Angeles and calls itself the “Originators of the French Dip,” claims the title of inventor. Their story is that the sandwich came about in 1908, when Cole’s head chef, sympathetic to a hungry customer with bad gums, softened French bread by dipping it in the warm jus of the roast beef pan used for sandwich meat.

The second story is that Philippe Mathieu, who was French, invented the sandwich. In 1918, he owned the Philippe the Original delicatessen and sandwich shop, also still in business in Los Angeles. According to that story, Philippe was preparing a sandwich for a policeman and accidentally dropped the sliced French roll into the drippings of a roasting pan. The policeman liked the sandwich so much, he came back the next day with friends to order the sandwich dipped in the meat pan.

In 1951, because of the 101 freeway construction, Philippe’s moved to its current location on Alameda across from Union Station. Matt Weinstock, then a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News, wrote:

“Philippe’s was something special. It had sawdust on the floor and cracks in the wall, but you didn’t care. You went there for the luscious French-dipped sandwich, the boiled eggs, the hot mustard, the potato salad, the coleslaw, the immense hunks of pie, the always hot mugs of coffee. You also woke up at night, maybe thousands of miles away, yearning for one of those sandwiches.”

Today, Philippe’s French Dipped Sandwich is the specialty of the house and consists of either roast beef, roast pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham served on a freshly baked French roll, dipped in the natural gravy of the roasts. Swiss, American, Monterey Jack or blue cheese may be added.

French Dip Sandwich

Makes 8

1 (4-pound) beef rib-eye, sirloin or tenderloin roast

½ cup black pepper, coarsely ground

8 sturdy French rolls

Softened butter

Dipping sauce:

Beef juices from cooking pan

1 (10.5 ounce) can beef stock or beef broth

½ cup water

Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place beef roast on a rack in a shallow baking pan; firmly press pepper onto roast. Bake, uncovered, 30 to 45 minutes or until a cooking thermometer, in the thickest part of roast, registers 135 degrees. Remove from oven and transfer to a cutting board. Let stand 15 minutes before carving; slice beef thinly.

Reserve the beef juices and skim off all the fat. Pour into a medium saucepan. Prepare dipping sauce by combining all ingredients and gently heating.

For each sandwich: Cut French rolls in half and toast and butter each roll. Layer about ½ pound of sliced beef on bottom slice of each roll and top with top slices of rolls. Slice sandwiches in half and serve on individual plates with a small bowl (½ cup) of hot dipping sauce.

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This famous Creole creation from New Orleans was invented at The Central Grocery, which is still there. Marie Lupo Tusa, daughter of Central’s founder, tells the story of the sandwich’s origin in her 1980 cookbook, “Marie’s Melting Pot”:

“The muffuletta was created in the early 1900s when the Farmers’ Market was in the same area as the grocery. Most of the farmers who sold their produce there were Sicilian. Every day they used to come of my father’s grocery for lunch.

“They would order some salami, some ham, a piece of cheese, a little olive salad and either long braided Italian bread or round muffuletta bread. In typical Sicilian fashion, they ate everything separately. The farmers used to sit on crates or barrels and try to eat while precariously balancing their small trays covered with food on their knees. My father suggested that it would be easier for the farmers if he cut the bread and put everything on it like a sandwich, even if it was not typical Sicilian fashion. He experimented and found that the thicker, braided Italian bread was too hard to bite but the softer, round muffuletta was ideal for his sandwich. In very little time, the farmers came to merely ask for a ‘muffuletta’ for their lunch.

Muffuletta Sandwich

Serves 2 to 4, depending on your appetite

1 round loaf Muffuletta bread or Mexican Torta bread, 10 inches or so in diameter

Extra-virgin olive oil, or juice from Olive Salad (recipe below)

2 ounces salami, thinly sliced

3 ounces Italian ham, thinly sliced

2 ounces sliced mortadella (4 - 6 slices)

3 ounces sliced Provolone cheese

Olive Salad (recipe follows)

Cut bread in half crosswise and scoop out about half the soft dough from top and bottom pieces to provide room for the sandwich ingredients. Brush the insides of loaf with olive oil or juice from the Olive Salad.

Layer salami, ham, mortadella and provolone cheese on bottom half. Top with as much Olive Salad as will fit without spilling out. Add top of loaf and press down slightly.

Slice in quarters and serve. Always serve the Muffuletta at room temperature and never toast the bread, according to Marie.

Olive Salad

Makes about 2 ½ cups

¾ cup green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

¾ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

⅓ cup drained canned pimento, chopped

¼ cup celery, thinly sliced

2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced

2 anchovy fillets, mashed and chopped

1 tablespoon drained capers

2 tablespoons parsley leaves, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or to taste)

Combine everything in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for a day or more to allow the flavors to blend. Stir occasionally. Serve at room temperature.

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If you have ever lived in or near Louisville, Kentucky, you’ll know about this famous hot turkey sandwich which originated at the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville. This recipe comes from Beverly Swetnam, whose grandfather got the original recipe from Chef Fred K. Schmidt, who created the sandwich in 1926.

She notes that “Chef Schmidt created this as a late-night menu item to serve guests that had been out late drinking and dancing. Something different from ham, bacon and eggs. You can find The Hot Brown on almost every menu in restaurants all over Kentucky, from the finest to the truck stops.”

Hot Brown

Makes 4 servings

4 slices of toast (good bread)

12 ounces sliced turkey

4 cups sauce (recipe follows)

¾ cup freshly grated Romano cheese, divided

8 slices half-cooked bacon

Paprika

To assemble: Trim toast and place on four ovenproof platters. Arrange turkey slices over the toast and divide sauce over each serving, covering turkey and toast completely. Sprinkle with Romano cheese and dust with paprika. Place two slices bacon in a X pattern on top. Place in a preheated 375-degree oven for 15 minutes or until Hot Brown is bubbly. Serve immediately.

Hot Brown Sauce

Makes about 4 cups

4 ounces butter

6 tablespoons flour

2 cups strong chicken broth

2 cups milk or half and half

6 tablespoons melting cheese of your choice, such as Jack

Salt and white pepper, to taste

In a saucepan over moderate heat, melt butter and whisk in flour to make a roux. Do not brown. Heat broth and milk to boiling point. Whisk hot milk mixture into roux, beating vigorously with a wire whisk until sauce thickens, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and white pepper and the cheese. Simmer and stir until cheese melts.

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Croque monsieur, the classic French ham and cheese sandwich covered in cheesy béchamel, becomes a madame when a poached or fried egg is placed on top. Many recipe sites suggest the name comes from the egg, which resembles a woman's breast. According to the Petit Robert dictionary, the name dates to around 1960.

Croque Madame

Makes 6 servings

For bechamel sauce:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups whole milk

12 ounces grated Gruyère cheese

½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg

For sandwich:

12 (¾-inch thick) slices pain de mie or Pullman bread, toasted

6 tablespoons smooth Dijon mustard

12 slices baked ham, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons canola oil

6 eggs

Make the béchamel sauce: Heat butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour and cook, whisking, until smooth, about 1 minute. Whisk in milk and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer until nicely thickened, 6 to 8 minutes. Add ½ cup of the Gruyère and the Parmesan and whisk until smooth. Season to your taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Set aside and keep warm.

Heat broiler to high. Place six slices bread on a foil-lined baking sheet and spread 1 tablespoon mustard over each slice. Top with 2 slices ham and remaining Gruyère. Broil until cheese begins to melt, 1 to 2 minutes. Top with remaining bread slices, then pour a generous amount of béchamel on top of each sandwich. Broil until cheese sauce is bubbling and evenly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add eggs, season with salt and pepper and cook until whites are cooked but yolks are still runny, about 3 minutes. Place an egg on top of each sandwich and serve hot.

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My grandmother was way ahead of her time with delicious cooking techniques. Her secret to the best and fastest grilled cheese you’ll ever have is: mayonnaise! It won’t burn as easily as butter and the result is crisp and delicious. Of course, you can add anything to the filling, including thinly sliced prosciutto or any other salumi you like as well as spicy greens like arugula. I’ve suggested cheddar, but you also can experiment with other delicious melting cheeses. Go crazy!

The Best Grilled Cheese

Serves 4

8 slices (½-inch thick) of good, chewy rustic bread

1 ½ tablespoons Dijon mustard

½ cup mayonnaise

8 ounces shredded extra-sharp cheddar or Gruyère cheese

Add-ons (optional):

  • 4 strips applewood-smoked bacon, crisply fried or baked
  • Slices of good ham, prosciutto or other salumi
  • Almond or other nut butter you like
  • Chopped Major Grey or other chutney you like
  • Membrillo or Fig Jam
  • Sliced tart apples
  • Sliced sauteed mushrooms
  • Simply dressed arugula or watercress

Brush four bread slices with mustard and top with the cheese. Place the remaining four slices on top and spread with half the mayonnaise.

Heat a large nonstick frying pan or griddle over medium heat until hot, about 3 minutes. Place the sandwiches, mayonnaise side down, in the pan and cook until the bottoms are golden brown and the cheese starts to melt, about 4 minutes. Spread the remaining half the mayonnaise on top of the sandwiches, turn over and cook until the second sides are golden brown and the cheese is completely melted, another 4 minutes or so. You may have to do this in batches. If so, heat your oven to 275 degrees and place cooked sandwiches in the oven to keep warm while you finish the rest.

Let the sandwiches cool for a minute or two before cutting in half and devouring.

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The Sonoran dog starts out with the patriotic combo of a regular hot dog, candy-striped in bacon. As they cook on the grill, the fat of the bacon renders out, basting the dog with smoky flavor as it crisps. It’s a perfect foil for the onslaught of Sonoran-style toppings. It is also a delicious clash of cultures. The warm hot dog contrasts with the cool of the avocado and pico de gallo. The creaminess of the beans balances the heat of pickled jalapeño. Crunchy potato chips go up against the squishiness of the bun. Potato chips? Yes, potato chips. Why not?

And don't forget the bun. An ordinary hot dog bun simply wasn't designed to hold this much drama. Go for a torpedo-shaped French roll or better yet, the authentic bolillo roll from a Mexican bakery.

So where did this thing get created? Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” wrote that “the Sonoran hot dog — at least in its American manifestation — traveled from Sonora in the 1950s and 1960s to Tucson in the 1980s to Tijuana in the 1990s to Los Angeles in the early 2000s, and it's been conquering states up I-5 and east on I-10 ever since.”

Sonoran Hot Dogs with Bacon, Pico de Gallo and Avocado

Makes 4 servings

For the pico de gallo

1 medium tomato, seeded, diced (about ¼ cup)

½ medium red onion, diced

½ garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped

Kosher salt and pinch of cayenne pepper, to taste

For the hot dogs:

4 beef hot dogs

4 slices bacon

4 Mexican bolillo rolls or large hot dog buns

1 cup canned refried beans, thinned with a little stock

½ avocado, thinly sliced

⅓ cup sliced, pickled jalapeños

Mayonnaise or crema flavored with lime juice and drops of hot sauce

½ cup potato or corn chips, loosely crushed

Cilantro sprigs

Make the pico de gallo: Combine tomato, red onion, garlic, lime juice, cilantro, cayenne and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

To cook and assemble the hot dogs: Prepare grill or ridged grill pan for medium-high heat. Wrap each hot dog in a bacon slice and secure with a toothpick. Grill, turning often, until bacon is cooked through and crisp on all sides, about 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice rolls open, leaving ends intact. Remove some of the centers with your fingers. Gently toast in a 350-degree oven or on grill until buns are warmed through and lightly crispy.

Nestle hot dogs into buns. Spoon a tablespoon or so of beans on one side of each dog, then arrange avocado slices and a tablespoon or so of jalapeños on the other side. Spoon pico de gallo over the dogs, then drizzle with mayonnaise and top evenly with chips and cilantro.

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A specialty of Provence in the south of France, pan bagnat literally means “bathed bread.” Originally it was a vegetable salad mixed with pieces of toasted leftover bread that became soaked with the juices after a time. In this version, a split baguette is filled with salad ingredients and canned fish. The loaf is then wrapped in plastic and weighted down so it becomes moist and compact. It’s basically a salade Niçoise between slices of crusty bread. It should be made ahead and is great to take to a picnic because it travels well.

Pan Bagnat

Serves 4

3 plum tomatoes, cored and thinly sliced crosswise

Kosher salt, to taste

1 (5-ounce) can olive oil-packed tuna, drained

½ small red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped

⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 round, rustic bread loaf, split (16 to 20 ounces)

½ cup fresh celery leaves or thinly sliced fennel

4 thin slices of sweet red onion

1 small Persian cucumber, thinly sliced lengthwise

2 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced crosswise

6 oil-cured anchovies, drained

8 oil-cured black olives, pitted and chopped

4 large basil leaves, torn

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Sprinkle tomato slices liberally with salt and transfer to a colander; set aside to drain for 30 minutes. Pat dry with paper towels and set aside.

In a small bowl, break up tuna with a fork, stir in bell pepper and set aside.

In another small bowl, whisk together oil and mustard; set dressing aside. Scoop the insides from the bread loaf and discard or reserve for another use. Place tomatoes evenly over bottom of bread and top with the celery leaves (or fennel), onion and cucumbers. Spread tuna mixture over top, then top with egg slices, anchovies, olives and basil. Pour dressing evenly over ingredients and season with salt and pepper; cover with top of bread, pressing lightly to compact.

Wrap sandwich tightly in plastic wrap and place on a baking sheet. Top with another baking sheet and weight with a cast-iron skillet. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Slice into quarters to serve.

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There is a legendary food cart near the University of Oregon campus (Go Ducks!) called the Cart de Frisco. Locals and students in Eugene often call it “Chicken Man.” They make the most wonderful grilled chicken sandwiches. Here’s my version, based on memory, with its essential flavors and textures: squishy toasted bun, grilled chicken, veggie slaw and spicy peanut and sweet hoisin sauces.

Frisco “Chicken Man” Sandwiches

Makes 4 servings

For marinade:

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and minced

¼ cup soy sauce

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon brown sugar

For chicken:

1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

For peanut sauce:

¼ cup smooth peanut butter

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon chile garlic sauce

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon brown sugar

For coleslaw:

1 ½ cups cabbage, thinly sliced

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely julienned

4 scallions, both green and white, cut in thin julienne

Lemon juice and salt and pepper, to taste

To assemble:

4 sesame or onion rolls

Hoisin sauce

Combine all the marinade ingredients in an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking dish and whisk until smooth. Add the chicken, turning to coat both sides, and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours.

In a small bowl, combine all the sauce ingredients and whisk until smooth. Adjust salt and hot and sweet flavors to your taste. If the sauce seems too thick, add another tablespoon or so of hot water and whisk until smooth and the consistency of thick cream. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the slaw ingredients and toss to combine.

Grill the chicken until cooked through. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, then chop or slice into 1-inch chunks. Meanwhile, toast the buns.

To assemble the sandwiches: Spread about 1 tablespoon of hoisin on the inside of one bun half. On the inside of the other bun half, spread a spoonful of peanut sauce. Divide the chicken and slaw between the four sandwiches. Serve extra peanut and hoisin sauce on the side.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of KSRO’s “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com.

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