There’s no wrong time for a sandwich—but seasonality matters. The humid dog days of July and August, when lighting the kitchen oven is too uncomfortable to contemplate, are best spent on the back patio with a beer bottle in one hand and a pair of grill tongs in the other, holding that cool bottle to the back of your neck and blessing the odd breeze that rolls along. Some sandwiches are suited for summer, whether due to the deck-friendliness of the cooking method or the lightness of the ingredients, the seasonality of the produce or the brightness of the flavors.
Here are a few regional specialty sandwiches that hit the spot on a scorching summer day.
Toast Skagen—Briny and Bright
Toast Skagen and its constituent shrimp salad Skagenröra were invented in the 1950s by Tore Wretman, who became an early example of the celebrity chef in Sweden. Skagenröra is made with tiny shrimp, the kind that run ninety or 120 to the pound and in the United States are usually sold shelled, precooked and frozen. The salad can be as simple as shrimp, mayonnaise and dill, but many versions, my own included, are filled out with additional flavors: lemon zest or juice, Dijon mustard, very finely diced red onion or shallots, chives and white pepper. Some sour cream or crème fraiche may be used to lighten the dressing, giving it a more sour and less oily character than with mayonnaise alone, enhancing the sweet juiciness of the tiny shrimp.
The bread for Toast Skagen is toasted in a pan, normally with butter, though in keeping with the spirit of the season, buttering it and toasting it on the grill is an acceptable method. A good sourdough bread is best, though any sturdy sliced white bread would do. Preparing the sandwich can be as simple as spooning the salad onto the toast, but consider this: first place on the bread a leaf or two of good lettuce, Bibb or leaf, butter or gem, just enough to add a splash of color and a moisture barrier to keep your toast crisp. Then add the salad and garnish with a sprig of dill, a thin slice of lemon, bright orange roe, or some combination thereof. The sandwich that results is crisp and light, cool and bright-flavored and very much like a salad en croute. It’s not terribly substantial, but it’s just the thing when the heat is so oppressive, you’re not sure if you even want to eat at all.
Spiedie—The Grill Master’s Choice
The word “spiedie” is derived from the Italian spiedo, which means a barbecue spit or skewer, and the sandwich bearing this name is a pastime all its own in its native Binghamton, New York. It consists of uniformly sized meat chunks; lamb, chicken and pork are the usual proteins, though beef, turkey or venison can also be used. The meat is first marinated in a vinaigrette-style sauce, then it’s threaded onto skewers and grilled over charcoal. Making the sandwich is as easy as sliding the skewer into a torpedo roll, brat bun, or similar long narrow bread, then gripping the meat with the bread and pulling out the skewer. The resulting spiedie may then be drizzled with some reserved marinade before it’s served. The sandwich is both simple and delicious.
Simple, yes, but deceptively so. Making a spiedie is the work of a moment. Preparing the meat for spiedies requires a few hours. Perfecting the spiedie, on the other hand, may take a lifetime. Competing brands of commercial spiedie marinades are available in the Central New York area, but the real spiedie enthusiasts—the people with grill skills, those likeliest to enter and win the competition at Spiedie Fest—make their own. The original recipe is said to have contained dried mint, garlic, lemon juice, vinegar and water, but the winning marinades these days are closely guarded secrets.
Benedictine—Cool as a Cucumber
Louisville, Kentucky has several notable gustatory traditions, though not all lend themselves to summer eating, even if you’re washing them down with a mint julep. Benedictine spread, and the sandwiches made with it, are an exception. Invented by Louisville lunch-counter owner Jennie Carter Benedict in the early twentieth century, Benedictine is a cucumber sandwich-in-a-slurry, with shredded, drained cucumbers and onion, cream cheese, some mayonnaise or sour cream, and seasonings like garlic powder, hot sauce, Worcestershire, dill and chives. You might even add some green food coloring for decorative purposes. The spread may be left chunky, with its distinct vegetable textures kept intact, or it may be whipped into a puree.
Benedictine is served in tea-style sandwiches: soft white bread slathered with the light, zesty cucumber spread, crusts cut off, presented in attractive symmetrical stacks of triangular snacks at summer cookouts around the Louisville area. Chefs have experimented with it, combining it with browner, nuttier breads, with bacon, ham or turkey, with lettuce, tomato, or even just cucumbers. The stuff is strangely addictive on its own, though. Put a tub of Benedictine and a sleeve of Ritz crackers in front of me and both will be gone before you know it.
Pan Con Tomate—The Snack of Choice for Tomato Season
As the season wears on through August and into September, those of us who have toiled in the garden see the fruits of our labor, all the zucchini and cucumbers, chiles, beans and greens. The true treasure of the garden, though, at least for the sandwich lover, is the tomato. August is tomato season, which makes it BLT season, Caprese season, and a time to take a couple slices of squishy white bread, slather them with Duke’s mayonnaise, lay on two or three thick slabs of beefsteak tomato, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and enjoy one of the South’s greatest gifts to the sandwich arts.
Yet as good as the Southern-style tomato sandwich is, the purest expression of the tomato sandwich may be the Catalan Pa Amb Tomàquet. Called Pan Con Tomate in Spanish, it is a kind of montadito, a type of tapas served on toast. As with Italian crostini, begin by toasting slices of good bread on your grill, just enough to crisp and brown the surface while leaving the bread soft-crumbed. Once it’s toasted, rub the cut end of a clove of garlic over the bread’s surface, lightly but thoroughly, to abrade some of its flavor onto the bread. Don’t overdo it, though: you don’t want the garlic to overwhelm the fresh tomato flavor. Then spread the bread with the pulp or juices of a ripe tomato; the Catalan method is to cut the tomato open and squeeze it directly onto the bread, though I prefer to grate the pulp into a bowl and then spoon it on. Finally, finish the toast with a drizzle of good quality olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.
The sandwich represents the kind of simplicity that lies at the heart of good cooking. For the best results, start with the best ingredients. Good bread, good olive oil, and a tomato just pulled from the vine and placed into your hands by the person who grew it. Michelin will never award you a star for taking a tomato from your backyard and squishing it onto a piece of toast. But a Michelin-starred chef might very well look you in the eye, clink your beer bottle with theirs, and tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever eaten.