Sometimes the simplest things are the best but often we don’t see them as such unless we stand back and inhale deeply. ‘Come ‘round for drinks’ just rolls off the tongue when we invite people over, but as the day approaches, it can strike fear in our hearts, not because the house needs a makeover or the garden needs weeding, or what drinks to serve and which glasses are required, oh no, nothing that simple, nothing you can gloss over or lie about. The trepidation revolves around the food – the nibbles, the fingerfood, the pass-arounds – those luscious bits we love to peck at while imbibing a cool drink, the necessary partner in crime to alcoholic beverages which prevent us from speaking Swahili as the night wears on, those nibbles we hope will be memorable and something everyone will ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ over.
At this time of year when everyone seems to be in a pre-Christmas frenzy, my advice is to keep it simple. Ha! That’s when I say, bring on the sandwiches. Yes, I love the tried and true, the retro, the all-time favourites, the nod of nostalgia. When properly made, there’s nothing to beat a soft, buttery, tasty and easy-to-bite-into sandwich.
All you need to do is pay attention to a few elements and you’ll have praise heaped upon you. There are several absolute requirements for great sandwiches: super fresh bread, no soggy fillings, and variety. Spreadable butter is easier to handle and enables you to take the butter right to the edges of the bread so that moist fillings can’t seep through and make the sandwiches soggy. Try other spreads such as hummus (it’s low in fat and has plenty of nutrients), which helps hold the sandwich together; mashed avocado (only good if the sandwich is to be eaten shortly after making); or a smear of mayonnaise. Avoid oil-based items such as pesto or tapenade as they will soak through the bread. Slice ingredients thinly, to keep the sandwiches elegant.
Moist fillings such as cucumber and tomato should all be dried before assembling sandwiches. A drag, maybe, but it’s what you must do for a superior sandwich. Wash and dry salad greens in a salad spinner. Use paper towels for mopping moisture from sliced ingredients and wrap items such as grated carrot and sliced cucumber in paper towels and squeeze to extract liquid. Put dry ingredients next to the butter, such as dry lettuce leaves, sliced cheese, cheese spreads, mashed avocado and sliced meats, and tuck more moist fillings such as sliced tomatoes and cucumber, chutneys and sauces inside. Sandwiches can splay open if non-sticky items such as lettuce are put next to other non-sticky items such as cucumber. The trick? Simply dab the lettuce or cucumber with a dot or two of butter or mayonnaise, and gently press the sandwich together. Adding a little chopped fresh mint, parsley, basil or snipped chives, or a quick grate of lemon or dab of mustard, can make all the difference to a sandwich – as can the standard but often overlooked seasoning combination of salt and black pepper. I use New Zealand flaky salt in sandwiches because it is mild, has no additives and leaves no bitter aftertaste.
To keep sandwiches at their best, put them in a container lined with damp paper towels or a clean damp tea towel as they are made, stacking tightly but without squishing them down too much, then cover with more damp paper towels or another clean damp tea towel to prevent them becoming dry. Cover the container with a lid, or plastic food wrap, and refrigerate. The sandwiches will keep perfectly fresh for several hours, and certain combinations that aren’t inherently moist, such as ham and egg, will keep for 24 hours. Bring them out of the fridge 10 minutes before serving, keeping them wrapped until the very last minute. Good sandwiches? You can never make enough of them.
Photography Aaron McLean http://www.aaronmclean.com