I’m here with a mid summer picnic report, happy to announce it’s shaping up to be an exceptionally dandy season. Skip and I have been able to get in some terrific outdoor meals. One on a hillside overlooking a castle, another while dangling our toes in our favorite river, and the ultimate 4th of July picnic on blankets by the bandshell eating fried chicken and listening to John Philip Sousa. The best news is the picnic season goes through fall so it’s not even halfway through.
This year I’ve been leaning heavily on the pressed picnic sandwich. It’s a meal-in-one conglomeration that evolved without a recipe, so we just call it The Sandwich. The ingredients are basic and the making is simple—grilled vegetables, meats, cheeses, chunky pickled things, and tangy vinaigrette. Otherwise totally open to interpretation, there’s one critical component that can’t be left out. Pressure. Such a pile up has to be densified or it would never fit in a picnic basket, much less your mouth. Plus compression multiplies flavor. For classification purposes I’d say The Pressed Picnic Sandwich (The Sandwich for short) shares 75% of its DNA with the muffaletta. However, while a muffaletta can be pressed or not pressed, The Sandwich must always be squished and squashed for a spell.
OTHER SANDWICHES UNDER PRESSURE
A couple of my favorite MFK Fisher recollections involve pressed sandwiches. In his book Choice Cuts, Mark Kurlansky tells how Fisher once assembled a large ham sandwich in front of a guest, swaddled it tightly in plastic wrap, then handed it to him to sit on while they visited before lunch. Years before Mary Frances put her guest on the spot, she wrote about that same technique in “Bold Knife and Fork,” where she called it a Railroad Sandwich. Her recipe is even simpler (also more interactive) than mine: hollow out a loaf of bread, pack it with ham, smear it with butter and “judicious smears of mustard,” wrap it tightly, then sit on it at least 20 minutes.
In southern France (truly a picnic paradise), the pressed sandwich de terre is the pan bagnat (pahn bahn-YA; translation: bathed bread). Possibly the ultimate summer sandwich, pan bagnat is essentially a salade Niçoise—tuna, anchovy, tomato, onion, lettuce, boiled egg, black olives—doused in olive oil vinaigrette and compressed inside crusty bread. Here’s a great New York Times recipe and video with Melissa Clark making one.
The Pressed Picnic Sandwich Moment
This make-ahead sandwich positively gets better allowing a day or two for its ingredients to assimilate under pressure. I like to grill the veggies and make the Tapenade–Vinaigrette during the week (recipe follows). Then, Thursday night or Friday morning, I slap together the sandwich and start pressing it. From there on out, whatever we decide to do for the next two or three days—hike, bike, float, or drive—there’s a fabulous meal in the bag for the excursion. Essentially a meal in itself, the sandwich makes light duty of packing a picnic or spur of the moment feasting by the fire pit. Most times the only things I add to the mix are a salad or two—potato salad and marinated cucumbers are favorites—and some cut up melon. And of course, wine.
GATHER YOUR INGREDIENTS
HEARTY BREAD with sturdy crust is the starting point. There are plenty of sizes and shapes to fit the bill. Along with dome-topped boules, there are squarish, flattish ciabattas, individual sized hard rolls, and long baguettes, which I think are great for big picnics or parties because you can lop them into handy squares.
My super chunky TAPENADE—VINAIGRETTE delivers sparks of flavor to every bite. Fresh and dried HERBS are a must and basil, oregano, thyme are my favorites. I like to smear tangy GOAT CHEESE on the bread but cream cheese and farmer’s cheese are nice too. Don’t forget coarse SALT, freshly ground PEPPER, and RED PEPPER FLAKES.
This sandwich is all about GRILLED VEGETABLES. This time it’s eggplant, red pepper, and zucchini. Other favs are thick onion slices (hold them together with toothpicks) and portobellos. Brush with olive oil before grilling or broiling and sprinkle with lemon juice or balsamic vinegar after. Use flavorful HARD CHEESES like Provolone, Swiss, and Parmesan. Pick sturdy CURED MEATS like salami, capicola, and pepperoni. I limit raw veggies to BELL PEPPER and ONION because they improve over time. Tomatoes and lettuce are short term players, best for same day feasting.
TAPENADE—VINAIGRETTE for Pressed Sandwiches
Makes about 1½ cups
Two recipes in one. The herb- and olive-packed tapenade sits at the bottom of a zesty vinaigrette making both sandwich fixin’s doubly delicious. What’s more, leaving the tapenade ingredients in toothsome chunks means you can taste them throughout the sandwich (or crostini or pizza). Use a fork or tongs to sprinkle the solids and drizzle the vinaigrette with a soup spoon.
- ⅔ cup olive oil
- ⅓ cup wine vinegar
- Juice from 1 lemon (2–3 tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoons roughly chopped Kalamata olives
- 2 tablespoons roughly chopped black olives (the canned kind)
- 2 tablespoons roughly chopped green olives (with pimento is good)
- 2 tablespoons peperoncini, stems removed
- 1 tablespoon capers, lightly pressed to release flavor
- 1 tablespoon finely diced shallot
- 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic (2–3 cloves)
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano (1 teaspoon dried)
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (1 teaspoon dried)
- 2 teaspoons sugar or honey
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon celery seed, lightly crushed between fingers
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon onion powder
- Combine the ingredients and let the tapenade sit for at least 20 to 30 before serving. Flavor is better after several hours, best overnight. Store the tapenade in the refrigerator for up to a week.
To make a traditional tapenade, chop the ingredients very finely so you have a chunky paste and reduce the oil and vinegar blend to 1/3 cup.