The Pressed Picnic Sandwich with Tapenade—Vinaigrette

pressed picnic sandwich slices, a wine bottle, a picnic basket

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.

riding a bicycle at Biltmore Estate, a picnic at Biltmore Estate, pastures at Biltmore Estate

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.


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.

a pressed picnic sandwich

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.


a whole peasant loaf to make a pressed picnic sandwich

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.

ingredients for a pressed picnic sandwich, basil, goat cheese, tapenade
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.

pressed picnic sandwich ingredients, cheese, salami, grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, onions, Parmesan cheese

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 recipe for pressed picnic sandwich

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.

  1. ⅔ cup olive oil
  2. ⅓ cup wine vinegar
  3. Juice from 1 lemon (2–3 tablespoons)
  4. 2 tablespoons roughly chopped Kalamata olives
  5. 2 tablespoons roughly chopped black olives (the canned kind)
  6. 2 tablespoons roughly chopped green olives (with pimento is good) 
  7. 2 tablespoons peperoncini, stems removed
  8. 1 tablespoon capers, lightly pressed to release flavor
  9. 1 tablespoon finely diced shallot
  10. 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic (2–3 cloves)
  11. 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano (1 teaspoon dried)
  12. 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (1 teaspoon dried)
  13. 2 teaspoons sugar or honey
  14. 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  15. ½ teaspoon celery seed, lightly crushed between fingers
  16. ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  17. ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  18. 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.


assembling pressed picnic sandwich step 1, add cheese and tapenade

Start by halving a loaf of bread and hollowing out the top. Spread both sides with a generous amount of goat cheese. Sprinkle some of the tapenade solids on both sides and drizzle with vinaigrette.

assembling pressed picnic sandwich step 2, add basil and salami
Add fresh herbs next. If you like anchovies but suspect anchovy haters among your guests, leave them whole and arranged on the first layer so you can tell folks where to pick them off. I like sliced meat, like this salami, on the top layer so I can press it into the hollow.

assembling pressed picnic sandwich step 3, add provolone and grilled eggplant
The order is up to you, of course. I like a thick layer of grilled eggplant filling up the hollow. I should have added another ring of eggplant around the outside. It’s hard to concentrate and take pictures at the same time.

assembling pressed picnic sandwich step 4, add bell pepper and parmesan cheese
Raw bell pepper adds fresh flavor to brighten up the mix. I use a mandolin to shave it super thin. A generous layer of shaved Parmesan adds salty richness. This would’ve been a good time to lavish more tapenade love.

assembling pressed picnic sandwich step 5, add grilled zucchini and roasted red pepper
Next up, grilled zucchini and roasted red peppers.

assembling pressed picnic sandwich step 6, add onions and more tapenade
Lots of shaved fresh onion is really important. Mine were mild Vidalias so I piled them on thick. Last comes a heavy hit of tapenade and vinaigrette. Don’t hold back, it’s your last chance.
I’ve used all my ingredients so I’m ready to close up. But do you see what’s wrong with this picture? Somehow these two shaggy entities must join together. I usually end with a layer of sliced cheese to hold everything down for the flip but I didn’t have as much as I thought. No worries. Food stylists thrive on this kind of puzzle. I covered one side with a cutting mat and flipped it just fine.

making a pressed picnic sandwich, wrapping in plastic, pressing, covering in foil
Wrap the sandwich really tightly with a couple of layers of plastic wrap. Pull in from the sides to firm up and compress the sandwich. Think sandwich spanks. If you’re opposed to plastic wrap, use strong parchment paper or multiple layers of natural waxed paper. Once tightly bound, press down on the sandwich to begin flattening it out. Next wrap it up in heavy duty foil, again, pulling to make a tight fit. Foil creates a durable shell for transport.

pressed picnic sandwich under a weight in the refrigerator
Now clear out a spot in the fridge where you can press the sandwich for several hours. For the photo I used a plate and weight but usually I place an iron skillet or Le Creuset Dutch oven directly on top and sit a rock inside.

Use a serrated knife to slice the sandwich. On picnics I usually slice through the wrappers because it keeps everything neat and tidy. But the knife blade can leave behind slivers of plastic and foil, so check the slices before dolling them out!
cross section of a pressed picnic sandwich

Finally, here’s an Instagram of my friend and photographer Lynne Harty eating The Sandwich (the one from this post in fact) on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Glad to have takers to dispatch extras I had to make for the photos.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Pin It

Chris Bryant


  1. Chris,
    Amazing what can be accomplished with a little ExtraSlaw! Love your ideas and the way you present them.

  2. You do realize that you are leading me into a total existence of picnic decadence, don’t you? You will notice no protest, just an earnest effort to replicate your recipes and suggestions. Happiness all the way around. Cheers!

  3. I love pressed sandwiches! We used to do one with seared tuna, goat cheese and roast red peppers. These looks super yummy, love tapenade! And the art direction, as always, puts Martha Stewart to shame! I’m waiting for some large corporation to discover you and buy you up and make you the house hold name you deserve to be!

Comments are closed.