I don't think there is a meal that makes me happier than a good sandwich. Admittedly, there are some very good sandwich recipes available in non-sandwich cookbooks—Andrea Nguyen's banh mih recipe in her astounding book Into the Vietnamese kitchen, the inspiring veggie sandwiches in Deborah Madison's Fields of Greens, or the sheer show-stopping power of the Big Bread Sandwich in the Silver Palate Cookbook, for example—but sandwich cookbooks truly dig deep into the gestalt of sandwich making, and with that in mind, here are five of my favorite books on sliced bread.
I worked at Campanile in the late nineties, when Nancy Silverton started her Thursday sandwich nights there, and on that night, all of Los Angeles put their Zone diets on hold and flocked to the restaurant to eat buttery grilled gruyere sandwiches that Nancy and her girlfriends would grill from behind the restaurant's bar. For a while, I was the fry girl, piling golden haystacks of thyme strewn French fries to accompany the sandwiches— the orders never stopped coming. This book takes me back to that time when I was learning how to cook professionally.
Nancy is a benevolent perfectionist: no detail is lost on her, and as such, you should observe her directions with care, whether that comes to pesto making or eating a simple ham and butter sandwich: "squeeze the sandwich together with your fingers to compress it before taking the first bite." While Nancy is always quick to embrace simplicity of the best quality—a perfect grilled cheese sandwich, say— she also steers readers to more inventive combinations like a tuna melt made with home-poached fish, remoulade and cheddar, or one of my favorites, an open faced number featuring baked ricotta, slow-roasted roma tomatoes and glazed onions. Even if you don't make every sandwich from beginning to end, it is worth raiding building blocks from this book like romesco sauce, from-scratch Russian and green goddess dressings, or fantastic braised leeks, which can make even a simple cold-cut sandwich an affair to remember.
Jane and Michael Stern, of Roadfood fame, are at peace with processed cheese. The yellow-orange stuff plays a key engineering role in too many classic American sandwiches to count. "It melts under a broiler as smooth as liquid mercury," they write in this volume. "It spreads on bread like warm grout." The Sterns, who for decades have driven across America to document and extol its vernacular foodscape, have an amazing capacity to acknowledge all the oddities of American eating, and yet still demand integrity from its practitioners. Velveeta may get a pass, but if you're in the mood to make a gyro, they tell you to make your own Greek-spiced meatloaf to fill it, rather than trying to acquire a log of mystery meat, like those found spinning in countless Chicago souvlaki stands.
This cookbook is part travelogue, firmly rooting sandwiches in geographic settings, from Beef on Weck in Buffalo, to a Cuban mix sandwich in Key West, and a hot state-fair-style pork sandwich from Iowa's Machine Shed chain. Each recipe headnote is an incredible vignette of cultural history and American idiosyncrasies, like this piece preceding a truly bizarre combination of shrimp egg food young and grilled cheese: "St. Louis is a city of weird culinary specialties. It is home of sauced pig snoots (in barbecue parlors), fried brain sandwiches (in taverns), toasted ravioli (which is actually deep-fried), chili mac a la mode (with a fried egg on top), and the amazing chili and potato omelet known as a slinger or, at the Goody Goody diner, a Wilbur."
The Great Sandwich Book was one of the first books published during the post-war sandwich renaissance; the James-Beard-inspired era when cookbooks started really celebrating America's ethnic traditions and encouraging people to make more and more elements of their sandwiches from scratch. You might be surprised, in a book that's almost 35 years old, to find such a diversity of recipes: muffulettas, chappati with eggplant, herring bagelwiches, and Chinese shrimp toasts. Borghese was a booster of workaday sandwiches, giving street-vendor-style hot dogs and any number of meat n' cheese sandwiches their due, all while still suggesting fancier numbers as well. Why not throw some fennel twigs in the fire, she suggests, the next time you're grilling fish for a sandwich? Or fill hard rolls with a Provencal-style vegetable stew?
I like digging into Borghese's book for some of the less-contemporary recipes she provides. Her bread chapter is extensive, including a recipe for New England-style dill bread, which brought me straight back to my young adolescence—this kind of fragrant bread was the stuff of countless brunch parties among my mother's friends. Borghese also encourages her readers to get creative with sweet sandwiches on various tea breads, like pumpkin bread with cream cheese and candied ginger, or apple date bread spread with a chestnut puree. Needless to say, the book is out of print, but check eBay or Alibris, and it will eventually turn up.
'wichcraft, named after Colicchio's chain of sandwich restaurants, pushes the limits of home-cook prep work with sandwich combos like roasted pork belly with sweet and sour braised endive, home-cured duck breast with caramelized apples and endive, or a grilled panino of roasted pumpkin with brown butter and mozzarella. Even their version of a PBJ features doctored up peanut butter (cut with butter) and homemade rhubarb jelly. All of this is not to discourage readers from the book, but to make it known that many of these recipes are projects, worth throwing a dinner party around. (Dessert can be one of the several cookie sandwiches included in the book). I appreciate the ambition of the recipes: 'wichcraft's complex combinations show why today's chefs love riffing on sandwiches. Each sandwich is a little world unto itself, each bite a balance of richness, sweetness, and piquancy.
Even if you don't make all the recipes from head to toe, wade into the condiments section for recipes like simple homemade mayonnaise or a seductive scorched chili oil—to lend panache to your own sandwich improvisations.
Born in the roadway restaurants along Italian highways, the grilled panino deserves its place in sandwich heaven: A corrugated toasted bread shell, filled with gooey strands of melted cheese paired with piquant bits of pesto, charcuterie, or marinated veggies. In Manhattan, 'ino, founded by Jennifer and Jason Denton, was a pioneer purveyor of panini, and the cookbook they produced, together with Kathryn Kellinger, is a wonderful guide to the form.
Unlike other restaurant-based sandwich cookbooks, the 'ino approach is deliberately stripped down: "We like to keep the number of sandwich ingredients to three or under for the sake of simplicity," They write. The Dentons' suggestions make you want to jump right in the kitchen: sweet coppa with mozzarella and pickled red onion, tuna with oven-roasted tomato and red onion, or the untouchable classic: prosciutto, mozzarella and tomato. With the Denton's basic building blocks like pesto, pepperonata, and braised fennel, plus a nice selection of sliced cheese meat and bread at hand, the possible panino combinations are limitless. Though the pressed paninis get most of the attention, don't overlook their elegant tramezzini, with nuanced fillings like balsamic kissed chicken livers or lemony shrimp salad.