Sandwiches are often a halfhearted affair, a mishmash of refrigerator ingredients piled haphazardly on whatever bread we’ve got on hand. Too often, we eat them while standing at the counter, taking a brief break for fueling instead of feeding.
But with the right ingredients, prepared in just the right way, a sandwich can be far more than a snack on the run. You may not typically serve cold sandwiches for dinner, but hot sandwiches are usually robust and hearty enough — and sometimes even elegant enough — to serve at your next dinner party.
Hot sandwiches, by their very definition, require more forethought than their cold counterparts. After all, not everything tastes good hot. Hot cheese? Yummy. Hot cucumbers? Not so much.
Some hot sandwiches feature a single freshly cooked ingredient layered inside colder foodstuffs; think of the BLT, with its crispy bacon slices pressed next to cool tomatoes and lettuce, or banh mi, with grilled meat, pickles, chiles, and cilantro held inside a bun. Other hot sandwiches, such as panini, rely on the opposite technique: pressing everything together in a hot griddle and heating the entire thing from the outside in.
And of course, there’s the burrito, now universalized as “the wrap”: a hot sandwich in which the main ingredients, including the wrapper, are heated separately and then quickly rolled into a tidy package.
I like three classic hot sandwiches hailing from three different regions of the country: the Louisianan po’ boy, the Midwestern (or New Yorker, depending on your loyalties) Reuben, and the Floridian Cuban. The po’ boy follows the BLT model, with a lone hot ingredient snuggled inside a cold sandwich, while the Reuben and the Cuban are essentially panini, grilled into a melted whole at the last minute.
The po' boy, a beloved sandwich of New Orleans, was created in 1929 in response to a railworker strike. During the strike, a New Orleans restaurant offered free sandwiches to the “poor boys” that had been affected by the strike.
Though po’ boys can contain almost anything, from roast beef to eggs, the fried seafood po’ boy is by far the most recognizable. To me, the appeal of the po’ boy lies in its contrasts: the warmth of the shrimp (my favorite) with the chill of the lettuce, tomato, and onion, the crunch of the shrimp and the lettuce against the squishy softness of the bun.
The classic Reuben gained prominence in 1956 after taking first place in a national sandwich contest, but that’s about all experts can agree upon regarding the origins of this sandwich.
Some insist the sandwich was invented in the 1920s by Reuben Kulakofsky at a poker table in Omaha, Nebraska. Kulakofsky’s poker buddy put it on the menu at his restaurant; some 30 years later, the buddy’s niece submitted the recipe in the aforementioned contest.
Others swear that New York City deli legend Arnold Reuben is the true sandwich genius, who may have been inspired by a “lady friend” of Charlie Chaplin to invent the sandwich one late post-theater evening.
No matter who invented it, the combination of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing is now legendary, and deservedly so. The tanginess of the sauerkraut is offset by the sweetness of the dressing, with the salty meat and cheese providing balance to both.
But my absolute favorite sandwich, hot or cold, is the Cuban sandwich, also known as the cubano. Luckily for me, Cuban sandwiches are all the rage right now.
Some say that the sandwich — which traditionally features roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on soft Cuban bread — originated in Florida in the early part of the 20th century, where it was originally known as a mixto sandwich. The sandwiches are almost always pressed, melting the cheese and creating a crisp exterior to the bread. Pressing the sandwich literally melds the flavors together, creating a harmony in which no single ingredient outshines any other.
Of course, just because these sandwiches are classics doesn’t mean they can’t be played with. Almost any kind of seafood works in the po’ boy, including oysters; just adjust the cooking time depending on the thickness of the seafood. (A good rule of thumb is that most fried food floats when done; this isn’t universal, however, so be sure to cut a piece open to make sure.) Reubens are also good with turkey (this version often appears on menus as the Rachel), ham, or pastrami.
But in my opinion, Cubans are best left as is. Because you just don’t mess with perfection.
Cookbook author Keri Fisher (One Cake, One Hundred Desserts) has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, and Cook’s Illustrated. She lives outside Philadelphia with her sister, her husband, and her three children, and keeps a blog about living in a communal household.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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