Sandwiches mean a lot to me. Cheeseburgers and Grilled Cheeses have gotten me through a lot of tough times, as has their daughter, Patty Melt. Sandwiches have opened me up to other cultures. The first time I tasted a Banh Mí, I knew I wanted to go to Vietnam(and I did!). I vividly remember my first Torta, Al Pastór con Aguacate, por fávor, ordered from a food counter inside a Mexican market in Thousand Oaks, California. A sandwich can be a thing of beauty, a portable feast capable of taking you anywhere in the world. A couple weeks back I ate Israeli-Chinese Baguette sandwiches at Chicken Star in Encino. Great sandwiches are all around us, just waiting to get et.
Shockingly to me, not everyone shares my enthusiasm. When I delve deeply into the principles of great sandwiches I learned from Serious Eats with friends, I see their eyes glaze over. People frequently overlook vegetarian and vegan food in general, so you can only imagine the magnitude of eye-rolling I encounter when I insist that Veggie sandwiches are just as great. And I’m not talking Tofurkey. No artificial animals were sliced in the making of these sandwiches.
Today I’m introducing you to two delicious sandwich recipes: One is The CTS (Cheese Tomato Sprouts). It’s vegetarian and inspired by a summer breakfast my mom would make growing up. The other is The Epic ultimate 5-7 layer Vegan Sandwich. It leans heavily on the Oh She Glows Ultimate 4 Layer Vegan Sandwich Recipe which is one of my favorite recipes. It’s relatively quick and easy to prepare. The only problem: That’s not how I do things. How could we complicate it? What if we made the hummus and tahini sauce from scratch using recipes from Serious Eats? And did a double batch to ensure multiple trips to the grocery store for more lemons? And replaced the hemp seeds in the sun dried tomato pesto recipe with roasted unsalted sunflower seeds for cost/sourcing efficiency? And dragged my fiancé into an all day cooking and shopping extravaganza? Now we’re talking!
Let’s start with the Cadillac of vegetarian Sandwiches, the CTS. As a kid in Sacramento, my mom grew Tomatoes. They tasted amazing, some of the best I’ve ever had even to this day. In the summer she would toast wheat bread and put a slice of tomato, a slice of sharp cheddar cheese, and chopped lettuce and eat that as a breakfast. It looked so boring. A hollow sandwich, devoid of flavor. It looked like she forgot the meat. But every time she ate one, it looked like she was eating a steak. She looked so content. One day I asked her to make me one. I took a bite and immediately understood her contentment. Wheat bread can be gluey, but toasted it became nutty and sweet. That played against the sharpness of the cheese and the tang of the fresh tomato perfectly. Even the lettuce played a role, allowing you to appreciate the 3 intense flavors against a mild and crunchy veggie backdrop. This sandwich wasn’t half empty, I was just a pessimist. It was my first sandwich of it’s kind but certainly not my last.
Fast forward to a few years ago, the lukewarm of California winter. I went to a Trader Joes and a tomato caught my eye. It was brownish-green with streaks of red. It somehow looked like it was both overripe and underripe. As I learned with that sandwich ago, looks can be deceiving. I bought those weird brown tomatoes, which are called Kumato Tomatoes, brought them home, sliced ’em up and was whisked away to my childhood. These tomatoes didn’t look the same but they tasted like summer. I could have those delightful summer sandwiches all year!
But I’ve learned so much since then. I’ve read the BLT Manifesto. I make my own Mayo now. How could I apply the sandwich principles I hold so dear to this simple sandwich? Can I elevate it without losing the simplicity? I believed I could and I did.
First, the tomatoes. Good tomatoes taste good, but salt makes them great. I salt and pepper the tomato to draw out the flavor. This is delicious but could also cause a soggy mess! Especially with the lettuce: It works, but could something else work better? I love the crunch of alfalfa Sprouts and they provide a nest to capture all that salty-tomatoey goodness. We’ll also add Mayonnaise to protect the toasted bread from any tomato juice that escapes the alfalfa jungle. For the bread, I went with Squaw Bread from the House of Bread by my place but any nutty, wheaty bread you like should work too. I tried several cheeses but it’s gotta be sharp cheddar. My fiancé likes hers with yellow mustard. Your mileage may vary there. Recommended assembly: Toast bread well. Mayo both breads, mustard top bread if so desired. Place bed of rinsed, patted dry alfalfa sprouts on bottom bread atop mayo. Add salted tomato on top of alfalfa sprouts. Stick cheese to mayo/mustard on top bread, place on top to close. Cut into triangles but leave the crust on. You’re an adult.
Back to the vegan sandwich. I have made the Ultimate 4 Layer sandwich so many times but I’ve never fully followed the recipe. The first time I made it (for my then new girlfriend, now fiancé) I couldn’t afford hemp seeds so I improvised a version with raw sunflower seeds. It’s become a tradition to tweak it every time I make it but this time I nailed it. I used Serious Eats Hummus as a base for a chipotle hummus and added the tahini sauce from the hummus recipe as a sauce. I’ve brought over the salted tomato from the CTS to play with it’s sundried counterparts in the sandwich. For the pesto I reccommend roasted unsalted sunflower seeds. The toasty flavor plays well with the intense tang of the sundried tomato, the bright basil and the punchy garlic in the pesto. Unsalted means you can control the salt level yourself.
I’ve messed with several hemp-seed substitutes in this recipe. Raw sunflower seeds provide a more mild flavor.My mom used walnuts in her pestos, but I don’t love the aftertaste. Pine nuts are traditional but light in flavor and somewhat expensive. So roasted unsalted sunflower seeds it is! Also, Sunflower Sun Dried Tomato Pesto is just fun to say! Check the bulk bins at your local grocery store or you can find them in 1 pound bags at Trader Joes. Buy them shelled unless you’re trying to hurt yourself and make prep take longer. Fortunately, it’s a breeze to prep pesto in the food processor. I just add it all together and pulse until I’m happy with the texture and my life decisions.
Speaking of prep, gotta keep juicing lemons for the double batch of tahini sauce because 4/3 cups lemon juice is a lot of lemons. My vitamix could barely handle the pureeing of the tahini so I wasn’t shocked when the hummus gave it some trouble too. We decided to add 2 canned chipotle chiles and 2 tbsp of lemon juice to 1 cup of the hummus for a kick and it was delicious.
The 4 layer sandwich is great but it can be made to taste even greater. Fresh hummus is light in a way storebought can’t match and the chipotle gives it a kick that cuts through the richness avocado and pesto. Tahini sauce adds nuttiness, the salted tomato brings a punch of fresh tomato against the sharpness of the sundried tomatoes. For assembly, toast bread. Spread chipotle hummus on bottom bread and sundried tomato pesto on top bread. Layer sliced avocado on top of hummus, Alfalfa Sprouts on top of hummus, salted and peppered tomato slices on top of sprouts, top with tahini sauce and assemble. Slice into Triangles and leave that crust alone. Seriously. If you hate your crust, buy better bread.
I love making these sandwiches for people who are skeptical. I maintain these sandwiches are every bit as satisfying as any meated sandwich you’ve made. Make them for yourself and see that that veggie sandwich is half-full. You might not be transported to my childhood, but I think you’ll make a taste memory worthy of returning to.