Many of us interested in saving a few dollars are resorting to lunches of the brown bag variety. That doesn't mean our midday meal has to become a steady rotation of PB&J, tuna or turkey.
We can do better. And so, we sought advice from the handful of Triangle chefs who have elevated the local sandwich scene: Matt and Sheila Neal of Neal's Deli in Carrboro, Hich Elberti of Sandwhich in Chapel Hill and Billy Cotter of Toast in Durham.
Elberti and Cotter create sandwiches based on dishes they cooked in other restaurants; essentially they translate a dish into sandwich form.
For example, Elberti turned a risotto with apples, sage, mushrooms, prosciutto and Parmesan cheese into a pressed sandwich with apples, sage, mushrooms, bacon and cheddar cheese. Cotter used the classic Italian combination of sweet sausage and broccoli rabe on a panino (the singular of panini) with roasted garlic and Asiago Fresca.
You can do the same thing. A tomato, olive and caper pasta dish could become a tomato sandwich topped with chopped olives and capers. Add a slice or two of provolone, lettuce and vinaigrette, and you have an inspired lunch instead of a ho-hum one.
Meanwhile, Neal says he gathers inspiration from television, cookbooks, farmers markets, even his customers' travels. They often return to share sandwich stories. He'll try to re-create them.
One thing on which all three men agree is to use the best ingredients you can: high-quality cheese, meat, bread and homemade dressings. Neal would rather not offer tomatoes during the winter than use the bland ones from the grocery store. Instead, he buys greenhouse or field tomatoes from local farmers.
We also don't want you to blow the bank on a brown bag lunch -- a proposition aimed at saving you money. Using less of high quality meat and cheese is better than a thicker sandwich made with poor quality meat and cheese. Buying fruit and vegetables when they are in season is always cheaper.
Here are a few tips from each chef:
Neal recommends salting and peppering each tomato slice.
Elberti recommends a sandwich structure as follows: bread, condiment, lettuce. The condiment glues the lettuce to the bread. The lettuce protects the bread from getting soggy.
Don't make it complicated. "Just a few really good ingredients works better," Cotter says.
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