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The Art Of Sandwich-Making

In theory, a perfectly balanced meal includes some protein, but not too much; a vegetable or two; some fruit and a carbohydrate. Such a meal also should balance tastes — savory, a little sour or bitter maybe, perhaps some sweet and salt — and textures, from chewy to succulent to crisp. Let's go a step further and propose that this meal also can conveniently be eaten while playing cards.

According to popular legend, the sandwich was invented by John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who, while gambling, told his butler to put some meat between two slices of bread so he could eat without interrupting the game and getting grease on the cards. Although the tale is almost certainly apocryphal (I figure the first sandwich was made the day after bread was invented), apparently the earl did lend his name to this gustatory delight.

At its simplest, a sandwich is two slices of bread enclosing a filling. It also is often a perfectly balanced meal, consisting of protein, vegetable, carbohydrate, often dairy and even fruit. My definition is somewhat broader: A sandwich is a filling enclosed in bread or pastry that can be eaten by hand.

That definition leaves out such things as open-faced roast beef or turkey sandwiches smothered in gravy that must be eaten with a knife and fork. And although most burgers qualify, my favorite burger at my favorite diner is out because the thing is just too big to wield by hand. I ultimately resort to cutlery.

My definition includes such things as wraps, tacos, Cornish pasties, empanadas and stuffed pitas — all of which can be held in one hand while playing cards.

A few genuine sandwiches can be problematic. A proper Philly cheese steak requires two hands to eat, as does a Chicago Italian beef sandwich. Both also require a proper stance (standing, legs spread, leaning forward) to eat if you want to avoid dripping on your shirt or splattering on your pants. This makes playing cards at the same time difficult, although not impossible. Cutting the sandwiches in half and wrapping them in foil helps.

All the world loves a sandwich. Some sandwiches, such as the Cubano and the muffaletta, are associated with particular cities (Miami and New Orleans, respectively). Others, such as the Cuban pastelitos de carne or the Chilean barros luco, are associated with entire nations.

Wherever a sandwich is from, though, its foundation, its most important single element, is the bread. Great bread can elevate great ingredients to new heights. Bad bread can make even the finest fillings ho-hum.

I was once asked what is the longest time I have ever spent on a sandwich. My answer was over 38 hours. I had an urge for a ham and cheese panini, and I began by reviving my chilled sourdough starter (12 hours). When the starter was once again bubbling away, I moved on to the poolish — a second fermentation phase lasting eight hours. Then I let the bread rise (four hours), formed it into a loaf and refrigerated it overnight (eight hours). Next, I let the loaf rise (four hours) and baked it (30 minutes), and let it cool (two hours). Then I cut two slices, brushed them with olive oil and added Black Forest ham, a bit of mustard and butterkase cheese before grilling the sandwich.

You don't have to bake your own bread; good bread is readily available. However, the bread should be the first consideration, not an afterthought.

None of the sandwiches below are quick, spur-of-the-moment affairs, but they are all worth the time. With a little care, they can be eaten with one hand while playing Texas Hold' em.

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Kevin Weeks