Monday, August 5, 2013

Forking Around in the Kitchen: Pan Bagnat

Hello, and welcome to today's edition of Forking Around in the Kitchen, with your guide, The Secret Fork.  Today, we are going to discuss something I have teased my small handful of followers with on Twitter.  Yes, it's the Undisputed King of Summer Sandwiches, the Pan Bagnat.

For me, this sandwich showcases one of the best ingredients that summer has to offer: the tomato.  It's a perfect sandwich for a picnic.  It's also a good example of principles that I believe are critical to good cooking.  Last point of intro-- I don't believe anyone can claim to be a true "foodie" unless he or she also cooks or tries to cook.  It's critical for a total understanding of food, and what it takes to make a memorable dish that nourishes body and soul.

Okay, first things first.  What is Pan Bagnat?  Basically, a tuna sandwich.  I understand Pan Bagnat translates as "wet bread."  Hell if I know for sure.  I do know it's origins are in Provence, the southern regions of France.  It is sometimes referred to as a Nicoise Tuna Sandwich.

Here is the method I use, which is essentially a compilation of internet research, reading cookbooks, and my own experience in the kitchen.  As I mentioned, this recipe/method exemplifies some of the things I have come to understand as basic principles of cooking.

Principle:  Get the best ingredients you can and don't screw them up.  The most critical ingredient is a good, perfectly ripe, juicy tomato.  (Not tuna, but that's important, too.)  Pick your favorite variety.  Grow your own, or get it from a farmer's market.  If you cannot get a super-duper-uber-duber good tomato don't make this.  While you are at the market, or in the garden, pick up a nice onion, and a bunch of fresh radishes.  Also, grab some decent, organic, cage free eggs.  Maybe a little basil.  Now, off to a reputable grocer.  You need some canned tuna, and by canned, I ideally mean in a jar.  The expensive stuff.  It's probably from Spain or Italy and it's packed in olive oil.  Cans are okay as long as you are getting a good, imported can.  Don't skimp on this!  For two sandwiches that are each the size of those twin French loaves from Hy Vee, you are going to need the equivalent of two cans.  You are also going to need some extra virgin olive oil.  Ideally, it's from Provence.  If you have a REALLY good friend, he/she will get you some for your birthday.  You also need some decent cured black olives.  Nicoise preferred, Kalmata acceptable.  Out of a can, not acceptable.  You also need some bread.  I use those French twin loaves from Hy Vee.  Crazy as that business sounds, it seems to work well.  I have not tried a more artisinal bread like a baguette from Breadico or Breadsmith, but that might be okay.  With this sandwich, the bread is just the vessel to shove this gooey goodness into your face.

Oh.  Also, pick up some red wine vinegar, a lemon, and grab the pepper mill and sea salt.

Principle:  Technique matters.  One thing you need to do is hard boil a few eggs.  If you do this right, they are perfectly cooked.  Soft and yummy and yell.  Not rubbery with greenish yolks.  Put them into a big pan that will allow them to be covered by at least an inch of cold water.  Keep the lid handy and put the pan on the stove over high heat.  Stick around the kitchen and watch this.  At the very moment the water pools, pull the pan off the heat, cover the pan and start a timer counting down from 10 minutes.  Go get an ice bath ready-- a decent sized bowl full of water and ice.  Stand by the stove and await the timer going off.  When it does, use a slotted spoon to immediately remove the eggs from the hot water and put them in the ice bath to thoroughly cool and stop the cooking.  Store them in the fridge if not using them right away.  Next technique, get out a sharp knife and finely dice something short of a half cup of that nice onion you bought.  Put it in a bowl that you will use to mix the tuna.  Sprinkle it with a little salt and pepper and a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar.  I suppose you could use balsamic.  I haven't.  Let this sit a bit-- at least 5-10 minutes.  This mellows the onion and marries the flavors.  At the end, knead the onions and vinegar mixture.

Principle: Taste as you go.  Open that jar of tuna in oil and dump the whole shebang into that onion love.  Oil and all.  Stir that up, breaking up the big tuna chunks.  Squeeze a teaspoon, or so, of lemon juice in there.  Taste it.  Add pepper or salt if need be.  Or more vinegar.  Taste.  Think.  Adjust.  When you are happy, stop.

Now, it's assembly time.  Cut the bread in half and pluck out the soft innards from the middle.  This is an essential step.  If you don't do this, you are going to have a pile of goo.  I drizzle a little of that good olive oil on the bread.  Put that tuna mixture on your sandwich in a nice thick layer.  Use it all.

Next, I slice some radishes and put them on top of the tuna.  Slice the hard boiled egg and put those slices on.  Next, the olives.  (Make sure they are pitted.)  At this point, I might sprinkle a little more vinegar or lemon and a drizzle of oil.  Slice the tomato and layer those slices on there.  Definitely anoint that with some of the good oil-- just a drizzle and a little salt and pepper.  If you are so inclined, you could put a couple basil leaves on there, or a little lettuce for texture.  Romaine, butter lettuce or leaf.  Put the top of the bread on.  Ideally, the fillings are pretty much entirely in the hollowed out parts of the loaf.

Principle:  Timing matters  The next step is critical.  I cut the sandwich into the portions I want to serve.  Get out the plastic wrap and pull of a nice long sheet.  You are going to wrap that sandwich tightly.  Don't squeeze the life out of it, but wrap it so it is perfectly smushed together.  Put it in the fridge overnight.  This allows all those good flavors in there to mix, mingle, and shack up.  This is also why this is a perfect picnic sandwich.  It can be tossed into a cooler with a bunch of other stuff.  A little pressing doesn't hurt it.  Don't throw a case of cheap beer on it, but don't baby it.  The bag the loaves of bread came in is an ideal wrapper.

That's it.  I like to make sure I take the sandwich out of the fridge or cooler about 30 to 60 minutes before I eat it.  Eat the sandwich outside with a good friend.

Principle:  Experiment and make it your own.  This isn't the formula for making the Polyjuice Potion.  You can adjust to your own tastes.  For instance.  You could use white wine or balsamic vinegar.  You could add a little bit of herbs d'Provence in the tuna.  You can add some sliced green onion.  You could put some anchovy fillets on top of the tuna layer.  You could use Kaiser rolls instead of a baguette to make Sliders Bagnat.