A summer sandwich is all about the moment. The whims of the person building it and the stuff that happens to sit on the counter or grow in the garden at that exact time result in that most personal of constructions, the produce-heavy Dagwoodian mess bookended by bread. It's about the watery tomato liquid mingling with mustard that drips down your arm and all over your magazine or paperback book as you sit outdoors, or wherever your happy place is. It's about the satisfaction of putting together a bunch of ingredients that make sense to no one’s mind but your own. Its about the ephemeral pleasure of wolfing the thing down before it collapses all over your lap, a slithering mess of cucumber slices and lettuce and relish and god knows what else.
My dearest wonderful wreck of a summer sandwich came about because of a story I heard on NPR last year. They held a contest for the ultimate summer recipe, and finalist Marti Olesen’s entry was for a crazy assemblage of tomatoes, sweet onion, cucumbers, and white cheddar cheese between whole grain bread that’s been smeared with peanut butter. As with any great sandwich, the order of the ingredients is as important as the ingredients themselves; it’s got to do with the messy mechanics of what hits your tongue first when you sink your teeth into the thing. Olesen assures listeners that the sandwich functions best when built thus, from top to bottom: cheese, tomato, cucumber, onion, peanut butter.
The other two finalists in the NPR contest offered recipes for strawberry trifle and Baja slaw. Trifle is trifling; slaw is slaw. A sandwich is a meal. I rooted for Olesen, and she won, to the great satisfaction of sandwich aficionados across the nation.
But I didn't make her sandwich. She inspired me to adapt it, and maybe that's the point. As an alternative jammy-sticky-sugary PB&J, my mom started making peanut butter and cheese sandwiches for my daughter. They’re not bad if you’re four years old, but an adult needs something more. Likewise, a sandwich of homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers sounds magnificent on paper, but in practice it’s wan and bland.
So I combined the two. Lightly toast two slices of whole-grain bread (I prefer those circular flatbread/bun hybrids sometimes marketed as "sandwich skinnys", since the slight crumb of the bread makes the filling the star player). Generously spread crunchy natural peanut butter (it has to be salted) on one slice, and tomato-squash chutney on the other slice. (You probably don't have tomato-squash chutney; classic storebought Major Grey's can work in a pinch, or you can make your own squash chutney). Then shingle thinly sliced cucumber on the peanut butter. This is your base. Top the cucumber with thickly sliced ripe red tomato (beefsteak, please), then with one slice of Swiss or pepperjack cheese. Place the chutney-smeared bread over it all, then grab a lot of napkins. You will need them. Note: this sandwich does not travel. At all. That’s what makes it even more special. You need to be at home to enjoy it. Preferably on a porch, taking in all the ephemeral joys of summer.