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Pepperocini -- how could I have forgotten?

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Pepperocini -- how could I have forgotten?

Mrs. Smith | Mar 8, 2004 12:05 PM

I had a food memory the other day (hey, give me a break, I'm pregnant and think about food pretty much all the time I'm not thinking about my baby!) of a sandwich I got from a local lunch truck. The truck was operated by a nice lady, who drove it up to our office at coffee-break and at lunch time. The office we were in at the time was in a rather inaccessible part of SOMA in San Francisco that was surrounded by a wasteland of warehouses and empty lots -- nary a coffee shop, sandwich place, or restaurant in sight. To get to a commericial area required a rather lengthy walk down a big hill for several blocks, and then back up that selfsame hill with your hardwon booty -- and time and wardrobe constraints didn't always allow for this indulgence. So the lunch truck arriving a couple of times a day was greeted appreciatively.

The sandwich, which was of the pre-packaged, plastic-air-bubble wrapped variety (I wish I could remember the name of the company which made it) was very simple and quite delicious. It consisted of chewy baguette, butter, smoked and peppered turkey, and pepperocini. This novel combination (something I would have never put together on my own) I found one day in desperation, when all the other sandwiches were gone. I was surprised at the great flavor of this combination, with the mildly-peppery, pickled flavor of the pepperocinis being the most memorable note.

Pepperocinis didn't enter into my eating or cooking life into well into adulthood. Not being of Italian or Greek descent, they didn't appear in my parents' home. If I did run into them in childhood on a antipasti platter, I'm sure I would have avoided tasting them, thinking for certain that they would be "too hot". In college, we frequented a nominally Italian deli, which served the best sandwiches in town. I always resented the pepperocini they put in the sandwich baskets, because they got some of the potato chips wet with their "pickle juice". I remember other people eating them greedily, and I thought they were nuts.

I never had actually eaten a pepperocini (though my food horizons had expanded considerably since college by then) until that day at the lunch truck. From then on I would scour the lunch truck daily for that sandwich, and even would buy up two at a time to save for the morrow :)

So recently I had a memory of this sandwich while standing thoughtfully at the deli counter of own local (excellent) Italian deli. The kindly attendant did, upon my query, confess that they did sell a very good smoked and peppered turkey, and pointed me towards the pepperocini jars in the back. I brought it home with some baguettes, and made the sandwich.

I have in recent years come to a sandwich impasse. I'd always like the idea of sandwiches in general, but I always wondered why sandwiches left me feeling so unsatisfied. The answer, after much experimentation, came to me. I don't like the "American" style of sandwiches. By American, I don't mean submarine (which I believe is actually Italian in origin), or any of the specialty sandwiches like real Philly Cheesesteaks, or New Orleans muffaletta, etc. I mean the average suburban home-made sandwich, made on sliced bread with deli-sliced cold cuts, involving, usually, mayonnaise and mustard, lettuce and tomatoes. This always left me cold. The lettuce and tomatoes always distracted me -- they were usually too slippery, and there was far to much of them, diluting the flavor of the sandwich. I find regular sliced bread from the grocery store (whole wheat, of course, preffered) to be fine for toast sometimes, but it's really flavorless for sandwiches. Italian or French bread or rolls (or sourdough, but that's different category and I really prefer it on it's own rather than for sandwiches, but I digress) is so much superior as a sandwich vehicle. Then, I came to another realization -- I really like mayonnaise on/in lots of thing, but I don't like it on SANDWICHES. Regular yellow mustard is great on things like Polish sausages or regular hotdogs, but it doesn't, in my mind, go well with bread and most cold cuts. I kept trying to make sandwiches with real flavor, but I finally figured out I was using the wrong ingredients! Mayonnaise, unless really well mixed with a filling (like a good tuna salad) isn't so much a flavor-conveyer as a flavor-distractor. Fancy french mustards, or wholegrain german mustards, are good on many many things, but in sandwiches they, in my opinion, either get lost or overwhelm the other flavors. The cold cut must be of sufficient quality and flavor to stand on it's own -- and can be neither piled to high or too skimpily. It has to be the star of the sandwich, but not overshadow the supporting flavors.

I love vegetables of all kinds, but I'd rather have them on the side than in my sandwich. My father was fanatical about crunchy lettuce in his sandwich, so for years I took this as a sandwich article of faith. It turns out that I really don't like lettuce in sandwiches, most of the time.

Also, butter, as the British use it, has turned out to be my favorite spread for sandwiches. If you are using a mustard or other strongly flavored condiment such as horseradish, butter is a great flavor-conveyer. It gives a good softness to the interior of the sandwich, without making it "wet" like mayonnaise. Not much butter is actually needed to make a sandwich good -- a thin spreading is really all that is necessary to improve a sandwich exponentially. Also, like the British, I shy away from "Dagwood" type sandwiches, and usually limit my sandwiches to one (high-quality, high flavor) meat only, and I pile it rather thinly. One more vegetable or condiment (I seem to favor sparing quantities of onions or pickles as conveying the most flavor) and the sandwich is done. The quality of the ingredients -- the bread, the butter, the vegetable if there is one, and the meat or cheese -- is of the utmost importance.

Now I enjoy sandwiches again. I will never, probably, eat another "turkey on wheat" sandwich with bland mayo, wet tomatoes and lettuce again. I like rather thin, intensely flavored sandwiches with just a few choice ingredients now, with the bread being as important a player as the fillings, not just a support for them.

All this introspection of course, refers entirely to cold, uncooked sandwiches, rather than anyhing hot/baked/grilled/invoving cooked food like meatballs. That's another category.

And yes, all this introspection improved the flavor of my rediscovered homemade peppered turkey with pepperocini sandwich. I'll be eating this yummy thing for lunch for quite some time, I think.

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