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Produce Makes the Sandwich No more limp leaf of lettuce—produce is the creative force in today’s sandwich builds

Produce packs a punch in the porchetta sandwich served at Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort. Each bite yields a taste of fennel slaw, roasted red pepper, crispy fried onion threads and Sriracha aïoli.
PHOTO CREDIT: Monica Kass Rogers

It’s been just days since chef Joseph Heppe launched the lunch menu at Oak + Char, a stylish, new Chicago restaurant, and already Heppe is hopping to keep up with guest demand for his sandwiches. Pausing to demonstrate, Heppe leans over the sandwich he’s making, explaining the reasoning behind the housemade pepper jam, curried chickpea mash, cold-smoked eggplant, smoked cilantro yogurt, and Upland cress he’s layering between griddled-crisp sandwich buns. “You have to think about structural stability and flavor sequence the guest will experience with every bite,” says Heppe. The jam, he says, plays sweet counterpoint to the smoky and unctuous umami of the eggplant. The yogurt brings creamy-cool tanginess, and the Upland cress, a colorful contrasting crunch less bitey than watercress.

That Heppe’s smoked eggplant stack is one of his most popular sandwiches at Oak + Char tracks with a burgeoning trend: Creative use of produce just makes today’s best sandwiches—both those that have meat/fish/poultry in them, and those that don’t.

“Produce is absolutely the biggest source for creativity in a sandwich,” says Sean Curry, executive chef at Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort, which this spring launches a new farm-to-table restaurant with extensive produce gardens. “Proteins are important,” says Curry. “But interesting combinations of vegetables, fruits and produce-based condiments have the potential to turn a good sandwich into a great one.”

From the guest perspective, many factors have aligned to make produce-forward sandwiches so appealing. “The generation hitting the market is more health-obsessed than previous generations,” says Curry. “Old recipes don’t hold the same appeal. This more adventuresome group is sick of just eating salads. They want things like sandwiches—that didn’t always communicate health—to offer that now in an exciting way.”

Meaty Vegetables
“Used to be, the vegetable component in a sandwich was more a filler thing viewed as having less value than protein,” says Anthony Mascieri, co-owner and sandwich creator at Plenty Café in Philadelphia, a three-unit quick-service gourmet sandwich and salad concept. “But now? People like produce-forward sandwiches because they’re flavorful, locally sourced and interesting. Whether there’s meat or not fades into the background.”

“I very specifically do not have a separate section for vegetable and meat sandwiches,” says chef Tyler Kord, who operates New York City’s five No. 7 Sub sandwich counters. “Each sandwich I create starts with a key ingredient that has a meaty, savory flavor or texture—whether I get that with meat or vegetable is irrelevant,” says Kord. His Cauliflower Cheesesteak sandwich, for example, layers roasted cauliflower florets with roasted green peppers, Vidalia onion purée, provolone and fried shallot. “I set out to make a great version of a cheesesteak. That it turned out to be a vegetable version just happened,” he says.

“Vegetables are a lot more expensive than people realize,” says Jason Hammel, chef-owner of Lula Café and Nightwood restaurant in Chicago. “We spend more on produce than protein because we are so conscious of quality and where we are sourcing. I think that in itself elevates our approach to how we are using produce on sandwiches.” At Lula, for example, the egg-topped pork and country ham saltimbocca sandwich comes with pumpkin agrodolce and sage, and the fried oyster and duck egg po’boy is thickly layered with richly braised collard greens, fried caper aïoli and a drizzle of chorizo vinaigrette.

Bolder Flavor, More Spice
Today’s guests crave spicier, bolder, more experimental produce flavors on sandwiches, says Stacey Reed, managing partner of Cibus Franchising, Inc., which operates the 10-unit Spicy Pickle fast-casual concept. To deliver, Spicy Pickle has gone way beyond lettuce and tomato (and even spicy pickles) to test a sambal oelek-spiked cranberry-tuna spread this year, and a lentil-walnut filling after that. “Creating sandwiches that are full of flavorful vegetable components is very important to building our customer base, both general and vegan or vegetarian,” says Reed.

This all jives with trend studies conducted by Technomic. Its 2014 Sandwich Consumer Trend Report clocks “vegetarian” as one of the fastest-growing health claims in the industry, increasing 14 percent from 2012 to 2014.

“Greater use of vegetables on sandwiches certainly improves the health perception,” says Anne Mills, manager of consumer insights for Technomic, stating 55 percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay more for sandwiches labeled as “fresh.”

Texture & Techniques
“We have nine or 10 sandwiches on the menu at any given time, so, I have to be careful about keeping balance and not adding too much,” says chef David Guas, of the two-unit, rustic Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C.

Discussing the flavor equation, chefs agree that one bite should carry all elements being presented without becoming muddled. “You have to experiment to get the right balance of texture, weight and absorption rate,” says Curry. “You may have to toast the bread to provide a crisper base. Or, you may need to add a barrier of cheese or a relish to help keep something from becoming mushy.”

Produce has the power to elevate a so-so meaty sandwich build into something much better. At Plenty, Mascieri talks about the New Orleans sandwich he used to make with housemade tasso ham simply served on a baguette with a spicy aïoli. “That sandwich had a loyal following with a few people, but didn’t sell that well overall. The addition of produce changed everything,” says Mascieri. With a slather of fig jam, melted Gruyère cheese and sliced tart apples, the sandwich is now a smash hit, voted among 2014’s “Best Things on a Roll” in Philadelphia magazine.

The Chicken à la Brasa sandwich at Toro Toro in Washington, D.C., gets its distinctive personality and flavor from layers of sweet plantain, aji verde and onion salsa. At the Daily Dose Café, a wholesome-food outpost in Los Angeles, restaurant owner Sarkis Vartanian developed The Farmer—a veggie sandwich so popular it elbows meat sandwiches out of the top-seller slot: “The sandwich had to hit all five senses, keeping in mind that the top part of your mouth feels and tastes differently than the bottom of your mouth and tongue,” says Vartanian. Each Farmer is stacked with spice-roasted winter squash, guacamole, roasted Okinawa yams, a housemade veggie patty, heirloom tomatoes, burrata cheese, housemade pesto and ancho chile jam on toasted olive bread.

Blazing trails with even bolder vegetal flavors, several chefs are using broccoli and root vegetables on sandwiches. “I’m definitely inspired by rooty things on sandwiches,” says Kord of No. 7 Sub. “We had an awesome turnip sandwich we did with roasted tempura-battered fried turnips paired with pickled red onion and a broccoli marmalade.” Kord is a big fan of broccoli. “There’s nothing better on a sandwich,” Kord says, describing a roasted and deep-fried broccoli sandwich with fresh mozzarella, Thai basil pesto and thin-sliced lemon. There’s also Kord’s Broccoli Classic: fried broccoli with sweet lychee pickle, ricotta salata, fried shallot and mayonnaise.

At Bayou Bakery, roughly chopped rapini (broccolini) relish stars in the Tuesday special Veg-a-lotta sandwich, along with sun-dried tomato pesto, garlic-infused extra-virgin olive oil, salt and chile flakes. “We add a slice of Fontina over the top, which melts and keeps everything intact,” says Guas. Cross-utilizing extras to cut waste, whatever pork butt is left over after the Wednesday Cuban sandwich special gets combined with any remaining rapini relish and topped with melted provolone to become the also popular Bitter Pig sandwich.

Summarizing group sentiment, Mascieri says, “There is still some challenge to work against the consumer stereotype that vegetables are blah,” he says. “To win my regular customer over, it’s kind of like cooking for kids. You have to make it interesting. You can’t just shove a spear of broccoli on the sandwich.”

About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.