When you want to throw together something good to eat without too much cooking, and when you don't always know whether you'll be eating in or out, sandwiches really come into their own. They're a brilliant invention and incredibly versatile.
Almost every country under the sun has some sort of version of a sandwich, even where they don't involve bread. I'm thinking of sushi and maki rolls in Japan, samosas and the delicious hearty rotis of the Caribbean. Yet we're stuck in a rut when it comes to our own sandwiches. Our high streets are lined with sandwich bars yet often the only interesting thing about them is their names: Upper Crust, Crumbs, and my favourite of all, Mr Samwidges.
To realise the full potential of the sandwich I'd recommend thinking outside the lunchbox. Not that I've ever liked the expression "think outside the box" - boardroom talk for "let's think of some new ideas, guys". Another hated phrase is "blue-sky thinking". I have to admit though, that it's appropriate when it comes to dreaming up original sandwiches for picnics.
So let's get back to the bread board and rethink. Like most of the best, simple ideas, a good sandwich begins with good raw materials. Start with the bread and take it from there: here are my thoughts for sunny days.
Grilled ciabatta with cherry tomatoes and goat's cheese
I am not a big fan of cherry tomatoes. They seem to crop up a bit too often in some restaurants. But for snacks, picnics and crudités they are perfect - full of flavour and just right for popping into the mouth. If you fry them quickly like this it intensifies their flavour and makes a perfect light meal or starter. This is just the thing to eat in the garden with a glass of crisp chilled rosé.
2 x 1cm thick slices of ciabatta
120-150g cherry tomatoes, on or off the vine
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
70-80g soft goat's cheese
A few sprigs of basil
Heat a frying pan with a tablespoon of the olive oil and cook the cherry tomatoes, tossing them around in the pan for 3-4 minutes without colouring too much. Meanwhile toast the ciabatta on both sides and spread the pesto over both slices. Spoon the tomatoes on to the ciabatta, break the goat's cheese into small pieces and place in among the tomatoes, then spoon over the rest of the olive oil and scatter with basil leaves.
Cumberland ham and fried egg on oven-bottom baps
On one of my many research visits to the north, I met the farmer George Taylor, king of the egg shows as he's known in Cumbria. He holds the record for the highest number of first prizes - almost 600, apparently - awarded to his eggs at agricultural and producers' shows. His eggs can be bought from farmers' markets and butchers in the Kendal area. The pig farmer Peter Gott introduced me to George, and that prompted me to set up a three-way sandwich meeting with George's eggs, Peter's Cumberland ham, and a northern oven-bottom bap, a muffin-like bun originally baked on the bottom of coal-fired ovens.
OK, it's a recipe for an egg and bacon roll, but it's a tribute to fine regional produce, ideal for hungry hikers in the Lake District. You can buy similarly good ingredients elsewhere in the country and I urge you to buy the best you can, although you're welcome to adjust the recipe. Peter Gott's Cumberland ham is sold in London's Borough Market, SE1, the farmers' markets in Manchester and Liverpool, and at Barrow-in-Furness Market Hall. In Kendal the Booths-owned Artisan shop sells it.
2 oven-bottom baps, similar soft rolls or English muffins
2 good thick, hand-cut slices of ham to fit the baps
Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
Fry the eggs lightly in the oil and turn them over in the pan with a spatula, then remove from the heat. Lightly toast the baps and butter them. Lay the ham on each bap and slide the egg on and serve with the tops on. As an optional extra mix some mustard with mayonnaise and spread on the bap before laying on the ham.
Chicken tikka flat breads with minted yoghurt
This is a great sandwich to eat straight off the barbecue. Ideally you want to make or buy chapati or similar flat breads so they are soft and easily rolled around the chicken. The purpose of a marinade is to tenderise the meat as well as add flavour. I prefer chicken thigh meat to breast as it doesn't dry out as much when it's cooked. For Indian spicing I'd rather start with whole spices then grind them and mix together. That way it's easier to make out the individual spices and you can adjust the mix according to your favourites. This one, though, should be more fragrant than hot.
4 medium-sized chicken thighs, boned and skinned
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
A small piece of root ginger, peeled and grated
1/3tsp ground turmeric
Seeds of 5 cardamom pods
1/2tsp ground cumin
Half a small to medium chilli, seeded and roughly chopped
1/3tsp ground fenugreek
1tbsp vegetable oil
2tbsp thick yoghurt
1/2tbsp lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 chapatis or flat breads
Lettuce and coriander leaves (optional)
for the minted yoghurt
2tbsp thick yoghurt
1tbsp chopped fresh mint
Gently cook the garlic, ginger and the rest of the spices in the vegetable oil for 2-3 minutes without colouring. Remove from the heat and coarsely blend with the yoghurt and lemon juice. If you're not using a stick blender, you'll have to stop the machine and scrape down the sides occasionally. Coat the chicken with this mixture and leave to marinade in a non-reactive (non-metal) bowl in the fridge overnight.
To serve, cook the chicken on a griddle or frying pan lightly rubbed with oil for 4-5 minutes on each side. Meanwhile mix the yoghurt with the mint and warm the chapatis or flat breads. Shred the chicken. Shred the lettuce and lay on the breads, scatter the chicken on top and add coriander leaves. Spoon over the yoghurt and roll up the breads.
They can be eaten hot or cold or taken on a picnic wrapped in greaseproof paper.
Watercress and crayfish sandwich
Of all the high-street sandwiches, crayfish and rocket, or watercress, is about my favourite. It's an ingenious freshwater version of the prawn cocktail, especially when watercress rather than rocket is used, calling to mind clean running water, a habitat for both the crayfish and the watercress. Sadly, though, many modern watercress farms are doing more harm to our waters than good. And so are the rapidly breeding American signal crayfish, which are taking over our waterways and munching anything that gets in their way, including fish eggs. It makes sense to eat these pests rather than imported crayfish (and it's illegal to catch and eat the threatened native crayfish) as it helps keep down the numbers of these predatory creatures that are driving away our native river dwellers. Unfortunately most of the crayfish consumed in this country is imported in brine and does nothing to help control the onward march of this freshwater menace. Our restaurant, J Sheekey, uses a man who fishes for crayfish on the upper Thames north of Oxford, and supplies a handful of other leading restaurants who cook them with a clear conscience, knowing they are helping to keep rivers pest free. Anyone can buy them for £19.50 a kilo, from ClubChefDirect (01275 475252/ www.clubchefdirect.co.uk), a gourmet delivery service endorsed by chefs.
Cook live freshwater crayfish in salted water with lots of aromatic flavourings such as dill, fennel seeds, peppercorns, or as we do, in beer and wild fennel. There isn't much meat on them, but the shells make an excellent bisque.
4 slices of hand-cut bloomer-style bread
About 80g crayfish meat
About 20-30g watercress, washed, dried and roughly chopped
2tbsp good quality mayonnaise
1/2tbsp chopped dill or fennel
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Mix the mayonnaise with the chopped dill and crayfish and season. Butter the slices of bread and spread the crayfish mixture on two of the slices. Scatter the watercress on the crayfish mixture and sandwich together with the other slice of bread. Serve cut in half as it may get messy into four.Reuse content