The headline on this New York Times story on April 14th was “This Sandwich Is Worth the Space in Your Carry-On,” but like “Dewey Wins” and “Mission Accomplished,” it’s a flat-out lie.
Martha Rose Shulman of the Recipes for Health column uses six paragraphs to extol the virtues of a goat cheese and roasted red pepper sandwich as perfect for traveling. Her criteria is sound: the sandwich has to hold up well at room temperature without getting soggy. It can’t have much of an odor. The bread must be substantial enough to hold the whole thing together. The end result, however, was just plain dumb. Goat cheese and roasted red peppers? Yawn. 70% of sandwiches on the planet fit her rubric and she assembled a sandwich that would barely excite prisoners coming off of a hunger strike.
Travel sandwiches are essential if you’re trying to escape the sticker shock of buying at the airport or on the plane. Packing one ahead of time means you’re not waiting for the cart to come rolling down the aisle to start your game of airline food Russian roulette (“Will they still have the turkey sandwich?” “Am I stuck with the hummus again?”). Choosing the right one, however, is difficult. You can’t just go spelunking in the back of your fridge to throw something together. If you want to construct the perfect carry-on sandwich, you need to reverse engineer it.
Shulman gets some things right in her article. Airplane sammies needs to be stable at room temperature and not smelly. The bread’s important, but not the most important element as she alludes to. Instead, you should be thinking about three major factors:
Sandwiches by their very nature are made to be functional. You don’t need any utensils to eat them and, ostensibly, they’re easy to clean up. A big, sloppy sandwich with tons of ingredients doesn’t work for carry-on. Nor does a hot sandwich. Keep it cold and keep it simple. If you’re worried about your condiments making your bread soggy, try spreading them in between layers of your main ingredients instead of putting them directly on the bread itself.
By now, you probably know that taste buds are less effective in the air. That’s why so many on-board entrees feature rich sauces and tons of salt. Your sandwich needs to take this into account, too. Condiments are vital to making your sandwich work in-flight. Mustard is great because the vinegar punch will come through even at 35,000 ft. in the air. Mayo is less exciting on an airplane, but a nice aioli could work. Shulman negates the effectiveness of a garlic aioli because it may be offensive to fellow passengers, but I doubt that will be the case. Make sure to choose ingredients for your sandwich that may be too aggressive when married together on the ground. Olives, pepperoncinis, and capers are all good choices here. Once you’re in the air, the cabin pressure will mellow out all of your ingredients and act like an ice cube in a glass of scotch — the dilution of flavor leads to a more cohesive overall taste.
This is where the NYT sandwich gets it wrong. Roasted red peppers and goat cheese are good ingredients for a carry-on sandwich, but they’re just a part of the puzzle. You need a protein to captain the whole thing. A nice grilled chicken breast would have rounded out everything nicely. Just peppers and cheese is fine for vegetarians, but even those veg heads would get hungry again in an hour. Your in-flight sandwich has to be substantial. The aforementioned chicken breast would do the trick, as would some medallions of eggplant or a layer of egg salad or marinated tofu. Without a main ingredient to act as an anchor, your sandwich is really just a tapas plate with two slices of bread holding it together.
You don’t have to be a professional chef to construct a great sandwich to take on a plane with you. All you need is a little forethought, the right ingredients, and the courage to know that a red pepper and goat cheese sandwich is pretty dumb — even if it is featured in the New York Times.