5 tips for building a BLT sandwich that hits the spot

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In the summer South, a fresh “mater” sandwich is an annual seasonal rite of passage. How that sandwich is assembled is completely up to the consumer (though the ingredients are obviously not open to debate for anyone with the idea it must be done only one way), enabling foodies to get quite creative in finding the perfect recipe.

My favorite way to enjoy a tomato sandwich is the BLT, or bacon, lettuce and tomato, which goes a step further than its simpler “mater” cousin. Just a plain BLT always does the trick for me, but it really hits the spot when I take a little extra care to enhance the sandwich.

On a recent summer day, I made Molly and me a couple of BLTs for lunch, and I spent some time experimenting to jazz up our meal. The whole experience—making the food and then really enjoying it—got me thinking about the keys to perfecting such a longtime regional food staple.

Here’s a five-item, must-do checklist for making your own great BLT.

1. PICK LOCAL TOMATOES: For “mater” sandwich and BLT purists, there may be no more important choice than using a fresh, local tomato picked from the garden. If you don’t have a garden or know someone who does, consider your options at a local farmer’s market. A fresh tomato free of preservatives and pesticides will absolutely be more flavorful and much juicier. Our go-to tomato source in summer is a small network of home gardeners that are family members and neighbors. Once you have the right tomatoes, sprinkle the cut slices with a little salt and pepper to really make them pop. That’s what my grandpa always did, and I understand why every time I take a bite.

2. CHOOSE FRESH GREENS: The L in BLT stands for lettuce, but that’s not a requirement. You can go with another green, or no green at all if that’s not your thing. (Folks who like true “mater”-only sandwiches go with mayo and fresh white bread only, not needing the bacon or the lettuce to be complete.) Nice fresh spinach leaves are my favorite because of their flavor, their crunch and their lack of extra moisture. When you have a juicy tomato, you don’t really need other “wet” ingredients to find the right sandwich balance.

3. SEASON AND CRISP THAT BACON: Normally, a little pepper is nice, but I recently went farther with a light sprinkling of pepper and a slight caramelizing process with brown sugar. The result was a sweet and savory bacon that had even more flavor. Whatever you do, even if it’s no seasoning at all (after all, it’s bacon, right?), you’ve got to establish a crunch. My mama’s right: limp, chewy bacon is never good. If you end up with bacon that troubles you in the crisping attempt, try a few minutes on aluminum foil in the toaster oven, or slide each piece onto a toothpick and bake it in the oven. (That last one’s a trick we learned at a bed-and-breakfast inn in eastern North Carolina.)

4. GET SAUCY: Duke’s mayonnaise might be the most preferred choice of “mater” and BLT sandwich aficionados. That’s a fine standby that’s been delighting home chefs for decades, and for many foodies this is where you can stop reading this step and go on to the next. But we also live in the aioli and specialty-mayo age. How many times have you read a restaurant menu and seen the word aioli or something akin to “chipotle mayo”? There’s so much you can do to jazz up a sauce to slather on a sandwich. Recently, I decided to create a sweeter mayo, so I combined two teaspoons of Duke’s with a teaspoon of local honey. The result was an even fancier sandwich.

5. MAKE A SOLID BREAD SELECTION: I know many tomato lovers who prefer plain white bread for their “mater” sandwiches. Again, that’s an OK choice, but the BLT begs for a more solid selection. You need something that can hold up against the juiciness of the tomato, the greens, your sauce selection and that crunchy bacon. (As Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would argue, it’s all about the moisture barrier between the juicy vegetables and the bread.) If I’m using white sandwich bread, I like to lightly toast the slices or even grill them in a pan on the stovetop for a little more heft. To go a step further, consider selecting an even heartier bread, such as potato, brioche or ciabatta.

Finally and most important to always remember when you’re cooking at home, this is your #FoodieScore, and your taste will guide your ingredients and your results.

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Creative Southeast-Style Fish Tacos

The recipe is a missing ingredient when I approach the kitchen. There are very few things I cook that follow an actual tried-and-true recipe with measurements. Something thrills me about looking in the fridge and the pantry and creating a meal. Maybe that’s a trait I developed during my bachelor days. And maybe that’s why many of my posts in this space are restaurant adventures; I cook often, but I rarely use a recipe that’s very shareable.

Cooking is a therapy for me, and there’s very little that’s therapeutic about sweating what expensive ingredients I need to pick up at the store and how carefully I follow someone else’s directions. It’s the creativity that makes the whole experience fun and flavorful.

That’s the case with these “Southeast-Style Fish Tacos” I made up on a recent Sunday afternoon. We cook a lot of homemade Mexican in our house, and we usually keep things incredibly simple. This on-the-fly “recipe” is easy, too.

Here are the basic parts of the plate: Fish, Tortilla, Sugar Slaw, Garlic-Onion Aioli

Molly makes amazing homemade tortillas, but for this “dish” we used store-bought. We always prefer flour.

The fish can be any fish you like. To be truly “Southeast” I’d suggest something like a catfish that you commonly see here in North Carolina. You could also use a flounder or a tilapia. We had fresh-cooked salmon on hand, so that’s what I used, lightly seasoned with a little paprika and fresh-squeezed lime juice. I cooked the salmon on a medium-high heat for about 6-8 minutes on each side, just enough to cook it through and through without losing any of that beautiful flaky texture and light pink color.

For the slaw, I took 2 cups of fresh red cabbage (great for color), 2 teaspoons of white sugar and 2 teaspoons of brown sugar, and a teaspoon of milk to add a little liquid to break down the sugars a bit faster. I mixed the slaw in a bowl and then flash-froze it for about 15 minutes. The combination of two basic sugars in the slaw is one reason I call this “Southeast.” There are many variations of Asian slaw out there that have a sweet ingredient, but the sugar just seemed to place this in the Southeast United States.

The aioli was a combination of a 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, a teaspoon of onion powder, a teaspoon of chopped garlic and a teaspoon of garlic salt. This sauce was intended to give the aioli a bit of a quick kick that would counter the sweetness of the slaw and the citrus spice of the fish. The mayo in this ingredient is another reason I refer to this as “Southeast Style.”

I spread a few lines of the aioli on a warm tortilla, added a few strips of freshly cooked fish (the salmon in our case) and then topped the plate with a healthy pinch of the slaw.

It took about 30 minutes to put this dish together, from the moment I gathered ingredients to the time we took our first bites. Let me know what you think of the concept and the dish if you try it, and feel free to share with me in the comments below what you think about my approach to cooking. Eat well!

Molly’s Take: As a big fan of White Duck Taco in Asheville, I have to say, this is the closest we’ve come at home to replicating the explosion of flavor and fresh ingredients you’ll find in one of their tacos. The three parts of this taco were each incredibly flavorful – the citrus-y, grilled salmon; the crispy, cool slaw; and the salty, saucy aioli. I don’t always rate dishes on our blog, but I give these easy tacos an A+ for originality and taste.

Matthew’s Take: Obviously, I love this approach to cooking, as I said above. But I was also quite pleased with how these tacos came out. We feature beef, chicken, fish and shrimp in tacos at our house on a regular basis, and this particular combination varied from the homemade pico de gallo, rice and beans we normally use to accompany the main ingredients. I really liked the flavor combination of the sweet slaw and the spice of the aioli, along with the hearty lightness of the fish. And I ultimately decided that cabbage holds up much better in a taco than the oft-used lettuce.