5 tips for building a BLT sandwich that hits the spot

IMG_3402

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.

IMG_3401

Easy Slow Cooker Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches

Philly Cheesesteak

How often do we find ourselves ordering a meal at a restaurant, but we don’t know how it’s made?
For Matthew, that doesn’t happen often, because he loves experimenting in the kitchen, learning how to make favorite dishes and exploring unconventional combinations.
Since we got married in January, we’ve tried a variety of new homemade foods in the kitchen.
Mozzarella cheese sticks was the first venture, and it flopped the first time because the recipe we followed left out a step. We learned just how important an egg mixture can be for holding together a recipe.
More recently, we attempted our first Slow Cooker Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches. Molly’s dad enjoys Philly Cheesesteak (and anything with meat, cheese and bread), and Molly experienced the glorious concoction of an authentic cheesesteak during a visit to Philadelphia several years ago.
Our first conundrum with the cheesesteak: what kind of steak?
Obviously not New York Strip.
Not T-bone either.
Apparently, there are several different options, including ribeye.
But how expensive do you want your sandwich to be? Especially when you’re planning to make dinner for five people?
And how do you slice a steak thin enough to get that authentic Philly style?
Must you visit an old-time meat market for such an ingredient?
With more questions than answers, we visited a place that appears to have all the answers: Walmart.
Matthew’s dad doesn’t like to set foot in the place, but we don’t mind it as a one-stop-shop for most everything you need.
We first needed to decide if we could find the meat needed for the cheesesteak, and we did. From several options, we chose a thin top sirloin. Despite Matthew’s concern of not having enough steak, two pounds made a full seven sandwiches.
With the big-ticket item (in price as well at $13, so don’t expect to make a cheap true Philly cheesesteak) out of the way, we easily progressed through the rest of our shopping list. Check out the ingredients list below for more.
You’ll also find out how we cooked our steak with ease, and we’ll offer a tip for what you might do to make a better Philly than we did.

Ingredients
1 package of meat (for us, 2 pounds of top sirloin yielded seven sandwiches)
Salt, pepper and seasoning to taste
1 package of cheese, our choice was provolone
1 green pepper
1/2 sweet onion
1 package of sandwich buns of your choice, with preference of sub style

Peppers and onions
Steps
1. Slice your steak, peppers and onions into thin strips. You’ll need a fairly sharp knife for the meat.
2. Season the steak with salt and pepper as desired. We included a few bouillon cubes and 2 cups of water in our slow cooker for an extra boost.
3. Our family was coming over for dinner on Friday night, just minutes after we planned to get home from a full day of work. So we wanted to make Philly cheesesteaks without having to do a lot of cooking in a short period of time. Enter the slow cooker. We cooked our meat the night before and all day that Friday in a low heat in the slow cooker. The meat was incredibly tender by the next evening, but it had also fallen apart a bit more than Matthew desired. You might slice your ingredients the night before and put them into storage containers in the fridge, then put them in the slow cooker before you head out to work for the day. You might get a tender-cooked meat without the pieces being so small. The recipe we found on Pinterest suggested cooking your meat six to seven hours.
4. Once your steak has cooked, divide it up evenly (or unevenly depending on appetites and diner preferences) onto your sandwich buns.
5. Cover your steak with the desired amount of cheese.
6. Stick your cheesesteaks on a pan and heat the buns and melt the cheese in the oven. We didn’t use the oven because we’re partial to our toaster oven. If you have a toaster oven, you might want to try the same method.
7. Serve up your cheesesteaks with any side you choose. We went with French fries.

Matthew’s Take: These sandwiches were much better than I expected, and they were honestly much easier than I expected. You won’t get out light on the cost, and you’ll notice that if you’re a cheapo like me. But you won’t have to do much cooking by using the slow-cooker method. After the meat and vegetables are sliced, you’re home free as long as you have the time to cook the meat. My sandwich was as good as any steak sandwich I’ve had at a restaurant. I usually find steak sandwiches to be tough and this was anything but tough, probably because the meat cooked for about nine hours. I give this recipe an A+ for taste, an A+ for ease of preparation and a B for cost. If you’re making it for a group of more than five, you’ll have to pay quite a bit to get enough true steak for a Philly.

Molly’s Take: I really liked these Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches. I think it would be interesting to try another type of steak to see how different it would be. I can say that no Philly Cheesesteak has compared to the one I actually got in Philly. But this one was pretty darn good and super easy. Putting it all in the crockpot and letting it cook and stay warm meant we didn’t have to worry about dinner that night. And my whole family loved them. All in all, it was a great choice. If you try them, let us know what you do differently! And how you like them! We hope you enjoy.