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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Foodie Travels: Hamrick’s Country Store & Grill, Cleveland County, NC

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The more I travel this amazing country of ours, I can picture the evolution of the American restaurant, living out the timeline of growth through my own eating stops.

In the past year especially, I’ve noticed a specific trend from the past that’s getting harder to find — the country grocery and diner. From Texas to Mississippi to my home state of North Carolina, I’ve experienced the wonderfully familiar feeling of walking into a longtime business that houses both convenience items, groceries and a restaurant. Or, in some cases, these places used to offer all of those goods and services. Many of the former “grocery” spots that also serve made-to-order food have turned into one or the other — but not all have changed completely.

A visit to Hamrick’s Country Store & Grill is a blissful step back in Southern time.

The roadside corner shop is a convenience and home goods store in the front and a meat counter and grill in the back. You can pick up fresh meat, hand-canned goods, a made-to-order cheeseburger or meat-and-vegetable plate and a snack for on down the road, all in one place.

“Speak up, or you’ll be hungry.”

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Photo Credit: @hamricksgrillandstore on Facebook

When you step to the back grill counter, the wait and cook staff exudes familiarity. Even if they don’t know you, they’ll welcome your order and bring it out to you. If they do know you, expect to be greeted by name. And either way, don’t be shy, or you might hear the prodding statement above.

I’ve known people who’ve eaten for many years at Hamrick’s, which as the crow flies is just a couple of miles from where my Dad grew up here in western North Carolina. Most repeat diners I’ve known are fans of the burger off the Hamrick’s grill, and so am I.

It’s like unwrapping a homemade burger, right off the grill. You can get other toppings, but I like mine with what I call the basics: lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. The tomato is like a thick cut you’d slice yourself, and the hearty bun aptly houses the whole sandwich.

“Anything else I can get for you today, hon?”

When you step toward the front register to pay, the friendly experience comes full circle. There are plenty of options to take with you from the country store. On a recent visit, I spotted a handmade book shelf, cookbooks from a nearby church, jars of home-canned food, and plenty of convenience items like bottled drinks, snacks and more.

What Hamrick’s offers in hometown gusto, it lacks in frilly and impersonal modern commercial culture. And that makes it a good place to pick up a biscuit for breakfast, pause for lunch, gather the family for supper, stop to stock up for the road, or even make a few new friends.

It’s places like Hamrick’s that connect our fond memories of the past with the lives we lead in the present.

Hamrick’s Country Store & Grill, 3142 Cliffside Road, Shelby

Phone: (704) 313-7270

Fresh, Simple Homemade Salsa

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Mexican restaurants used to confuse me with the phrase pico de gallo. Is it salsa? Is it something else? Now I have a simple answer: It’s salsa so fresh and unprocessed that you can still see the different vegetables and spices it includes.

I’ve recently been tinkering with options for an incredibly simple and fresh-tasting salsa that I can make to enjoy when we eat Mexican-style food at home (which is often because we love it). We aren’t big fans of incredibly spicy food, and I like such recipes to include as few ingredients and measurements as possible. It’s nice to know you’ve got what you need in the kitchen without having to make a special grocery trip to make something as simple as salsa. Here’s what I came up with, and we’ve enjoyed it a few times with tortilla chips (and I once successfully used it as a southwestern-style cheeseburger topping).

Ingredients 

1/3 cup chopped tomato

1/3 cup chopped onion

1/3 cup chopped pepper (your choice, mine was green bell)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

splash of lime juice

Directions

Finely chop your vegetables and mix them in a bowl alongside your salt and pepper. Splash with a couple of circles of lime juice. Mix again and serve in a bowl of an appropriate size.

This recipe yields a cup of salsa. You’ll want to multiply that by how many people you’re serving and how much salsa you expect each diner to eat.

Protein-Packed Smashed Avocado

Let’s just get right down to the point on what this dish is and what it isn’t. Smashed Avocado is an incredibly flavorful, unique and flexible option for a fresh and light breakfast, brunch or small meal option. It’s not something everyone will enjoy because of the ingredients or methods of cooking. But I will warn you that you’re missing out if you don’t at least consider it by reading through this post.

We recently experienced Smashed Avocado for the first time at The Collins Quarter, an Australia-influenced restaurant in downtown Savannah, Ga. Molly’s already an avocado fan, and Collins bills “smashed” as its signature dish. While their version was no doubt fancier and created with more culinary expertise, the plate we created at home was just as good in many ways.

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One of the best things about this dish is that you can mix and match so many of the ingredients. Collins served its Smashed Avocado on toast; we decided to use English muffins. The restaurant served its dish with a side of fancy greens and veggies; we used a simple mix of tomatoes and green peppers and added a little bit of bacon for flavor and crunch. You can switch up many of the parts as long as you have the basic elements of bread, avocado and egg.

That egg is traditionally poached for this dish, and I considered going another route since I had never previously poached an egg. I decided to expand my horizons and learn a new skill, and poaching an egg was much easier than I expected. Basically, I cracked the egg into a small glass dish less than the size of a coffee mug and then slid that egg straight into a pot of simmering (bubbly, but never boiling) water. The egg white eventually begins to cook around a yolk that stays somewhat soft. I used a sturdy metal slotted spoon to remove the egg to check its doneness and once the outside felt firm, I took it out of the water.

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On one half of each of the two toasted, open-faced English muffins, I spread the insides of a well-ripened avocado that I had only lightly salted (some recipes suggest you also add lemon juice in the smashing mix), and then I topped it with one poached egg. That was topped with a little crispy bacon, then a small sprinkle of shredded cheese, and finally diced tomatoes and green peppers.

That’s all there is to it for a dish that seems fancy but really doesn’t even require a formal list of ingredients or cooking steps to complete. Regardless, I will list the ingredients to offer a clearer picture. Remember: You can change many of these to meet your tastes.

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Ingredients

(yields serving for two)

2 English muffins, split into two halves

2 eggs (poached)

1 ripe avocado (skin should be dark and relatively soft)

Any additional toppings and seasonings you desire

 

Molly’s Take: This dish wowed my tastebuds at the Collins Quarter, so when Matthew suggested we try our own version at home, I was totally up for it. Poaching the egg was far easier than we thought, and the smashed avocado spread on an English muffin, even better in my opinion than on toast. I loved the addition of bacon, as it gave the dish a saltier taste and a great meat option. Smashed Avocado is easy and light, yet filling and packed with great ingredients that taste amazing, fit together well, and energize you for the day ahead. Want my advice? Go for it! 

Matthew’s Take: My affinity for this dish surprised me from all angles. I enjoy avocado and guacamole in several iterations, but I didn’t think Smashed Avocado on bread with a poached egg would be so good. A lightly salted avocado, smashed on bread and topped with the egg and veggies was such a flavor experience. It was so good that I wanted another one when I finished mine. If you’ve never poached a simple egg, you’ve got to try it. Not only was the combination of these ingredients full of flavor, altogether the dish was light and didn’t give me the heavy feeling that a traditional Southern breakfast of eggs, bacon/sausage/livermush and toast can cause if you eat a large portion. This one gets a perfect A+ score for flavor, a B for presentation (it is smashed avocado, after all) and an A- for cost, as the ingredients aren’t difficult to locate or particularly expensive, but outside of eggs the items aren’t necessarily staples in every kitchen.