Zen and the Art of the Southern Tomato Sandwich

Mayo, Creole French Bread, Homestead Heirloom Tomato, and a pair of Buddhist cookbooks. Is this why Bodhidharma went to China?

Robert Pirsig, author of the fascinating and riveting book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, literally had a breakdown trying to answer the question of, What is quality? If only he had known about a really good tomato sandwich. This three ingredient sandwich is the equivalent of Southern Zen–if done properly. Here’s how I make it.

Ingredients

Heirloom Tomatoes, preferably home or locally grown

Sliced and Toasted Creole French Bread

Mayonnaise (I will learn to make this one day, with the hope that I don’t become as obsessed by it as Julia Child did)

Simple? Yes, but everything depends on the quality of the ingredients. Most generic recipes sound like they are stuck in the 1970’s. Here’s the usual.

Ingredients

Supermarket Tomatoes

White Sliced Bread (the kind that comes in a plastic bag)

Mayonnaise

So much is wrong here, that it is difficult to know where to start. I will begin with the low hanging fruit. I had students tell me that they didn’t like tomatoes, after I brought up this controversial sandwich. My immediate question was, Have you ever had a tomato that didn’t come from the supermarket? The answer was always no.

The reason for their response is that essentially all supermarket tomatoes, despite their appearance, are green. The practice of gassing tomatoes with ethylene became commonplace in the 1970’s, and ethylene is a gas that turns green tomatoes red, even though they are still completely unripe. Try a slice of that on your BLT, and tell me what you think of tomatoes.

As far as bread in a plastic bag goes, first, buy as few things packed in plastic as you can. That white bread is practically embalmed anyway, considering how many preservatives it has in it. Topped with a good tomato that sandwich will still be good, as another major ingredient of that white bread is air, which is pumped into the dough.

There are all sorts of superfluous additions to this sandwich, but I only consider three to be appropriate.

Salt

Olive Oil

Fresh Basil

If you want to add something like avocado, knock yourself out. Just don’t call it a tomato sandwich. Your zen is all gone. One of my favorite zen riddles has to do with the master who asked a novice the meaning of zen. The novice said that all was emptiness. The master just grabbed a stick, and gave the student a giant whack, which made the student really angry.

The master just said, “If all is emptiness, then were does your anger come from?” Enough said.

Chickurkey a la King with Morels

Chickurkeys are not Easy to Capture

What we have here is a dairy-less Chicken a la King with turkey added, and fancied up with morels. I am carefully rationing my years supply of morels, because they are renewed yearly only on December 24. This seemed like a good time to use a few.

Ingredients

3 dried Morels, reconstituted and sliced (Porcini or Oyster work also)

Morel Water

1 tablespoon Olive Oil

1 tablespoon Flour

I sweet Pepper, chopped

Chicken Stock

Salt and Pepper

1 cup cooked Chicken and/or Turkey

The cooking is simple. Make a blonde (light colored) roux with the oil and flour, stirring constantly. Add the chopped pepper, and stir for another minute or so. Add the morel water, filtered through a paper towel, and the chicken stock, until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer until the sweet pepper taste becomes apparent–I let it go for around ten minutes, and add more stock if necessary. Finally add the cooked bird, and warm it all the way through. Best if served on toasted baguette slices.

Though I am far from being a calorie counter, this strikes me as a healthier dish than the normal butter and milk a la King. It certainly tastes better than one with canned mushrooms. Good cage free organic chicken doesn’t hurt, either. For the best chicken satire ever, see this old video from the days when Steven Colbert still did The Colbert Report. This is not a spoiler, but he has a pet chicken named Shirley, who is boneless, and lives inside a paper towel roll tube.

Brick Oven Tools–Mop and Fireplace Poker

Keeping It Clean and Hot

These are the last two tools in the catalog of devices needed to cook in a brick oven. One is the first tool needed, the other one of the last, but also one of the most important. We’ll begin with my trusty industrial sized mop.

My wife eventually gifted this mop to me after she found it to be too big and bulky to use in our house. I immediately drilled a hole through the handle, tied a piece of accessory cord threaded through the hole into a loop, and hung it on the rafters on the oven. It’s been there ever since.

The mop is the final cleaning tool used before baking either bread or pizza in a brick oven, as the baking is done directly on the brick surface of the oven. The brush takes away the larger bits and pieces, and the mop finishes the job. Usually two passes with the mop is necessary to provide a surface suitable and clean enough for cooking. Some dispensation must be made to provide a way to rinse the mop off between passes-I have a lawn hydrant adjacent to my oven.

Hydrant, Camellia, and Mop Remains

This mop occasionally gets set on fire while making pizza in a 900 degree F oven, but the cotton part can be replaced, and has been. I think these are still made in the US, and can be found fairly easily. I also use it for mopping the slate top on my Rustic Cabinet, which is connected to my brick oven. Would also be great swabbing the deck of an eighteenth century frigate.

The first tool anyone starting a fire in a brick oven is going to resort to is a fireplace poker. This one was made by an Amish blacksmith in Ohio. It’s the best I have ever seen, as it can multitask. It’s thick steel and hook end make it perfect for lifting the lids on cast iron Dutch/Camping ovens. Best used with a pair of welding gloves, as it’s only drawback is that it can only reach so far into a brick oven. That’s when the scraper comes in handy.

So gear up and get to cooking. We plan on doing just that again this weekend, unless we get walloped by the tropical storm that is currently lurking on the Gulf Coast. Our current forecast is for two to four inches of rain. Guess that’s why I put a roof over my oven.

Brick Oven Tools–Scraper/Brush Combo

A Multi-Tasking Tool

Two essential tools for the efficient use of a Brick Oven are a scraper and a brush. Many people buy them separately, but why? This old US made scraper/brush combo is over fifteen years old, and has years of use left. And I leave it outside hanging on the oven.

Just last weekend I cooked pizza for nine people on the hottest day of the year, with a blazing hot oak/pine fire, and never even broke a sweat. I could do that because of the efficiency of the scraper/brush. Let’s begin with the most useful side–the scraper.

Scraper and Bulldozer

The scraper side serves two important functions, which are scraping, and bulldozing. As a scraper it performs both maintenance and cooking functions. The long handle allows its use as an ash remover, as it reaches all the way to the back of even a large oven. Many modern ovens, like mine, have an ash slot where the remains of yesterday’s fire can be easily scraped away.

Secondly, if you’re making bread or even just baking, the scraper allows one to reposition the fire and/or coals easily, which is a skill that I will address in a later post.

If you’re into pizza or baking, this thing can bulldoze any fire into the back of the oven, which is a necessity when making pizza. Once that is done, it’s time to put the brush to work.

Don’t Brush Your Hair with it

That rather dangerous looking wire brush is really a preliminary clean up tool. It removes most of the ashes from a working fire, as well as small embers and stray pieces of wood. It prepares the surface of the brick oven for the final tool that is needed for the cooking of a pizza–a mop. That will be one of the last two tools I will discuss, but that is a whole another post.

Creole French Bread

Creole French Bread cut into sandwich sized portions

Creole French Bread, also known as New Orleans French Bread, is not really French bread at all. French bread, in the form of the classic baguette, is a simple bread made with salt, yeast, flour and water. Creole French Bread is closer to an Italian bread, in that it is enriched or fortified with some form of fat, and usually a small amount of sugar. (Red Star yeast has an excellent concise run down of what fat adds to a loaf.)

If you do a quick check on the internet, you will find that various recipes for this bread using a number of different fats. Commercial varieties often use vegetable shortening, though one of the most famous ones uses soy oil. Why such cheap ingredients? Because those folks are out to make a buck, and pennies matter. As a home baker not concerned with economies of scale, I use as high a quality of ingredient as possible. The following recipe, which I have made weekly for years, uses olive oil. This will make two baguettes, two po-boy buns, or a small loaf.

Creole French Bread

For the Dough:

1 teaspoon Salt

1 and 1/2 cups of All Purpose or Bread Flour (I like King Arthur Flour)

3/4 cup warm Water

1 tablespoon Olive Oil

For the Yeast:

2 Tablespoons warm Water

1 teaspoon organic Sugar

2 teaspoons instant Yeast (I end up buying two pound bags of Red Star regularly)

I make the dough in our thirty something year old Kitchenaid stand mixer-they weren’t kidding when they printed “Heavy Duty” on the side of the machine. Use the dough hook attachment, and mix until a ball of dough is formed.

The next step is the yeast mixture. I combine the three ingredients in a one cup measurer that I also use for the flour. Stir, and I let it sit until the mixture rises to the top of the measuring cup. That also gives the dough a little time to hydrate. Mix those together with the dough mixture, though a little additional flour is usually necessary to keep the dough from being overly sticky. Now it’s time for the rise.

Southern Appalachian Dough Bowl

Any oiled container will do to hold the dough for the first rise, but old school Southerners insist on wooden dough bowls. This one was made by Loyd George of Decatur, Alabama, out of Tulip Poplar. Cover the dough with a damp kitchen towel, and let rise. How long will depend on the temp of your kitchen. The general rule is to let it double in size, usually around an hour.

For baguettes/po-boy buns, a loaf must be formed by hand. Divide the dough in half, and form into an oval. Fold over once longways, and roll out the loafs from the middle outward. (King Arthur has a great tutorial showing how to do this.) For baguettes, it’s easier to put the loaves in a baguette pan; po-boy buns go onto a baking sheet, and are slightly flattened out. Loafs can go onto a baking sheet or a loaf pan. All must be covered with a towel, and allowed to rise again.

Here’s where the bread paths diverge. I cook po-boy buns at 375 degrees, loaves at 400, and baguettes at 450. Baguettes need to be slashed to keep from splitting open while baking, while slashing is optional for the loaves, and never done with po-boybuns. Cooking times are thirty minutes or more for buns and loaves, and twenty minutes or so for the baguettes.

Slash Patterns on Baguettes, Done with a Serrated Bread Knife

The resulting bread should be crispy crunchy on the outside, and incredibly soft on the inside. The superiority of this bread to any commercial one will become apparent at the first bite. It only stays fresh for about a day, but can be frozen and warmed up with little noticeable change in quality. For one use of this bread, see my post on Creole Onion Soup. You’ll end up neglecting the soup for the bread.