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Chefs share their tricks for building vegetarian sandwiches that are actually exciting
For better or worse, sandwiches are sometimes kind of boring, and that’s doubly true for vegetarian sandwiches. If you’re lucky enough to be at an establishment that actually serves vegetarian sandwiches, it likely includes some combination of tomato, cheese, and hummus, and as great as those ingredients are, there are so many more creative ways to assemble ingredients between two slices of bread.
Fortunately, there are plenty of great restaurants around the country serving thoughtfully made vegetarian sandwiches. So we turned to a couple of experts — chef Peter Lemos of Wax Paper Company in Los Angeles and chef Andrew Magee of Martha Kensington in Philadelphia — for a guide to building vegetarian sandwiches that are actually exciting instead of just satiating.
Start with good bread.
As with any sandwich, bread is the literal foundation for a good vegetarian sandwich. While the type of bread you choose is totally up to you, quality is non-negotiable. “You usually want something with a nice crust and a little bit of chew to it,” says Magee. “Depending on what you want to make, you just want something that’s super fresh, and if it’s local, that’s even better.”
Lemos agrees. “It’s a good starting point to pick a bread that you would snack on by itself, then use that to build the sandwich,” he says. “Whether that’s a sesame roll or a really flavorful wheat bread, it’s one of the keys to everything we do at Wax Paper. If every ingredient is great on its own, it’s going to be even better when you put it all together.”
Mix up the textures.
In order to make your meat-free sandwiches as interesting as possible, switch up the textures. At Martha Kensington, Magee likes using thinly sliced raw vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, and shaved red onions to build the restaurant’s famed vegan hoagies, which add contrast to soft, creamy ingredients like avocado and aioli. “When we build the hoagies, we start on one side of the roll like you do with a traditional Italian sub,” he says. “We’ll layer all the ingredients together until you get enough of everything you want without your filling spilling out the sides.”
For Lemos, vegetarian sandwiches have one essential component: pickles. Thanks to their crunch, occasional sweetness, and pop of acidity, pickled vegetables are a great way to add both flavor and textural contrast to a sandwich. Lemos’s favorite is pickled red onions, which he puts on everything, but anything from basic pickled cucumbers to preserved lemons will also work. Lemos even recommends pouring hot vinegar over dried fruit and allowing the fruits to absorb the liquid for a quick pickled element. “It’s really, surprisingly good,” he says. “Dried raisins, any kind of dried fruit, is really delicious on a sandwich this way.”
Use mushrooms to bring meaty flavors to the party without actual meat.
Thanks to their earthy flavor, chewy texture, and wide range of shapes and sizes, mushrooms make an excellent filling for vegetarian sandwiches. Magee likes to prepare a vegetarian cheesesteak with maitake and crimini mushrooms, which are both hearty enough to serve as the main feature in any sandwich. If you don’t want actual mushrooms in your sandwich, you can still take advantage of their meaty power with the magic of porcini powder. “You can season whatever you want with that, and it give it some nice added meatiness,” Magee explains.
Get creative with spreads.
Sandwiches can be spread with literally anything, but too many sandwich makers limit their imaginations by focusing only on mayonnaise and mustard. At Wax Paper Company, Lemos slathers baguettes with softened maple butter, olive tapenade, and garlic aioli, while Magee roasts long hot peppers to make a pickle giardiniera with garlic, olive oil, and spices.
Lemos also suggests breaking out of the typical sauces and purees altogether. “The key is just creating a barrier between the filling and the bread,” he says. “You don’t have to stop with mayo and mustard or even hummus. If you had a really good mashed potato, that could make for a great sandwich spread. Honestly, you can just go nuts with anything you could puree to a spreadable consistency and it would probably be fine.”
If all else fails, stick to a simple formula.
If you’re not feeling super creative, Magee has a simple formula for building a perfect vegetarian sandwich. It’s easy to remember: Add something punchy, like vinaigrette or pickles, something roasty, like charred carrots or roasted sweet potato, and something super-fresh, like crisp radish or zucchini. Using that method as your sandwich algorithm, you can pretty much make any ingredients into a killer vegetarian sandwich. “As long as you handle an ingredient the right way, you can probably make a delicious sandwich out of it,” he says. “There’s nothing that’s just straight-up off-limits.”