The Alice Walker school of California cooking--the immaculate, jewel-like vegetables, the artisan oils and vinegars, the painstakingly sourced meats--has at times been leveled with the criticism that it is not, in fact, cooking, but assembling. How much talent or skill does it take to make the best ingredients taste good? Should the compliments go to the rancher, the farmer, baker, the vintner . . . rather than the chef? At home, sandwiches are an example of another kind of assembly cooking, one without the emphasis on quality in ingredients. Instead, sandwiches are often made in a rush, for the purpose of convenience, portability--schmeared with whatever mayo or spread is in the fridge, staked with some mysterious beige meat, some sliced cheese, perhaps some greens. But when home-style assembly meets Alice Waters-style assembly, the results--even in that of a lowly sandwich--can be incredible. And so, with this in mind, with give you an approximated recipe for The Best Sandwich You've Ever Had.
This bit of hyperbole is not my own, but that of the Waters-like Mark Bittman, whose The Minimalist column runs in the Wednesday food section of the New York Times. The sandwich in question, found at the unassuming Café Viena in Barcelona--a local haunt for Catalan high schoolers, resembling something between a Subway and an old school Pizza Hut, those that had the trappings of a checker table clothed east coast pizzeria--is the flauta d'ibéric. After eating the sandwich in 2006, Bittman wrote it up in the Times, calling it the best sandwich he'd ever had. Café Viena added a quote, translated to Catalan, to the menu and tourist foodies have been lining up ever since.
The ingredients are beyond simple: the crunchy flauta loaf (looking like a more bronzed, smaller baguette), rubbed with tomato on its cut sides, stacked with Jabugo ham--a cousin of Jamon Serrano--and drizzled with good Spanish olive oil. With the crunch of the bread, the sweet saltiness of the ham and the bright, vegetal flavors of the oil and tomato, it's a sandwich that's an exercise in minimalism in its perfection.
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Traveling to Barcelona for a sandwich is not a likely possibility, even when the country isn't in a recession, so how to recreate it at home? The flauta and Jabugo aren't things you can pick up at the grocery store, so some substitutions are in order. A good, crunchy baguette can function as a stand in for the flauta--cut in thirds, to mimic the original breads smaller size. And in the stead of the Jabugo, Serrano ham will do, a product that can be found at most any specialty food store. The ingredients that won't change: a good, ripe tomato (yes, they aren't technically in season, but the potted plant I have on my balcony still manages to produce a few here and there) and your best olive oil, preferably from California, in place of the Spanish. It may not become your everyday go-to lunch, but it's definitely something to try and make at home.
Flauta d'ibéric, California version
¾ - 1 lb Jamon Serrano
Cut the baguette into thirds and split each third open. Cut the tomato in half and rub the cut side of the tomato over the cut sides of the bread--as you would spread on mayo or mustard--moistening the bread with the juices of the tomato. Pile a third of the Serrano on to each sandwich and drizzle with olive oil.