Whether you're road tripping, picnicking or feeding the soccer team after a game, a crowd-pleasing sandwich is a winner. But the bumps along the way are fearsome. We've all had bad sandwiches: The bread is soggy. The fillings and condiments slip and slide. And discrete flavors become murky and indistinguishable if a sandwich sits around too long.
It doesn't have to be this way. Pan bagnat, literally "bathed bread," is designed for the kind of sitting around that would ruin a lesser combination. Leave it to the French to fill a loaf of crusty bread with tuna or anchovies, peppers, olives and more, and then bathe the sandwich in vinaigrette and wrap it, letting its flavors develop over several hours. There is only one way this procedure achieves a glorious, sturdy-not-slimy sandwich: the bread. A baguette with a crackly shell of crust is imperative. Soft bread has no place here.
I began to ponder a variation on the traditional pan bagnat using charcuterie, vegetables and cheese. An antipasti cart spied at a nondescript restaurant in upstate New York sealed the deal. By adding eggplant caponata, bookending the meaty filling, there was no chance of a slippery mess. The sandwich pulled together like the long-lost Italian cousin of the original French.
Caponata is more than a sandwich condiment. It's a relish, a side dish, a salad, a carry-me-to-work lunch with a hunk of bread and a wedge of cheese, and a celebration of agrodolce, that delicate balance of sweet and sour. Eggplant caponata recipes vary regionally: Some have nuts; others sport raisins. But I prefer to let the eggplant shine with not much more than tomatoes and a smattering of salty additions.
Buy big, unblemished, taut-skinned purple eggplant, as fresh as possible. Fresher means less potential for bitterness.
A pan bagnat benefits from a long marination before slicing for serving. Although this sandwich is often pressed, the Italian version is better left to mature without anything to weigh it down. Start with a plastic wrap-lined counter, open the bread like a book and set it atop that wrap, fill the trenches, and construct the sandwich. Once done, snugly wrap the baguette with the flavors trapped inside, and refrigerate overnight or carry it away in a picnic basket. By the time you've settled next to a stream and unfurled the blanket, the sandwich will be ready.
'Antipasti' Pan Bagnat With Eggplant Caponata
Yield: 12 servings
For the caponata 1/2 cup olive oil 1 pound Italian eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1 medium red onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 cup) 3 celery ribs, halved and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 3/4 cup) 3/4 cup canned, no-salt-added crushed tomatoes 1/2 cup pitted Sicilian or other lightly cured green olives, chopped 1/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained 2 tablespoons sugar, or more as needed 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more as needed 1/4 cup torn basil leaves
For the sandwich 1 baguette (12 to 16 ounces) 4 ounces hard salami (12 slices) 2 ounces sopressata (12 slices) 2 ounces prosciutto (8 slices) 6 ounces sliced provolone (8 slices), each cut in half
For the caponata: Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a heavy, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add half of the eggplant cubes. Cook for about 8 minutes, until lightly golden brown tender, then transfer to a large bowl. Season with some of the salt.
Add 2 tablespoons of the oil to the skillet, then add the remaining eggplant and cook it the same way (over medium-high heat). Scrape the eggplant and any oil in the pan into the same bowl. Season with the remaining salt and toss to coat.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat in the same pan. Stir in the onion and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until translucent, then stir in the celery and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, just until it is crisp-tender.
Add the tomatoes, olives and capers to the onion in the skillet, then return all the eggplant cubes and their oil to the pan. Once the mixture is heated through and a few bubbles appear on the surface, make a well at the center and add the sugar and vinegar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then blend that into the eggplant mixture; this is your caponata. Taste; the flavor should be assertively sour and sweet. Add a dash more sugar or vinegar, as needed. Stir in the basil leaves. The yield is about 4¼ cups; you will need 2 cups' worth for the sandwich.
Spoon the caponata into a bowl, drape with a clean kitchen towel and let the mixture cool and the flavors meld over the next 2 to 3 hours. Remove the towel and cover snugly with plastic wrap; refrigerate until ready to use. Bring to room temperature before serving.
For the sandwich: Put 2 cups of the caponata into a blender or food processor. Pulse to the consistency of a meaty spaghetti sauce (not completely smooth).
Cut the baguette in half lengthwise; tear out the soft insides of the baguette to accommodate the sandwich fillings. This will keep the sandwich from sliding apart. Generously fill the top and bottom hollows with the blended caponata.
Arrange slices of salami, sopressata and prosciutto on the bottom half of the baguette. Build a layer with the cheese half-slices. Repeat. Cover the meats and cheese with the remaining blended caponata, then place the upper half of the baguette on top to form the sandwich. Wrap it snugly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, and up to overnight.
To serve, cut the sandwich (still wrapped) crosswise into 12 equal portions.
Nutrition information per serving (using 2 cups caponata): 240 calories, 11 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 700 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar.