24 May 2007
What Was Always There, Newly Admired
Radish-Poppy Seed, Cucumber-Coriander Chutney, and Carrot-Ginger Tea Sandwiches
Back when I was in high school, my mom and I were out for our usual dose of Sunday museum visits, something know in our house as "museum therapy," and perusing an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Without warning, I saw my mom approach a man wearing tortoiseshell glasses and who stood with his nose inches from a painting, scribbling notes on a legal pad clutched to his chest. "Dink, is that you?" she asked. To my surprise, he turned and said in a dead-serious whisper, "you used my real name." Actually, I was soon to learn that his real name is Don, and Dink was a name used only by his childhood friends. He and my mother had been best friends through high school, he often picked her up in his mother's pink convertible, and gave her a statue of Hamlet when they graduated.
However, after high school they lost touch, and until that meeting in the hushed gallery halls, hadn't seen each other in nearly thirty years. In a subsequent lunch, my mother learned Dink (as we still call him), was a lawyer who lived nearby with his partner John in a great apartment building, and a friendship was resumed as if there had never been a gap. These days, Dink and John are some of the most creative, intelligent, well-traveled people we know, and I always look forward to when they come to visit. They often talk about memories of growing up in Tennessee, stories looked on with the fresh eyes of time and experience.
Knowing they were coming for a picnic last weekend, my mind set on what to fix: simple things, like a little chopped tomato salad, and some slices of teriyaki chicken, a big bowl of grapes and a nice smoked cheddar. But I was also thinking about those foods of the old South, and looking on them with new eyes. Take, for example, the tea sandwich. I picture it as part of the luncheon spread at the Country Club, piled on platters next to a gelatin salad and ham biscuits, probably coated in mayonnaise and insipidly soggy. I've always associated tea sandwiches that way, never giving a thought to where they came from. It took my British-born companion to point out the obvious, that tea sandwiches are one example of the Old English roots of the South.
That got me to thinking about the linneage of tea sandwiches, and the other behemoth of British colonization, India. Spying a jar of coriander chutney, a thick green paste made with coriander and coconut, I immediately knew it would be a perfect twist on the classic cucmber-watercress sandwich. But why stop at one type of tea sandwich when you can have many? Sometimes my culinary imagination gets the best of me, so those French breakfast radishes I picked up at the market got paired with a delectable cream cheese- poppy seed spread. And finally, sweet grated carrots paired with ginger and a deliciously nutty bread.
I'll admit tea sandwiches are a bit fiddly, you can't really do them ahead or they'll get soggy. But I had a ball putting this together, and best of all, the sandwiches were delicious, each person had a different favorite. Sometimes it takes an old friend and a new perspective to discover something that was right there all along.
Tea Sandwich Tips
Use very thinly sliced good quality bread. To prevent sogginess, spread the bread with a thin layer of unsalted butter, and don't assemble more than 3-4 hours ahead of time. Remove all crusts and slice the sandwiches into small shapes about the size of two bites. For fun, you can decorate the edge of the sandwiches with chopped herbs, seeds, or finely grated vegetables.
Radish-Poppy Seed Tea Sandwiches
slivered radishes, chopped chives, 1/2 cup cream cheese, 3 tbl mayonnaise, 2 tbl poppy seeds, 1 tsp lemon zest, white bread
Combine cream cheese, mayonnaise, poppy seeds, and lemon zest. Spread bread with cream cheese mixture, cover with a layer of slivered radishes and a sprinkling of chives, then top with a slice of cream cheese-spread bread. Trim crusts from sandwiches and cut into small shapes. If desired, spread one edge of sandwiches with a small amount of the cream cheese mixture and dip in poppy seeds to decorate.
Carrot-Ginger Tea Sandwiches
3 large carrots, grated, 1/2 cup marmalade, 1 tsp ginger, whole-grain bread
Combine the grated carrots, marmalade, and ginger (if you have a ginger marmalade, you can use it and omit the powdered ginger). Make sandwiches with whole grain bread and cut into small squares or triangles.
Cucumber-Coriander Chutney Tea Sandwiches
1-2 cucumbers (preferably seedless), coriander-coconut chutney (available in jars in international food stores), unsalted butter, white bread, chopped chives, herbs, or dessicated coconut for decorating
1. Peel the cucumbers in a striped pattern, leaving only a little bit of green for accent. Using a mandoline or a sharp knife, thinly slice the cucmber, pat the slices dry with paper towels.
2.Spread one side of the bread slices with a small amount of unsalted butter to prevent sogginess. Spread the bread with coriander chutney, top with cucumber slices, assemble sandwiches, and trim crusts. If desired, spread one side of the sandwiches with coriander chutney and dip in chopped chives or dessicated coconut to decorate.