Move over watercress and cucumber. Tea sandwiches are in need of reinvention. While the dainty and tried and true might satisfy some, I hanker for gutsier, more filling accompaniments to my tea. In my view, bolder teas such as Assam (Malty Halmari is a favorite here), Yunnan, or Keemun cry out for a rustic and not-too-tiny go-with. Which brings me to report on one of the cooking demonstrations I just did on-board the luxurious Crystal Symphony through the Baltic, with stops at serious tea-drinking countries (Sweden, Russia, Finland, Poland, Germany, and Denmark). As a guest chef on-board, I had the opportunity to explore creating three different sandwiches to be served at the daily afternoon tea in the Palm Court situated on the top deck of the ship. (By the way, nothing is more relaxing or comforting than hunkering down in the cozy confines of a ship for tea, particularly when the horizon line within your view is staying put, which mercifully it was for the duration of this sun-blessed cruise.)
Rebuilding the tea sandwich requires rethinking everything from the bread on up. Why settle for cottony, tasteless, crustless white bread when there are so many other more flavorful and texturally satisfying possibilities? And there’s no end to the universe of fillings, toppings, and garnishes.
Inspired by the Scandinavian love for fish, I began with a boneless side of fresh Norwegian salmon. Taking a cue from the well-loved gravlaks of the region, I applied a cure of coarse salt, sugar, black pepper, fresh dill, and fragrant jasmine tea to the fish. Covered with foil and weighted with some heavy cans or other weights, the compressed fish is allowed to cure overnight. The next day, all of the cure is rubbed off and the fish is sliced paper thin to adorn thin slices of a rustic whole grain sourdough bread. Paper-thin shavings of fresh jicama are placed on the bread first and then topped with the salmon. As an optional adornment, a slightly sweetened mustardy dill sauce works well and a sprig of fresh dill makes a sprightly finish. If you’re ambitious, you might source some salt- and olive oil-preserved lemon for a final fillip, which would literally add another layer of flavor to the ensemble. Any rich mouth-filling black tea would work well here, but a Castleton single-estate Darjeeling would provide just enough pungency and notes of Muscat grapes to play against the rich marine salinity of the fish.
Second in line was a grilled vegetable sandwich. Using a veritable rainbow of thinly sliced vegetables, well roasted or grilled after being anointed with fruity olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper, the sandwich featured alternating layers of eggplant, zucchini, red pepper, beet, and fennel, compressed into a colorful ribbon of vegetarian goodness. Here a rosemary-scented French bread was sliced into 1/3-inch-thick ovals, crusts included, and then toasted briefly to give a bit of char and crunch to the surface. Then the vegetables were layered, topped with a fresh, soft, and relatively mild goat cheese (Bucheron or Pyramide from France are my choices here), and gratinéed briefly just before serving. Perfect with a cuppa of bold leaf Ceylon orange pekoe from the Kenilworth or Koslanda estate.
Ending the trio was a tea-smoked chicken wrap, which offers a visual and flavor counterpoint to the other two sandwiches. Here, boneless chicken breasts were smoked over a mixture of rice, sugar, and black tea, with some aromatic spices such as star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and bits of fresh apple and orange added to the tinder to sweeten the smoke. An arugula mayonnaise, thinly shredded crisp Romaine lettuce, and red pepper julienne are laid in thin layers to cover the lightly dampened sheet of lavash. Thin shreds of chicken are then placed on the lavash along one long edge and the whole construction is compressed into a tight cylinder, using a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil to help shape it. It is then chilled for a couple of hours. Just before serving, using a sharp knife, diagonal cuts are made into the cylinder to yield approximately two-inch long servings. A fresh peach and Darjeeling tea-flavored jam would be a great dipping sauce to go with these. Bring out the best Lapsang Souchong to go with this one.
You’ll never go back to ham and egg salad sandwiches again!