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My senior year in college, I discovered the Big Top Deli in the cute downtown area of Brunswick, ME, where I went to school. The deli was within walking distance of my job and my then boyfriend/now husband R’s apartment and they made the most incredible, affordable, HUGE sandwiches. R and I would get two sandwiches, a Gobbler for him (turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy, stuffing, year-round) and a Veggie Melt for me, and head to Popham Beach, Reid State Park, Wolfe’s Neck or Land’s End (the place, not the store). He would nap (working night crew at the time) and I would read for class. Not surprising that these are some of my fondest memories of college– we went even during the winter, though we would read and eat in the car in November or February– and those sandwiches are intrinsically linked to my recollection of those happy days. Water, sand, fresh air, R and gooey, delicious sandwiches– what more did I need?

I don’t think I had ever had a veggie melt before Big Top.  At the time, I was beginning to be suspicious of fast food and more conscious that vegetables could be the primary part of my diet, not just add-ins or sides.  I was learning to cook more things for myself that weren’t in boxes or packets. The idea of a veggie melt was appealing because, compared to a burger, grinder or sub, it seemed fresh, healthy, responsible– but it still tasted wonderful. Now, before I fool anyone into thinking me dumb naive, let me say that I was fully aware that the vegetables in this sandwich were paired with three kinds of cheese AND a creamy sauce… but still. I ate one maybe twice a month and it was an improvement on its predecessors, as far as beach food goes, not to mention a conscious switch to a small company making good food, and that’s something.

In May, I tend to feel most nostalgic for school and Brunswick and that time in my life. Last week I was craving a veggie melt like you wouldn’t believe. I could almost taste the way the melted Swiss worked with sprouts, avocado and the dill sauce they use. Oh boy. 3000 miles away from the deli, ordering one wasn’t an option, so I decided to make my own sandwich, a tribute to my memory of the Big Top veggie melt– not a direct copy, but a version celebrating my favorite parts of their sandwich with some changes to suit my current tastes. (And the season: my sandwich didn’t have tomatoes, because it’s May, but it might when I make it again this summer.) The biggest change is certainly the fact that my sandwich has less cheese; I just don’t go for that anymore. Three kinds of cheese feels like too much, too heavy, and that much richness can mask the flavors of the vegetables, especially delicate ones like sprouts and cucumber.  My husband noticed right away that it was “light on the melt”, so I’ll just say that you can take it wherever you’d like, cheese-wise, whatever makes it a veggie melt for you. The second big difference is the mushrooms, which were nowhere in sight on the original. But come on: balsamic mushrooms? If I need to convince you how awesome they are, this may not be the sandwich for you. They add back some of the richness I took away by lessening the cheese, as well as necessary depth of flavor, acid, umami, texture… and they’re balsamic mushrooms. Lastly, I used chives instead of dill in the sandwich spread, purely a seasonal choice based on my abundant chives right now. Swap out dill if you’d like, or try using both. You can get some basil involved here, too.

If you find yourself in coastal Maine anytime soon, check out the Big Top Deli on Main Street in Brunswick, especially if you’re planning to spend an afternoon on the water or beach. It’s not too far from Freeport (LL Bean), on the way to Bailey Island, Giant Stairs and all of the places I mentioned above. The last time we were both in Brunswick, R and I stopped by the Big Top and were excited to see it’s still mostly how we remember. If Maine isn’t an option, I’m sorry, and offering my consolation with this “recipe” for a delicious veggie melt sandwich. Know that, until July, when I make it back there, I’ll be enjoying one or two myself.

veggie melt

My Big (Top) Veggie Melt

  • 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 4 T. minced chives (from about 10 8″ chives)
  • kosher salt & black pepper
  • 2 tsp. butter or olive oil
  • 2 c. sliced cremini mushrooms (about 6 oz.)
  • 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • sliced bread: chewy Italian is my pick, though I wouldn’t say no to pumpernickel
  • sliced provolone
  • sliced cucumbers
  • sliced avocado
  • sprouts of your choice (sunflower pictured)

If you’re able to make the spread a few hours or days ahead, it gets better and better with time. First, soften the cream cheese by leaving it at room temperature or zapping for a few seconds in the microwave. Stir in the chives, a pinch of kosher salt and a pinch of black pepper. There. You have enough sandwich spread for 3 or 4 sandwiches, at least, and any leftover chive cream cheese can be used for bagels or other sandwiches.

Make the balsamic mushrooms next: in a small skillet, heat the butter/oil over medium heat and add the sliced mushrooms. Try to get them in one layer so they brown slightly, and don’t move them around for the first few minutes. After 2-3 mins., flip the mushrooms over and sprinkle lightly with salt. When they begin to soften and release liquid, add the balsamic vinegar to the pan and stir to coat all the mushrooms. Leave the pan on the heat only until most of the liquid has evaporated, being careful not to let them scorch. This amount is for 3 or 4 sandwiches but can be easily multiplied; just make sure you use a large enough skillet, or cook in batches.

To assemble the sandwich, cut thick pieces of your chosen bread and toast lightly. On one side, pile mushrooms and top with your desired amount of cheese. (I use one half piece of provolone per sandwich, hence my husband’s critique that it’s barely a melt…) Whatever you decide, return the provolone-topped side to the toaster and toast or broil until the cheese is melted. On the other piece of bread, spread a good amount of chive cream cheese and layer, generously, with cucumbers and avocados. Top with a good amount of sprouts. Sandwich the two sides together and voila. A wicked good veggie melt.

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