I’ve been hanging around the world of vegetarianism long enough to know that many folks, particularly those in the business of making and selling meals to the public, don’t know what to do when it comes to making a vegetarian sandwich. This is not to say that I’ve never had a good non-meat sandwich; in fact, I’ve had many. But with the sheer array of foodstuffs available to us today, it saddens me to see the creativity stop when it comes to making a decent sandwich without the likes of ham, turkey, or beef. Some sandwiches I’ve had were the equivalent of dry, loose salad placed between two slices of bread. Others have been soaked to the bone (or maybe I should say “stem”) with overpowering dressings and flavored goop. Still others have contained mountains upon mountains cheese, which, while fine in principle, is hell on the ol’ choppers. (Seriously, try biting into 2 inches of sliced deli cheese some time. It is not a good chewing experience.)
Why this odd topic is on my mind is because I recently had a sandwich with beans on it. Not string beans, which would be kind of weird also. Not mashed beans like bean dip or hummus, both of which are perfectly fine on some sandwiches. But plain, whole, white beans — cooked and presumably canned.
I had no words.
Now, I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised because the sandwich’s ingredients were readily listed: toasted olive bread, roasted red peppers, mozzarella cheese, beans, basil dressing. It sounded pretty good. And in my mind, I guess I thought “beans” meant some sort of spread, because no one in their right damn mind would ever just put beans on a sandwich. Oh, how wrong I was proven upon first bite. I didn’t see the beans at first, but as the sandwich bite started to turn pasty with chewing, I went all WTF and checked out the issue. Indeed, the sandwich’s bottom layer was made up on the aforementioned white beans. No seasoning, no work, no nothing…just beans.
I started wondering what could have possessed someone to do this. Because, first off, the sandwich already had cheese on it, so was there some worry that that wouldn’t provide enough of a “meaty” bite or protein or something? Second, why plain beans? Because, as the sandwich was made, the beans were right under the cheese, isolated from the basil dressing. So the sandwich had a literal foundation, a starchy and chewy cement mixture that made for all sorts of texture problems. (I’ll admit that I’m quite picky about food textures.) And third, just…what the fuck? I mean, there are hundreds of other vegetable options that could have been used – roasted portabella mushrooms, seared squash, sundried tomatoes…shit, some sautéed red onions for christ’s sake…all would have been better than Plain. Mother. Fucking. Beans.
And look, I like beans…like ‘em a whole lot! We have a 12-foot garden bed dedicated to these lovely legumes. From string beans to lima beans to black-eyed peas, they are all perfectly welcome in my kitchen. Right now, bean salads are where I’m at. And in a couple months, I’ll be stirring my way through many a bean soup or stew, along with my most favorite, vegetarian chili. (Oh man, with shredded cheddar cheese, sliced green onions, and Fritos….*drool*) So it’s not like I’m completed opposed to the notion of having beans between bread, but if it’s got to be done, it’s got to be done right.
For one, don’t just open a can of beans and dump them onto a loaf of bread. Gross. Mash those suckers up with a little olive oil, lemon juice, and a hint of something extra, like curry powder or cayenne pepper, hell, even a little nutmeg for something completely different! Then spread that on your sandwich. And feel free to place some hearty cheese on top of that – at least then you won’t end up with a layer of stucco between you and the rest of your toppings. Also, because most beans – canned beans (except garbanzos) — don’t have much taste, they need to be combined with punchy veggies like onions, peppers, and spicy greens, or crunchy veggies like bean sprouts and cucumbers. And, most importantly, if ya gotta use beans then ya gotta use the best bread you can find. In the case of my sad sandwich, the toasted olive bread was way better than what was inside, so that made it less sad than it could have been. But a nice, flavored focaccia, crusty ciabatta roll, or hearty wheat toast would all suffice. White bread is great for some things, but it can quickly become a gluey gut-bomb when combined with beans.
At this point in my life, little surprises me when it comes to what restaurateurs think vegetarians should eat when they want sandwiches. From corn kernels (messy) to whole cherry tomatoes (did your knife break?) to raw peas (SIGH), I thought I had seen it all. But up until recently, I hadn’t seen beans. I will happily take all the beans you have, cooked in a pot with a magical array of vegetables and spices, but please, keep them off my goddamned sandwich.