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The Mysterious Voyage of Captain Sandwich
Or the story of how my wife went out of town and I went a little overboard
I’d like for you to go on a little journey with me.
This past weekend, my wife left town for a wedding. I made some nice plans with the kids—we’d go to the pool, I’d take them to a ballgame, we’d hang out with friends and spend some quality time together at home—all in all, a recipe for a lovely weekend.
I could feel a perfect storm brewing in my mind, though.
You see, I’m a perfectly capable adult and parent, or at least someone who can fake it pretty well. But when left to my own devices, I can’t help but get a little stupid with food.
I first put this into words more than five years ago, with a tweet that’s become a bit of a personal calling card:
I’m hardly alone in this habit, and earlier this year, GQ writer Gabriella Paiella gave name to the phenomenon: Husband Meal.
Where a typical Husband Meal might consist of three dozen chicken wings or a burrito filled with curry, though, there was something different at play here this weekend. You see, I’m a food writer, or at least I’ve been called one on the internet. I develop recipes on a regular basis, sharing them weekly in my supersized Friday newsletters and in my expansive recipe archive.
I needed food content for upcoming newsletters, and I had a whole weekend where I was free of judgement in my culinary endeavors. (The kids are too young to have realized how weird I am yet. They’ll sort that out in college.)
It was the last wholly-unencumbered weekend for a while, with a jam-packed fall schedule looming on the other side of Labor Day. It was a chance to write my magnum opus. My Smile. My Cones of Dunshire. My Caine-Hackman Theory.
Now, I’ve earned a bit of a reputation for stunt food in the past.
I once made a Great British Bake-Off-inspired picnic pie, but filled it with bacon cheeseburger ingredients. I made football-shaped arancini filled with Cincinnati chili. I made Pumpkin Spice Pork Butt, and I swear to you that it was good.
I made something called “Walking Chowder”, and served it to actual paying customers at a real restaurant.
Each of these recipes is—quite admittedly—a ludicrous creation. But they’re each genuinely tasty, too, and they make me laugh.
That’s the whole ethos of The Action Cookbook Newsletter.
It’s okay to have a good time in the kitchen, and if you’re entertaining yourself, you’re probably doing something right.
But what was it going to be?
I mulled it over for days in advance of my wife’s trip. I had to seize the day. I had one shot—one opportunity—to seize everything I ever wanted, for one moment. Would I capture it? Or just let it slip?
The idea of some kind of sandwich was speaking to me.
Would it be spicy? Savory? Sweet? Fancy? Homespun? Meaty? Fishy? Vegetarian?
Finally, a vision occurred to me.
I would make sandwich that covered all of the bases.
A sandwich that incorporated each of the five elements—Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Heart.
I would call it “Captain Sandwich”.
If you’re an Elder Millennial or older, perhaps you remember Captain Planet and the Planeteers, the well-intentioned/painfully-earnest environmentally-themed Saturday morning cartoon, where five kids combine their elemental powers to summon a pollution-fighting superhero? That would be my inspiration for this sandwich.
Why would I do this, you ask?
Because I thought of the line “Captain Sandwich, it’s a hero / gonna bring my hunger down to zero” and it make me laugh. That’s really all it takes.
This is where I got a little bit out over my skis.
I realize now that my ambitions were too large.
I initially conceived of this being one large sandwich—a circular party sub of sorts, a five-lobed ouroboros of a bun with parts. I wish I could tell you that I realized the infeasibility and stupidity of this idea at the drawing board stage, but to paraphrase Red from The Shawshank Redemption, this is no fairy-tale world. I wasted an entire evening after the kids had gone to bed attempting to make brioche bun dough from scratch, before being harshly reminded that I am a cook, not a baker.
(I did not take pictures of the dough, but it reminded me of a contractor’s joint-sealing compound. It might be fireproof, but that’s not an ideal quality in a dough.)
Frankly, though, I’m glad I failed at this stage.
I realized that the one-sandwich solution was wasteful, and the ACBN ethos is silliness, not waste. I’d have to pivot.
My ideas often start out this way.
Whether it’s writing a story, planning a garden, designing a building or making a sandwich, my first iteration is usually some version of LET’S GO TO THE MOON. Eventually, reason takes over, and I whittle down my moon mission to a sensible day-trip, and everything works out. It’s my process, and I’ve come to accept that.
I’d already procured the fillings for five unique sandwiches—representing each of the elements as defined by Captain Planet—so I would forge ahead with a more rational and achievable plan.
I would spent the rest of the weekend making each of my sandwiches, one by one, and the real Captain Sandwich would have to be the friends I made along the way.
Sandwich #1: EARTH!
There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that the “Earth” sandwich would be a vegetarian/vegan sandwich. It made sense thematically, and frankly, I’d need at least one of these to be healthy.
I peeled thin ribbons from several carrots using a Y-shaped peeler, tossed them with cumin, coriander, paprika, salt and avocado oil, spread them on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and roasted for 8 minutes at 450F.
I cut planks from a cucumber, strips of roasted red pepper, and sliced an avocado.
To really get “Earth”, though? I’d need to get in the dirt, and to do so I made a beet hummus. I stemmed and scrubbed two beets, wrapped them in foil, and roasted them for 40 minutes at 450F. Once they’d cooled, they went in the food processor with a can of chickpeas, 2 tablespoons of tahini, the juice of a lemon, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup of olive oil, and salt.
I piled it all onto some country sourdough, sprinkled it with Maldon salt, and:
I loved this. Even being entirely vegan, it was hearty, filling, and bursting with flavor. I had enough leftovers from the process that this has been my lunch for most of this week. The beet hummus was worth the journey alone.
But the journey was only beginning…
SANDWICH #2: WIND!
I struggled at first to conceive this one.
Chickens don’t fly. As Arthur Carlson once learned, turkeys can’t either.
If I was going to make a wind-themed sandwich, our usual flightless food birds weren’t going to cut it. It would have to be duck. The thing is, though—despite a surfeit of culinary ambition—I’d never cooked duck.
I procured a single breast from the local fancy supermarket, and looked up some recipes. I scored the skin, placed it skin-side-down in a cold pan, then turned it to medium heat and let it cook for 15 minutes before flipping to finish for another 2 minutes, as per this Eric Kim recipe.
I made a simplified version of the blueberry-port sauce in that same recipe—cooking down blueberries with brown sugar, orange zest, and port wine, then straining it—and served it on the same bread as my first sandwich, nestled in bed of arugula.
I regret waiting this long to try cooking duck myself. This was a fantastic lunch, and felt oddly elegant considering that I had just served my kids Lunchables.
SANDWICH #3: FIRE!
This was the easiest element to assign: I’d make a spicy chicken sandwich.
Somehow, despite a hot-chicken-inspired pork sandwich being my culinary Freebird, I’d never featured an actual spicy chicken sandwich on here? I’d had an idea sitting in my recipe planning file for a while—a Korean-tinged riff partially inspired by a great dish I had at a local restaurant—and this felt like a great time to let it rip.
A craggy, crunchy breaded chicken thigh would be doused in a gochujang-based sauce and served over crisp slaw with sweet pickles.
This? This was phenomenal.
Frankly, it was too good to breeze by as just a footnote here—I’ll have the full recipe for this in Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter, and trust me: it’s worth it.
We’re not done yet, though.
SANDWICH #4: WATER!
I am a 41-year-old man—an Elder Millennial entering middle age—and that means a few things: I’ve developed an appreciation for Steely Dan, I have mild to moderate lower back pain, and I’ve gotten really into tinned fish in the last couple of years.
I had some lovely, high-quality sardines that I’d purchased at The Breeze Wine Bar & Spirits—a lovely wine-and-provisions shop connected to a bar here in Louisville. (A bar where you can buy expensive sardines is basically an elaborate trap for me now, and I respect them for setting it up.)
I whipped up a second hummus—this one a white-bean-and-roasted garlic puree featuring a whole head of roasted garlic, a can of cannelini beans, 2 tablespoons of tahini, juice of 1 lemon and salt—and spread it over a slice of crusty sourdough. A couple slices of tomato, the sardines, and some smoked salt finished it off.
A simple delight, but a pure one. I thoroughly enjoyed every bite of it.
I had one sardine left in the can, and I offered it to my lovable oaf of a dog, Olaf.
[Foghorn Leghorn voice] Nice boy, but about as sharp as a sack of wet mice.
SANDWICH #5: HEART!
I would not let myself fall prey to literalism here.
I’m not averse to organ meats—I had some lovely sweetbreads at Allard in Paris on my culinary tour of Europe earlier this summer—but I want to be clear that I never considered using actual heart in this sandwich.
No, this would be a sandwich from the heart—something simple, unpretentious and homespun, the kind of thing you’d find less on a restaurant menu and more at Grandma’s kitchen table.
One great thing about living in Kentucky is ready access to good country ham, and I’d picked up some Broadbent country ham that looked absolutely perfect. I spread a nice smear of cream cheese on sourdough, laid a few pieces of ham on top, then dressed it with a secret weapon—Jezebel Sauce.
I’d picked up this recipe a few years ago from my friend Chris, a Kentucky native whose mother made it for decades. It’s a sweet, piquant sauce made with fruit preserves and horseradish, and goes great on crackers with cream cheese. I first shared it here a few years back, and I’m sharing it here again:
10 oz pineapple preserves
10 oz apple jelly
4-6 oz prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons dry mustard
cracked black pepper
Mix all the ingredients together, and store in the fridge for at least a day prior to serving.
I reasoned it would play nicely with the ham, too, and I wasn’t wrong.
And with that, my sandwich journey was complete.
I ended up with some really good takeaways from the process. The beet hummus is a new favorite, and something I’ll surely make again. I conquered my fear of cooking duck, and plan to explore those fowl waters further. The chicken sandwich recipe was downright fantastic, and between the five different sandwiches, I had leftovers for lunches and dinner well after my wife returned from her trip.
Captain Sandwich may never have arrived, but I still had fun.
I used to kick myself for the messy, unwieldy and impractical nature of my ideas, but over the years, I’ve come to embrace them. Life can get pretty dull if you don’t allow yourself to laugh at your own jokes. I’ve got a lot of serious responsibilities as a father, husband and architect. If I can let a C-tier-superhero-themed sandwich entertain me for the better part of a week, where’s the harm in that?
Let your mind wander every once in a while. You never know where it might take you.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Where in the #@&% is Glen From Cincinnati? UPDATE!
If you haven’t been following along, several months ago I launched a challenge here on The Action Cookbook Newsletter—a nationwide search for a culinary supervillain that is definitely not a shameless ripoff of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”
We’re in Week 7 of the 10-week chase, and there’s still time to qualify for some of the prize drawings that will occur at the end of the chase. More on that here:
In Monday’s subscriber-only newsletter, I released Glen’s latest set of clues, a cryptic poem that should lead canny detectives to one specific restaurant somewhere in the United States. Glen must’ve been a little too vague this week, because so far, no one’s come close. So, he’s adding in some extra clues today:
This restaurant’s name reflects a year
And you can surely get there from here
Maybe you’ll stay just half an hour?
It might be longer, if there’s showers.
You’ll pass by time and time again
In a central place so American
I’m eating farm to table fare
In a city with a royal air.
In a city named after a queen,
I eat amidst giant machines.
I hope you’ll figure this out today,
And come find me with no delay.
As with every week prior, keep your guesses to this Google Form only, so as to not spoil the game for others: