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LIBBY WIERSEMA: Pan bagnat turns the tuna sandwich into a Mediterranean masterpiece

LIBBY WIERSEMA: Pan bagnat turns the tuna sandwich into a Mediterranean masterpiece

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I recently did a series on “picnic” salads — tuna, chicken, egg, macaroni, ham — and in doing so, I was struck by our love for mayonnaise.

It’s hard to beat as a binder when you’re making a salad that relies upon creaminess to bring all of the ingredients together. I love all such salads, though my girlish figure (OK — womanly figure) often steps in to put the brakes on when I reach for the Duke’s. (As a California girl, Best Foods/Hellmann’s was once my go-to. But, 35 years in South Carolina changed all that.)

One of my favorites is tuna salad, and my mother made one of the best. None of that “packed in water” tuna for her. She was Italian, and that meant canned tuna was packed in olive oil — or we didn’t eat it. Though most of the oil was drained off before she used it, this kind of tuna tasted so much better than its watery counterparts.

Mama also made a tuna salad, Mediterranean style, with chopped onion, olives, fresh basil leaves, vinegar and lots of black pepper. She’d pair it with a hunk of Italian bread, and lunch was served. I loved this one best of all.

So, many years ago — when I was a young cook — I excitedly clipped a magazine recipe that brought all of the qualities of my fave tuna salad together in one big, beautiful sandwich. The pan bagnat is a Provencal sub sandwich, if you will, that is common on the streets and beaches of Nice. It’s the perfect warm-weather sandwich — cool and brimming with flavor.

This sandwich is part of my summertime cooking “tool box” and everyone who tries it falls in love. The beauty of the pan bagnat, aside from all of the layers of goodies tucked inside, is that it serves four people. Make one sandwich and you’re done! It does require that you “weight” it with something heavy for a few minutes to marry all of the ingredients and let the juices soak into the bread a bit. This step is not only worth the wait, but it’s worth its weight in gold. You’ll know what I mean when you taste it.

To begin, you will need to buy a round or loaf of good French or Italian bread — something with substance and a crusty outer surface. Do not attempt this sandwich on airy loaves or you will be disappointed. Pan bagnat requires a sturdier vehicle by which to contain all of that yumminess and get it to your mouth intact.

Note that the recipe calls for a simple vinaigrette made with anchovy. If that sets you trembling, listen up: You will not be able to identify an overt anchovy flavor in this sandwich. Adding a little anchovy paste (available in tubes at the grocery store) gives the dressing a body that helps set off the mix of vegetables, tuna and bread. Trust me on this one — don’t leave it out.

Pan Bagnat

For the dressing:

2 cloves of garlic

1 teaspoon of anchovy paste

¼ teaspoon of dried oregano

2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar

½ cup of extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Mash the first three ingredients together to make a paste, then whisk in the vinegar and oil. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

For the sandwich:

1 loaf or round of good crusty European-style bread, cut in half horizontally

2 ripe tomatoes, sliced

12 pitted Kalamata olives, halved lengthwise

1 can of tuna, drained and flaked (Try Genova, Tonnino, Bela or Ortiz brands if you can find them, or use your preferred brand.)

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

4 radishes, thinly sliced

10 to 12 whole fresh basil leaves, rinsed and dried

Directions: Place the bread on a cutting board, cut side up. Brush both halves with the dressing. Layer tomatoes, olives, tuna, onion and radishes on the bottom half of the bread. Arrange the basil leaves on top and drizzle with any leftover dressing. Replace the top half of the bread. Place a clean, flat platter or cutting board on top of the sandwich and add a heavy pan to weight it down. (An iron pot works well, but be careful to balance it on top.) Let this sit for 30 minutes to press ingredients together. Cut into four pieces before serving.

For the ultimate treat, pair it with a crisp, dry rosé. Add some fruit and pack up a picnic.

Take a bite. Take a sip. Pretend you’re somewhere in Provence.

Libby Wiersema writes about dining, food trends and the state’s culinary history for Discover South Carolina as well as other print and online media. Contact her at libbyscarolinaspoon@gmail.com.

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