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Chefs' Picnic

Labor Day is upon us. Don't spoil it with dull sandwiches.


In picnic baskets and bags everywhere this Labor Day weekend, lunch meats will lie limply on soggy bread. Boring old mayonnaise will ooze from sandwiches. Peanut butter, though popular, will make for the same old-same old.

The picnic-packing doldrums will do in more picnics than any army of ants could.

But whether you tote them to the beach or the backyard, picnic sandwiches don't need to be dull. We asked a few local chefs for ideas: Tara Thomas of Traxx in Los Angeles, Mako Antonishek of Le Colonial in West Hollywood and Sue Campoy and Kathy deKarr of Julienne in San Marino. What they made--and all pretty quickly--would do any picnic proud.

"Sandwiches don't have to be pedestrian food," says Thomas, whose restaurant on the Union Station concourse serves several lunch sandwiches. "I'm a big fan of playing with food, taking classical combinations and tweaking them."

As an example, she crafted a simple, slightly sweet summer sandwich of thinly sliced prosciutto and sliced fresh figs. She set the meat and figs on a piece of toasted hazelnut bread that had been spread with mascarpone cheese. Served open face, the sandwich was beautiful.

"With sandwiches, as with any dish, you're looking for contrast, color and texture. And you want the flavors to play off of each other," she says.

Another sandwich she made from sliced heirloom tomatoes layered with slices of fresh mozzarella was an explosion of color.

At Julienne, a popular San Marino spot for breakfast, lunch and take-out, owner Campoy and catering manager deKarr made an open-faced egg salad sandwich topped with smoked salmon.

"The sweet onion and celery (of the egg salad) with the smokiness of the salmon is such a good combination," Campoy says. "And some of those old world combinations can't be beat. This is just a variation."

One popular lunch sandwich at Julienne is chicken salad with tarragon served on rosemary bread. "I never thought of tarragon with rosemary, but people come from all over for that sandwich," Campoy says.

A good way to boost an ordinary sandwich is to switch the spread. Use flavored mustards. Do something with chutneys or relishes. Campoy and deKarr made a simple grilled chicken sandwich come to life when served on focaccia with a fresh peach relish spiked with fennel and mint.

"Just plan a slight change," deKarr says. "You might do a salsa mayo rather than a plain mayo; we do that with a steak sandwich, and it adds a little jalapeno."

And don't overlook the bread, one of the most important components of a sandwich. To make her Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches, Antonishek sliced and toasted French bread purchased from a nearby bakery. One sandwich was made of pork pa^te, the other with sliced pork meatloaf, both from a Vietnamese market. The sandwiches were brightened with sliced jalapenos and a mixture of pickled carrot and daikon strips.

The sturdy bread helps support the sandwich's weighty ingredients, and toasting helps keep the sandwich from getting soggy, Antonishek says.

For Thomas, flavored and artisanal breads are the only way to go. "They add a complexity," she says. "And the artisanal breads will hold up better for a picnic because they're more dense."

Some other ideas for sprucing up sandwiches:

* Think salad and you might have a sandwich. "A lot of great salads make great sandwiches," Thomas says. "People like chicken Caesar salads. Well, Caesar dressing is sort of glorified mayonnaise, the croutons are the bread. Romaine lettuce is lettuce and chicken is chicken. So put it on a sandwich."

* Fight the soggy problem by blotting tomatoes well with paper towels before adding them to sandwiches, deKarr says. And watch the amount of dressing, especially if you have a porous bread.

* You can also wrap sandwiches in butcher paper or parchment paper, Antonishek suggests, then place them in a plastic bag. The paper helps absorb moisture.

* On the other hand, a dry sandwich is just as bad as a soggy one. Use some kind of spread on the bread, whether it's a bit of mayonnaise, a relish or some creamy cheese.

* Don't forget the salt. "No salt, no flavor," Thomas says.

* Don't be afraid to try different things or make what you like. Antonishek, a big mayonnaise lover, once ordered a pastrami sandwich with mayonnaise from a big New York deli.

"My Jewish friends were horrified," she says with a smile. "But the deli made it. . . . I just love meat and mayo."

Peach-Fennel Relish

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes plus 1 hour chilling

This relish by Sue Campoy and Kathy deKarr of Julienne in San Marino is best used the day it is made. It is wonderful paired with grilled chicken in a sandwich.

3 firm peaches

1 fennel bulb, diced small

1 small red bell pepper, diced small

3/4 cup minced red onion

Juice of 1 orange

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1/4 cup minced fennel fronds

3 tablespoons minced chives

3 tablespoons thinly sliced mint leaves

Coarse salt

Freshly ground pepper

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