I find it nearly impossible to escape from food. The subject pops up everywhere – in advertisements, in unexpected places and in conversations. Forever tempted, always hungry, New Year’s resolutions supremely challenged.
Recently, even a pre-dawn airport trip left me eager to cook (and eat): The taxicab driver spoke passionately of the food his Syrian family relishes daily. It was dark and bitterly cold outside, and the driver had me at “grilled breakfast sandwich.” My mouth watered and my brain raced to absorb everything he described. Sure as I was sitting there, I knew I’d be making his recipes.
First, the cheese. Fresh, unripened Syrian cheese. Never heard of it. Not like feta, he stressed – much creamier and far less salty. I found several brands of Syrian white cheese at a nearby produce market that carries a good variety of Middle Eastern fare. I bought four brands (all simply labeled Syrian cheese) to taste and to understand. Indeed, these cheeses taste beautifully of sweet, rich milk with just a hint of salt. My favorite, a soft cheese packaged with a little brining liquid from Karoun Dairies in the San Fernando Valley, uses whole milk and non-animal rennet. The more readily available Mexican queso fresco proves an adequate substitute, as does fresh mozzarella.
Next up, a bread discourse. My Syrian breakfast tutor uses flat breads and hand-shaped pita from Middle Eastern bakeries occasionally; he prefers crusty French baguettes. I tested both super-thin pitas and French bread – we devoured everything.
On workdays, my new friend simply oils the inside of the baguette, tucks in slabs of the cheese, drizzles everything with more olive oil and a sprinkle of oregano. The whole thing gets crusty hot in his panini press. I improvised by using a hot nonstick griddle and a skillet to flatten the sandwiches as they crisped. No problem.
When there’s time, very thin seared steaks make their way inside the sandwich. Sliced ripe tomatoes in season. Use savory za’atar seasoning when it’s available. Always the best olive oil and always eat it hot and crusty. Not in the car – even if you drive for a living. These beauties deserve full attention.
We like our versions on leisurely Saturday mornings after a challenging workout. Serve the sandwiches with fresh juice and strong coffee. Add a pile of lightly dressed mixed greens alongside if you wish. Breakfast reinvented. 2015 tastes great already.
Crusty fresh cheese breakfast sandwiches
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
One 8-ounce loaf par-baked French bread or 3 very thin pita breads
Extra-virgin olive oil
Za’atar spice blend or a combination of dried oregano, thyme and rosemary
6 ounces Syrian white cheese or Mexican queso fresco, patted dry, thinly sliced
Optional add-ins: very thinly sliced ripe tomato, sliced avocado, sprigs of baby arugula or spinach
If using a baguette, cut it into 3 sandwich portions and then split the sections horizontally nearly in half. Brush the insides of the cut bread or the pita generously with oil. Sprinkle with spice. Tuck the cheese slices into the sandwiches or on top of the pita. Add any optional ingredients. Close the sandwich or roll up the pita to enclose the cheese.
Heat a panini press until hot. Or, heat a nonstick griddle or seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot enough to make a drop of water sizzle. Add the sandwiches; close panini press (or place another skillet over the sandwiches to weight them down a bit). Cook until bread is crisp and golden, usually 2 to 4 minutes. If using a skillet, flip sandwiches halfway during the cooking to brown the other side. Serve hot.
Per serving: 380 calories, 15 g fat (5 g sat.); 18 mg cholesterol, 46 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 462 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
The ultimate steak and egg sandwich
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Serves 2 to 4
1 loaf ciabatta bread or a wide baguette, about 10 inches long and 3 inches wide
12 to 14 ounces very thin (less than 1/4-inch) sliced sandwich-style beef steak, such as boneless ribeye or sirloin
Chopped fresh oregano (or dried)
Salt, freshly ground pepper
2 large eggs
6 to 8 very thin slices fresh Syrian cheese (or fresh mozzarella)
Hot chili paste, optional
Cut the bread horizontally in half. Drizzle olive oil over the cut sides of the bread.
Season the steak slices to taste with olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper. Heat a heavy nonstick skillet or seasoned cast-iron over medium-high heat. Add the steak to the skillet in a single, uncrowded layer. Cook until golden and the meat just releases from the pan, about 1 minute. Flip and cook the second side until golden, about 1 minute. Do not overcook. Place steaks on the bottom half of the bread. Drizzle the top half of the bread with any pan juices.
Lightly oil a griddle or skillet; crack the eggs onto it. Cook eggs until almost set, 1 or 2 minutes; flip and cook the second side until eggs are done to your preference, about 30 seconds more for medium. Place eggs over steaks on bread. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; top with the cheese slices. Close the sandwich.
Wipe the griddle clean; heat it until medium hot. Add the sandwich; place a heavy skillet on top of the sandwich to compress it down a bit. (The yolk may break, spreading its gooey richness into the bread; this is good.) Cook until bottom of sandwich is golden, about 2 minutes. Carefully flip the sandwich to crisp and brown the top.
Set the sandwich right-side up on a cutting board. Use a serrated knife to cut it into 4 sections. Serve hot with a smear of chili paste if desired.
Per serving (based on4): 725 calories, 24 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 167 mg cholesterol, 79 g carbohydrates, 47 g protein, 1,384 mg sodium, 4 g fiber