I was browsing a book with the audacious, but challenging title: “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.” As I began reading the section on French food, I came upon an item that was unfamiliar to me: pan bagnat. This is the kind of sandwich a Frenchman would put in a basket mounted on the handlebars of an old bike and head for the countryside.
A Nicoise Salad with Crust
The classic Provencal sandwich is essentially a Nicoise salad heaped onto a crusty baguette. The inside of the loaf is torn away and the cavity filled with layers of tomatoes, onions, roasted peppers, hard-boiled eggs, anchovy fillets or oil-packed tuna, and Kalamata olives.
The overstuffed loaf is then wrapped in wax paper, or saran, and pressed down with a weight for a couple of hours or overnight. A cast iron skillet works well for this. The pressure makes everything adhere without the sandwich falling apart when it’s sliced and eaten. Because the loaf flavors up over time, it’s great for bike trips, picnics and tailgating.
You can use regular tuna that’s packed in water or oil, though purist insist on an olive oil-packed tuna. I found such at Trader Joe and Schnucks. You definitely need a good quality French bread, preferably one that’s a day old so it’s crusty enough to take the oil treatment.
Alton Brown has a cute video of his family assembling a pan bagnat, which, incidentally, means “bathed bread” because of the oil drizzle. The video of Jacques Pepin and an aging, but spunky Julia Child making this sandwich is hilarious. Especially when Jacques declared it best to drink wine with the sandwich and Julia replies, “I like beer,” and proceeds to pour one.
Despite the amusing videos, I mostly followed Melissa Clark’s recipe from the New York Time, that’s printed at the end of this post.
The Next Day
I still had that pan bagnat recipe on my mind when I joined Cyndy and Anne-Sophie for lunch at Russell’s on Macklind. Since Anne-Sophie is from the Brittany region of France, I inquired about the sandwich.
Despite my awkward description and sad misspelling, Anne-Sophie recognized what I was talking about and came up with an online photo. Though she was familiar with the sandwich, she didn’t know of any place in town that made them.
Back to This French-Style Dagwood
Don’t let the number of ingredients in the recipe scare you off. The sandwich takes about 15 minutes to make, though you should wait several hours before serving. Meanwhile, weight it down with books, a brick, a cast-iron skillet, or as Melissa Clark suggests, have a 7-year child sit on it during a road trip as she did when a youngster.
Oh, So Adaptable
If you don’t like an ingredient, leave it out. The addition of a few anchovies—or a dab of anchovy paste mixed into the oil concoction—also adds to the flavor circus.
Choose ingredients from this list: fresh ripe tomatoes, red onions, crisp lettuce, cucumbers, basil leaves, olives, hard-boiled egg slices, tuna, salmon, anchovy fillets, radishes, capers, roasted red peppers, chopped artichoke hearts, fresh Mozzarella, goat cheese, brie and blanched French green beans
- 2 anchovy fillets, minced (optional, though I used 1 tsp. anchovy paste)
- 1 very small garlic clove, mincedy
- 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
- ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
- Pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 8-inch round crusty country loaf, baguette, or ciabatta, halved
- 1 Kirby cucumber or 1/2 regular cucumber, optional
- 1 medium-size, ripe tomato, sliced
- ½ small red onion, sliced
- 1 can (5 to 6 oz.) tuna packed in olive oil, drained
- 8 large basil leaves
- 2 Tbs. sliced pitted olives, preferably a mix of black and green
- 1 hard-cooked egg, peeled and thinly sliced
- In a small bowl, whisk together the optional anchovies, garlic, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Very slowly drizzle in oil, whisking constantly.
- Pull out some soft interior crumb to form a cavity.
- If using a cucumber, peel, halve lengthwise, and scoop out seeds from one half. Thinly slice seedless half. Add sliced cucumber to vinaigrette and toss well. (If not using cukes, just drizzle vinaigrette atop veggies after layering.)
- Spread half the cucumbers on bottom of bread. Top with tomato and onion slices, then with tuna, basil, olives and egg slices. Top egg with remaining cucumbers and vinaigrette. Cover with second bread half and firmly press sandwich together.
- Wrap sandwich tightly in foil, waxed paper or plastic wrap, then place in a plastic bag. Put sandwich under a weight such as a cast-iron frying pan topped with a filled kettle, or have a child about 7 years old sit on it. 🙂 Put in fridge for up to 24 hours along with weight (unless using small child). Unwrap, slice and enjoy.