Surry down to a stoned soul picnic
There'll be lots of time and wine
Red yellow honey
Sassafras and moonshine
-- Laura Nyro
Oh picnics, I've been thinking longingly of you these days. It's overly hot and dusty here at the arid peak of summer, even in those very early mornings when I slip on shoes and head outside still sleepyheaded with two leashes and excited pups in hand, toes stepping gingerly on still-warm pavement from the night before. Summer days are long. That's the pain, and the almost-maddening pleasure, of midsummer. So no one's venturing outside for lunch--least of all me--even if they were armed with the world's tallest, frostiest glass of lemonade. But I was recently challenged to dream up the ultimate menu for a Fourth of July-themed picnic (those of you who live in more temperate climates, is it really possible to picnic outside in July? I seriously envy you), and these sandwiches with their densely layered red-and-white stripes resting on a bed of purplish-blue olive tapenade, seemed to have just the right dash of Americana. Plus, it never hurts to mention that being full of juicy tomatoes, ham, salty olives, garlic and basil and other good things......they're shockingly delicious.
The layers actually seem to concentrate in flavor as they smush down under a heavy object (a cast iron skillet or a stack of cookbooks are my go-to kitchen weights), the flavorful salty spread sinking into the bread, the layers of tomato, mozzarella and ham becoming one. These pressed picnic sandwiches make such perfectly compact little gems when sliced, they're nearly as much a pleasure to look at as to eat. It's the perfect example of a summertime picnic staple: so easy to customize, so easy to assemble, so easy to wrap in squares of parchment and pack up in a cooler or wicker basket...and best of all, it's a recipe that actually gets better as it hangs around in the refrigerator waiting for its moment to shine!
A quick note, first, on authenticity. Condiments, like 'picnics,' are subject wildly to interpretation, right? So the kalamata olive mixture that goes on these is unapologetically a shortcut, a kind of 'cheater's tapenade'....but all the better to get you to the picnic faster, my dears. Try these sandwiches for your next gathering, whether it's an evening picnic on the grass, a backyard potluck under the fireworks, or even a living room floor affair complete with sandwiches and red-white-and-blue potato salad (more on that later) and frosty lemonades for everyone. Picnics are, after all, a state of mind.
Pressed Picnic Sandwiches
Olive tapenade (recipe follows below)
2 Roma tomatoes
8 oz. fresh mozzarella
6 thin slices of deli ham
Baby arugula leaves
Fresh basil leaves
For the tapenade:
½ cup pitted kalamata olives
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 teaspoon fresh basil
¼ teaspoon honey
¼ teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
To make the tapenade, add all ingredients to the bowl of a food processor, pulse until they combine into a spread. I like mine a little rustic in texture, but can keep processing it until it's as smooth as you like. Slice tomatoes and mozzarella into approximately 1/4" slices, set both aside on paper towels for a few minutes to remove excess moisture (this will help eliminate the dreaded soggy sandwich scenario).
Using a serrated bread knife, slice the loaf of ciabatta bread in half, lengthwise. Spread the tapenade in an even layer on the bottom half of the bread. Layer tomato, mozzarella and ham evenly on top of this. Arrange a layer of arugula and basil leaves over this, top with the other half of ciabatta loaf.
Wrap everything tightly in plastic wrap, pressing out as much air as possible. Place this bundle in the refrigerator under a heavy weight, let sit for at the very least one hour or overnight, if possible. Remove plastic wrap and slice sandwich into sections for picnic time! I like to wrap each section in its own square of parchment and tie it up with a little twine for transport, but plastic wrap works fine here, too. Happy picnicking!