The turkey sandwich reinvented

The Maple-Pepper Turkey Melt sandwich at ink.sack.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

To call a turkey sandwich the stuff of memories sounds far-fetched (few have waxed Proustian about a turkey club), but that’s what it is to Peruvian chef Ricardo Zarate. The chef behind Los Angeles’ Mo-Chica and Picca came to know and love the turkey sandwich not in his native Lima but while working at the Millennium hotel in London early on in his culinary career. The object of his craving: roasted turkey with fried sweet potatoes and jalapeno-cilantro aioli between two slices of buttery brioche.

“To be honest,” says Zarate, “Peruvians eat turkey only for Christmas. Christmastime it’s crazy — you know at dinner we have to have the turkey … marinated with Peruvian spices, garlic, salt, pepper, a little Pisco, soy sauce.” Now he’s inspired to make it for Thanksgiving — so he can make the sandwich he still remembers.

This week, the leftover-turkey sandwich looms especially large. According to the National Turkey Federation, 91% of Americans eat turkey — about 675 million pounds of it — for Thanksgiving. And much of Thursday’s bird will probably end up between a couple of pieces of bread. So, what better time to revisit the turkey sandwich?

The turkey sandwich has made something of a coast-to-coast comeback, and the latest renditions are a far cry from the cracker-dry club. Fans line up for “the Panama” at Torrisi Italian Specialties in New York, with thick, juicy slabs of herb-rubbed, honey-glazed, slow-roasted turkey breast, spicy pepper sauce, red onion, shaved lettuce, tomato and mayo. The hot, pressed peppered-turkey sandwich with broccoli rabe pesto and melty Provolone on baker Chad Robertson’s country bread at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco draws a similarly ardent crowd.

And the latest wave of sandwich shops in Los Angeles — the Larder at Maple Drive, Fundamental L.A., Marcona, to name a few — haven’t ignored the turkey sandwich. Michael Voltaggio says the maple-pepper turkey sandwich at his 3-month-old Ink.Sack is a nod to a particular ham-and-Brie number with honey mustard at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

“I remember sneaking in and eating them when I was an apprentice there,” says Voltaggio. “I wanted to do a turkey version — I always have turkey in my refrigerator at home and eat a turkey sandwich with mustard every night.”

His is sliced Willie Bird turkey breast cooked sous-vide with hunks of melted Rouge et Noir Camembert (a Marin cheese that he liked better than domestic Brie), a blanket of arugula, a smear of mayonnaise and a thick layer of his take on mostarda — the Italian condiment of preserved fruit. The latter is also a reference to the traditional leftover Thanksgiving sandwich with cranberry sauce, Voltaggio says.

“And it’s like a fruit chutney that I used to make when I did cheese plates.” The sandwich connected “the idea of fruit-chutney-with-cheese and turkey-with-cranberry and turkey-with-Brie-and-mustard. It has roots. There’s a lineage to this sandwich.”

On the construction of a sandwich, he says: “When you bite into it you should taste the bread, but by the time the top of your mouth meets the bottom you get meat and cheese with every bite. Every bite of sandwich should be the same bite.” To that end, note during assembly that the mostarda — cooked-down apples, apricots and golden raisins mixed with a spicy whole-grain mustard — should be overflowing from the sandwich.

And as for the bread, Voltaggio points out that it should be neutral, “a vehicle for the sandwich.” He and Zarate agree that it should be soft and not as assertive as a multi-grain or sourdough bread.

It’s the same point that chef and sandwich expert Judy Han of the expanding Mendocino Farms empire makes, especially for turkey. “Turkey is delicate texturally. I very rarely pair turkey with too stiff a bread. Never ciabatta. Sourdough can be overpowering.” Use an artisan bread that has a nice chew on the outside but is soft inside.

But flavor-wise, “what most people don’t realize is turkey is actually rich,” she says. “Its flavor profile has a rich savoriness to it that chicken doesn’t really have. You want something pickled or spicy” to cut the richness.

Enter her ancho-bell-pepper-cranberry chutney: roasted red peppers and ancho chiles melded with cranberries, plus a little balsamic vinegar. It appears on an annual favorite at Mendocino Farms: the “November to Remember,” with hand-carved turkey, Italian sausage and kale stuffing, herb aioli, tomatoes and romaine on country white bread.

And, along with an airy purée of kabocha and crème fraîche, Han spreads it on a stack of roasted turkey, applewood smoked bacon and romaine on Dolce Forno buckwheat bread. “Different but still reflective of American food memories.”