Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

July 2005
© 2005 by Bret S. Beall

BLTs (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches, for the unindoctrinated) are the perfect summertime food, as long as the bread is slathered with lots of mayonnaise, the most perfectly ripe tomatoes, flavorful lettuce and crisp, smokey bacon. If the tomatoes are not perfectly ripe, delicious and fragrant, don't bother (or try one of the variations below, such as B-L-R-T or B-L-S-D-T). Summertime is the best time to enjoy these toothsome treasures, because of the availability of great local tomatoes and greens, so go forth and enjoy these sandwiches, whether the original version, or the numerous (including vegan) version listed below.

Assembly: Place the bread (toasted if desired) open face on the work surface (or plate). Spread each half with half of the mayonnaise. On one half, arrange the bacon, breaking it to fit, and place the pieces to cover as much of the bread's surface area as possible. Top with the sliced tomatoes; evenly add the salt and pepper (and vinegar, if using). Arrange the lettuce on top of the tomato, and then top with the remaining slice of bread or toast. Serve whole or cut in half. Enjoy!

Construction Theory: Let's look at each component of a BLT in order to come up with the overall theory of the development and construction of Variations so that you can enjoy deliciousness year-round, instead of just in the summer.

Bread: Ignore the low carb craze; most intelligent people do. A BLT needs two slices of bread. One variable is whether to toast or not toast the bread. I am NOT a fan of toast, but toasting will make the resulting sandwich sturdier than plain bread, because fresh tomatoes are juicy (and that's a good thing!). Another variable is the type of bread. I've used all kinds of bread in my BLTs (except soft white sandwich bread … well, I HAVE used that, but won't again!); being a San Francisco native, I'm biased toward sourdough, but any sort of good peasant bread will work. Near my home I have a shop featuring products from the Republic of Georgia; I love to buy their shoti bread, long loaves baked in an underground oven similar to an Indian tandoor, which I used for any number of purposes, but I like to slice it lengthwise and fill it with all types of sandwich "makings"; the tomatoes ooze into the bread, and … well, just try it.

Bacon: Bacon is "meat," but how important is that? What characteristics does bacon provide? Smokiness is one. Crunch is another. There's a savoriness associated with all meat (a taste response known as 'umami' in Japan, and more so in the rest of the world). Meat will also provide a fullness of mouth feel that requires a certain degree of chewing that allows all of the flavors to merge. There are all sorts of meat that can be substituted for the bacon, more or less successfully. Use your imagination. I've provided a number of suggestions below, but you can go further using pork chops, roast pork, lamb chops, leg of lamb, gyros meat, sliced cooked chicken breast (or other pieces), roast duck, duck confit, leftover broiled, sautéed or fried fish, shrimp, oysters, clams, lobster, crab, surimi, tofu, dried tofu, smoked tofu … will they work? Sure! Will they work well? That's up to you and your taste buds.

Lettuce: I suppose the first BLT that I ever had included iceberg lettuce. It's crispy and crunchy, and has the tiniest bit of flavor. I'm not a very nostalgic person, and so I do not use iceberg lettuce anywhere in my culinary repertoire, because it is nutritionally null. Instead, I use similar ingredients that offer nutritional boosts in combination with flavor boosts. Romaine, leaf lettuce (the red variety is really gorgeous on a sandwich), mixed baby lettuces (mesclun), arugula, spinach, basil, other herbs, or sometimes a mixture of some of the above.

Tomato: I say "to-May-to" and you say "to-MAH-to," but however it's pronounced, in my not-so-humble-opinion, the tomato is the star of this sandwich. A BLT is just one of those ways of highlighting ultra-fresh, local, vine-ripened (perhaps organic and heirloom?) tomatoes at their peak of flavor. So, I won't offer substitutions for the tomato itself; if you remove the tomato, it's a different sandwich. However, I will offer substitutions for FRESH tomatoes. The first substitution that I tried was some end-of- the-season roasted tomatoes (http://www.god-dess.com/services_recipesOctober03.html); they are different from fresh tomatoes, but delicious. More recently, I have made versions of BLTs using sundried tomatoes (some dried, some in olive oil, and some smoked); I think I still prefer fresh, ripe tomatoes, but these are great alternatives during off season (don't even think of buying those pale, insipid tomatoes in the grocery store!).

Mayonnaise: If the tomato is the star of a BLT, then the mayonnaise is the co-star of the sandwich, at least in my world. In fact, I love tomatoes and mayo so much that sometimes I will just put mayo on a wedge of fresh tomato, add some salt and pepper, and chow down. But, what about the mayo on your sandwich? Well, if I'm not making homemade mayo (which I do only rarely), I use Hellman's (or McCormick's mayonesa, an excellent substitute if Hellman's isn't available; it's most often found in Latin or other ethnic markets). It's rare that I ever completely eliminate the mayo on any version of BLT, but I sometimes augment it with mustard (Dijon, honey, stoneground, or your favorite), horseradish, hot sauce, salsa, ketchup, wasabi, sour cream, yogurt, cream cheese, crema or another favorite condiment.

Variations (aka Alphabet Sandwich):

S-L-T I (Sausage-Lettuce-Tomato): Follow the recipe for B-L-T, but substitute some thinly sliced (about ¼") and pan-seared or grilled sausage (polish, Italian, Spanish chorizo, brats, etc) for the bacon. As with the B-L-T, you MUST taste the cooked sausage to determine how salty it is, so that you can adjust the salt on the tomatoes.

S-L-T II (Salami-Lettuce-Tomato): Salami is really a type of sausage, but it is usually purchased in thin slices that have good surface area, and can be stacked/layered. Assemble as you would any other variation.

H-L-T (Ham-Lettuce-Tomato): Follow the recipe for B-L-T, but substitute some thinly sliced cooked ham (or prosciutto, or Serrano ham) for the bacon.

R-B-L-T (Roast Beef-Lettuce-Tomato): Preferably replace the bacon with some homemade roast beef, but something out of your neighborhood deli counter will work as well; this version is very good with a light crumble of bleu cheese; make sure that you also cover the bread with either a straight horseradish sauce, or a horseradish-mayonnaise combo.

S-S-L-T (Smoked Salmon-Lettuce-Tomato): I created this variation in preparation for a visiting friend who is mostly vegetarian but enjoys fish. I had been enjoying my BLTs, and knew they were a terrific brunch dish, so I wondered what I could do to make a version my friend could enjoy. The lettuce was fine. The tomatoes were fine. But the smokiness of the bacon would be absent … until I thought to use some slices of smoked salmon out of the freezer. You'll need about 2 oz of smoked salmon for each sandwich, but the end product is delicious (the crispiness of the bacon is still missing, but that's a small price to pay … make toast if you want crispiness!).

G-L-T (Gravlax-Lettuce-Tomato): Given the success of using smoked salmon in these sandwiches, the next step was to replace the 2 oz of smoked salmon with 2 oz of my homemade gravlax (any version; see http://www.god-dess.com/services_recipesDec04.html for recipes). Fantastic!

B-L-R-T (Bacon-Lettuce-Roasted Tomatoes): Follow the recipe for B-L-T, but substitute some roasted tomatoes (R-T) for the fresh tomatoes. This is particularly good during the winter when tomatoes are inedible (I'm being kind), but in your freezer you can have frozen tomatoes roasted in the early autumn at the peak of their ripeness. Roasted tomatoes also are great with S-L-T, S-G-L-T and S-S-L-T.

B-L-S-D-T (Bacon-Lettuce-Sun Dried Tomatoes): Follow the recipe for B-L-T, but substitute some sun-dried tomatoes (S-D-T) for the fresh tomatoes. As with roasted tomatoes, this variation is particularly good during the winter when fresh tomatoes are inedible, but in your refrigerator you can have sun-dried tomatoes that were harvested and dried at the peak of their ripeness. Sun-dried tomatoes also are great with S-L-T, S-G-L-T and S-S-L-T.

S-S-D-T-L (Smoked Sun Dried Tomatoes-Lettuce): The S-S-L-T (Smoked Salmon-Lettuce-Tomato) was an attempt to find a smoky but non-bacon version for my "almost vegetarian" friend to eat. However, my recent discovery of an amazing product has allowed me to create an entirely vegetarian version (and if you use a no-egg mayo, it's a vegan version!). This, the Smoked Sun Dried Tomato-Lettuce sandwich, uses store-bought smoked sun-dried tomatoes as a one-ingredient substitute for both the bacon and the fresh tomato. It's amazingly delicious, and can be prepared year round.

I could go on and on and on, combining the ingredients listed above in literally thousands of combinations. But I'm not going to do your work for you. Be creative … let your palate guide you. Empower yourself to experiment with fresh summer produce. Please tell me about your experiments; which were successful, and which were less so. But most of all, don't settle for inferior products. If a product is out of season, don't use a low quality example. Instead, learn to substitute comparable but excellent products as I have done in these sandwiches. I'll be waiting to hear about your sandwich adventures at 773.508.9208 or email me.