My Story of the Pan Bagnat
You’re not going to find many sandwich recipes around here. Outside of a classic PB&J where my “J” is a chunky homemade strawberry jam or maybe an oozy, gooey, grilled cheese, sandwiches just don’t hold my interest. So it surprised me more than anyone when I became mildly obsessed with this French sandwich. The classic pan bagnat, which loosely translates as “wet bread,” is white bread stuffed with another French classic, the Niçoise salad. White bread? A tuna salad? They’re about as boring to me as a turkey and swiss on rye.
But sometimes a dish will win me over with a story rather than the ingredients. In the case of the pan bagnat, it was Melissa Clark‘s recounting of her family vacations to France where she and her sister would take turns sitting on the pan bagnat in the back seat of the car as they made their way to the beach. Melissa shared her story on an episode of The Splendid Table that was spilling into my ears when I was out for a run. Her vivid memories of textures and flavors, so different than the ones I carried from my own childhood were enchanting. By the time I made it back to the house I was laying plans to make my first pan bagnat.
Melissa’s story aside I have a fondness for foods that can be made ahead and actually improve with time. The still greater appeal is that while this sandwich is constructed with a bit of care, once it’s tightly wrapped it benefits from a little roughness. We don’t have a seven-year-old available to sit on our pan bagnats. Instead, I put the sandwich at the bottom of our insulated picnic bag and pile the rest of the fare–smoked salmon candy, Polish sausages and spicy homemade mustard, and a crisp rosé–on top. The one I made for our picnic last week was loaded with roasted yellow squash, crunchy arugula, smoky, sweet red peppers, and bright tasting artichoke hearts. Greg and I sat under the stars and enjoyed our pan bagnat at an outdoor Ramsey Lewis concert–priceless ingredients that certainly made the sandwich even tastier. The bread was still crisp on the outside while the inside was moist, salty, and garlicky. The flavors had melded together in a whole that was greater than the sum of its roasted and marinated parts. The pan bagnat may not have been a part of my childhood, but decades later on a warm summer night spent with the man I love, it became my own story.
No two pan bagnats are ever alike. I’ve come to prefer mine without tuna, but I never skip the anchovies. And creamy roasted eggplant can send me into a state of nirvana. Consider adding cucumber slices, hearts of palm, olives, hard boiled eggs, capers, tomatoes, tuna—whatever you like, whatever you have. This sandwich gets better the longer it sits. Perfect for a picnic!
2 anchovy fillets (optional)
1 garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 loaf of crusty French or Italian bread or a ciabatta, halved (I use an 8-inch boule.)
3 tablespoons basil pesto
your favorite roasted vegetables, thinly sliced (Eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash are equally delicious. If you use one of each, you’ll have plenty of leftovers for a pizza or pasta dish–or a second pan bagnat.)
1 large red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, and seeded
1/2 cup marinated artichokes, roughly chopped
8 large basil leaves
fresh spinach or arugula
aged balsamic vinegar
- For the tapenade, mash together the optional anchovies, garlic, mustard, pepper, and olives until a paste forms (A mortar and pestle works well for this.). Whisk in the olive oil.
- If using a thick loaf of bread, pull out some soft interior crumb to form a cavity. If using a thin ciabatta, you won’t need to eliminate anything.
- Spread the pesto on the bottom half of the bread. Spread the tapenade on the inside of the top half. Start layering in the goods. Bring the two halves together.
- Wrap sandwich tightly in plastic wrap, then place in a plastic bag. Weigh it down with a brick or iron skillet and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight. Unwrap, slice, and serve.