As a kid I hated surprises. Presents were okay, but surprises that blindsided me? Not cool! Some 40 years later my waking hours are filled with culinary surprises. And I love them. That’s because they’re not really surprises: I seek them out as part of my insatiable thirst for new flavors. So when I met Anne Marie Cruz of Sandwich Surprise at a panel discussion on a social media and the food business I was intrigued. Since February she’s been surprising people—friends, strangers, former co-workers—with lovingly homemade sandwiches everything from a Cronut Benedict to steak sliders with fennel apple slaw, all documented with photos and recipes on her blog.
A couple of months after meeting Anne Marie it was time for my surprise sandwich. “It’s based on one of the best meals I’ve ever had, and the cuisine seems kinda under-represented in NYC,” Anne Marie wrote in an e-mail. We’d arranged to meet in Central Park. On the subway ride, I kept thinking, “I hope it’s Cambodian, or maybe Burmese.”
Once we found a seat by Bethesda Fountain Anne Marie unpacked her sandwich mise en place from a handy navy blue picnic knapsack. “Should I tell you what is?” she asked. “It’s Persian,” she said adding that it was once served at the Michelin-starred restaurant Shalezeh on the Upper East Side and that it was a weird combination. Upon seeing the container of delicious–looking tomatoey stuff, I asked whether it was a vegetarian sandwich. “No, no, no, this is meatballs,” she said.
“It’s a Persian meatball called kufteh stuffed with fava beans, potatoes, and prunes. The meat is mixed with basmati rice and herbs. It’s in a tomato and onion sauce, but they served it with sour cherry basmati rice with lots of ghee in it so that’s why I think it might be a little odd because the kufteh isn’t served with sour cherry syrup it’s the rice that is, but I wasn’t going to put rice in the sandwich because its already in the meatballs,”she said excitedly as she assembled the sandwich pulling out the innards of the bread to create a pocket which was soon filled with kufteh, some of the cherry sauce, and more kufteh.
“I also have extra ghee if you want to put more,” Anne Marie offered as I took a bite of her creation. “I’m surprised they even use ghee,” I said between bites as my mind struggled to categorize the flavors hitting my palate. “They might not have [used ghee], but the rice was so buttery and I don’t like to cook with plain old butter because I have an easier time cooking with ghee.” My first impression of the sandwich was that it was quite tasty, but it reminded me a little of breakfast. No doubt because of the combination of the cinnamon on top of the homemade bread with the cherry sauce, which my mind conveniently categorized as jelly.
“So this is probably the weirdest sandwich that I’ve made,” Anne Marie said offering more homemade ghee. “It’s weird in that it’s unexpected, but it’s not like a limburger and jalapeño grilled cheese or something like that,” I said.
Soon it was time for a second Persian Surprise. This time around with the bread sliced in half and a bit less cherries. “It’s like a tagine in sandwich form,” I said happily munching away. When Anne Marie told me that between R&D and actual process it took nine hours I felt really special. There are two reasons why there are no photos of me holding up the sandwich. One, they didn’t come out so well, and two, I wanted to enjoy the experience of eating the sandwich without getting too hung up on documenting it. And enjoy it I did using some salt and vinegar chips to scoop up the errant bits of meatball and sauce that had fallen out.
The act of recreating a dish from a memorable meal and serving it to a more or less complete stranger is an elemental form of sharing that’s all too lacking in this post-millennial age of social media where it seems like everyone—including me—is more concerned with connecting to their smart phones than to other people. Thanks for sharing a meal and a memory with me, Anne Marie.