At Black Tree Sandwich Shop, currently housed in the Crown Inn bar in Crown Heights, Sandy Hall is conducting an experiment of sorts – his constantly-changing menu consists entirely of hyper-seasonal sandwiches featuring a dizzying array of fresh Greenmarket finds.
Sandy, who cut his culinary teeth under the tutelage of Monument Lane chef Robert Berry, employs sophisticated techniques in some of his sandwiches, like the Summer Pig – made with local pork braised in hard cherry cider with housemade spicy blueberry and gooseberry jam and fresh mint, or the Summer Duck – Hudson Valley duck, housemade cinnamon smoked peach jam, duck pate and thyme. But it was one of his simplest creations that caught our eye in our search for a simple dish that captures the essence of early August in the Northeast – the cool, raw and refreshing Summer Squash sandwich.
We met up with Sandy at Black Tree to see how it’s made.
So Sandy, what do we have here?
We’re going to do our summer squash sandwich, with yellow and green squash, hot peppers, feta, basil and mint. Everything is raw in this sandwich, so it’s really a nice, clean taste of this time of summer.
I come up with lots of my sandwiches by just going to the market and looking at what’s available. When something pops out at me, I think of ways to incorporate it into a sandwich. And that’s what happened with this one. I was thinking that I wanted to do something with squash blossoms, but when I saw all these colorful squash, I decided to use the whole thing. I grabbed a bunch of yellow and green squash, and started thinking about flavors that would work well with them.
I didn’t want to cook the squash – I think they lose a lot of what makes them great when you cook them. When you slice a raw squash really thin, it has a really nice, delicate flavor. I thought feta cheese would compliment that really well without overshadowing it – it’s light and crisp and works well with the creaminess of the raw squash.
And I thought I’d use hot peppers. I love using hot peppers because there are so many varieties of them. There are tons of them at the markets now. I’m using Hungarian wax peppers, Anaheims, and jalapenos in this sandwich. I got these from Oak Grove Plantation down in Jersey. They’re at the Union Square Greenmarket each week. I like this mix of peppers because they’re not scalding hot. They add a nice spicy profile without setting your mouth on fire – a nice contrast to the creaminess of the squash flavor.
I wanted to balance out the spice with something cooling, so I use fresh mint. You get the spice of the hot pepper, and then the mint comes in and cools it right off. And I use lemon basil. I thought the hint of lemon would bring add a little brightness to the raw squash.
And to finish it, I add a little sea salt to bring out the flavors and a little olive oil to add some body without overpowering anything.
The bread we use is from Caputo’s, in Carroll Gardens. We use their micro-ciabatta. I really like their bread. They’ve been making the stuff forever, so they know what they’re doing. They’re really nice too, and I like the fact that they’re in Brooklyn.
How to you assemble this thing?
I start by slicing a few raw yellow and green squash, or zucchini if you want to call it that, really thin, into a bowl. I use a mandolin – it’s a lot quicker than a knife and a lot easier to slice it as thinly as I like it.
Then I remove the seeds from the hot peppers, chop them, and add them to bowl. I definitely use a lot of the peppers. Once those are in the bowl I do a light drizzle of olive oil, add a dash of sea salt, and crumble a nice amount of feta. The last thing I do is pick the mint and basil leaves. I add them last because I want to keep them as fresh as possible. Then I just toss everything to mix it evenly, and put it on a toasted Caputo’s ciabatta roll, and serve it.
We serve our sandwiches with North Fork potato chips. They grow all their own potatoes on the North Fork of Long Island, and they grow the sunflowers that they use to make the oil for frying the chips too. They’re really good.
So how did you end up making super-seasonal sandwiches for a living?
It’s kind of a strange story. I had this idea – I wanted to do a family style restaurant with a fine dining feeling, making really seasonal but approachable food, like sandwiches. I had this vision of a big open space with a big black tree in the middle of it. So I had this idea, and was trying to figure out how to make it work.
I’d been working at places like The Breslin and Monument Lane, with some really great chefs. I wanted to learn the proper approach, practices, and techniques for making really great food. When Robert Berry came to Monument Lane from Cookshop, he kind of took me under his wing. I was just one of his cooks, but we’d go to the market five days a week to pick things up. I talked to Robert a lot about the sandwich idea, and about ideas I had for sandwich recipes and that sort of thing, and he was really supportive of it. He was really helpful, and I learned a ton from him.
And I decided to give it a try. I found this space to use to test the idea – to see whether people would actually like this very seasonal focus, whether they’d like the constantly changing menu. And they have. They really like it when sandwiches they like come back with new seasonal touches. Like the duck banh mi. That one is really popular, and in peach season, I make it with my cinnamon smoked peach jam and duck pate. Or the pig sandwich – I’ve been doing that with a spicy blueberry and gooseberry jam that I made a few weeks ago, or with my smoked cherry jam. The cherries and blueberries are on their way out, but I’ve been making a nice smoked plum jam that I hope will carry us back into apple season, when I can bring back the brown butter applesauce, which is where the pig sandwich originally started.
Summer is just crazy. I’m constantly at the markets. It rained a lot a couple of weeks ago, so the blackberries blew up and started showing up at the markets. All the melons are coming out. There’s so much good stuff and I’ve just got to find ways to get it all into sandwiches. It’s crazy, but that’s what it’s all about, I guess.
Black Tree Sandwich Shop is located in the Crown Inn, at 724 Franklin Avenue, between Park and Sterling, in Crown Heights.
Photography by the amazing Heather Phelps-Lipton, who can balance like an olympian, atop a bar stool, laden with camera equipment, to shoot spreads of fresh ingredients. All rights reserved.