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A Perfect Vegetarian Sandwich Grows in Brooklyn

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I used to believe that a sandwich was not a sandwich if meat was absent. This, of course, is absurd, but let me explain. As a kid growing up in India, vegetarian sandwiches were rich affairs—mint chutney and fried potato snack mix (aalo bhujia) in between slices of soft white bread; open-faced cheesy toast with raw chiles and Amul cheese (like American cheese, but Indian).

When I moved to the United States at the age of 10 and went to my local Subway, the vegetarian sandwich I was offered was a dry hero with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. If there was cheese in there, I couldn't taste it. All vegetarian sandwiches are actually condiment sandwiches, I told myself then. Do not trust them. Despite encountering many hearty, creative vegetarian sandwiches in the next 14 years, I politely ignored them.

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Then I met my favorite sandwich in the entire world, and it was 100% vegetarian. Any presence of meat would likely ruin it. Because it is perfect.

The original sandwich at Campbell Cheese in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The original sandwich at Campbell Cheese in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by Liz Andrew

I'm not the only person who thinks so. When I posted a photo of it on Instagram, various local businesses in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, commented on the photo, saying it was their go-to lunch order. This was back in 2014. I've directed hundreds of people in the direction of its mother, Campbell Cheese and Grocery, since. Not a single person I know has expressed disappointment, despite my flair for hyperbole. I described it in great detail at my conversational French evening class, and whatever I said seemed to be understandable enough that the next week, my teacher admitted she checked it out and c'était délicieux.

This is where my favorite sandwich in the world was born.
This is where my favorite sandwich in the world was born. Photo by Liz Andrew

There's a lot going on in this sandwich, but it's harmonious rather than excessive. The ricotta—which I've since learned is ricotta seasoned with lemon zest and chili flakes—fits snugly in the leaves of the sherry vinaigrette–tossed kale. Carrots roasted in olive oil and a touch of sorghum syrup lend more color and a hearty chew in each bite. It's all permeated by what I consider the Greek chorus of this sandwich, guiding you through each flavor every step of the way: parsley-pecan pesto. All of this lives between two squares of multigrain bread, lightly toasted. It's the crunchiest part of the sandwich, a door you have to open eat to get to the sandwich's softer, sweeter, sourer, livelier inner life.

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Vegetarian Muffuletta

Vegetarian Muffuletta by Josh Cohen

Indian Club Sandwich

Indian Club Sandwich by Khushbu Shah

Because each component of this sandwich is delectable in its own right, you do need to give your strategy some thought. For a sandwich? You may be thinking, as you ex out of this page in a huff. But I assure you that this recipe keeps on giving; the ricotta, vinaigrette, carrots, and pesto can be used in a myriad of non-sandwich ways (breakfast toast! pasta! snacks!). Pro tip: If you mix kale and the vinaigrette and keep it in your fridge, it will last for days, ready to be a side salad for any occasion. Here are two routes:

  • Streamline: While the carrots roast, prepare the pesto, vinaigrette (plus kale), and ricotta. It'll be an eventful hour.

  • Prep in advance: Since the pesto and vinaigrette need food processors, I'd recommend making those over the weekend. You can save the kale and ricotta for the time when the carrots roast (pour yourself a glass of wine—you deserve it). Alternatively, you can prepare all of these at once, and store them in your fridge, separated. This will let you prepare the sandwich in no time and pack it for lunch / eat it over the counter after a crazy night out partying, Dutch uitsmijter–style.

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If you want to cheat—as I certainly have—use a different pesto; the sandwich will not be mad at you, though it may not act entirely like itself. Instead of the original recipe's sorghum, I use agave in the vinaigrette, as it's more neutral-tasting than maple syrup or honey, but any of these will have great results. I also scaled the yields down from quarts to cups, because I am not a restaurant and neither are you.

These days, I still tend to opt for sandwiches with meat in them. Old habits. But the memory of first eating the sandwich—which I'd ordered because I had eaten nothing but fried foods and pizza the day before—reminds me to question my preferences, at least every once in a while, especially if ricotta is involved. Often times, the sources of my biases are rather dubious (see: condiment sandwich circa 2001).

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Ricotta Sandwich with Kale, Carrots & Parsley-Pecan Pesto

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Makes 1 sandwich, plenty of leftover condiments
  • Carrots:
  • 1 cup carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tablespoon agave syrup (maple, sorghum, or honey can also be used)
  • 1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
  • Ricotta:
  • 1 cup full-fat ricotta
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • Pesto:
  • 1/3 cup pecans, toasted
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Vinaigrette:
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1/4 cup agave syrup (maple, sorghum, or honey can also be used)
  • 1/2 shallot
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 handful of kale (enough to fit in the sandwich)
  • 2 slices multigrain toast, for sandwich
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What does your perfect vegetarian sandwich look like? Let us know in the comments!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Vegetarian, Travel, Food52 Life, New York City