I used to play hooky with a vegetarian sandwich.
Don’t worry, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds.
While taking some time off from college in my early twenties, I worked for my then-boyfriend’s parents at their contract research organization. My job as an executive assistant included answering the phone and typing very important emails.
Okay, okay. I was prank calling my best friend and learning how to use Facebook.
Each morning, I’d quietly stroll in a few minutes late while trying to keep a scalding hot Starbucks cup hidden behind my back. Turns out declaring “traffic was bad!” isn’t so believable when you’re carrying a freshly poured French vanilla latte and a scone.
Needless to say, the position was a wildly unfulfilling placeholder that, at the very least, allotted me forty hours a week to daydream about where my acting career was going. Spoiler alert: the answer was nowhere.
Despite having zero connection to the groundbreaking pharmaceutical work going on around me, and after several terms of not making employee of the month, I uncovered the real reason the universe had brought me to that company.
And that reason… was a panino.
Our office happened to be located in an area of town that was just beginning to burst with commercial real estate. But before the restaurants and shops sprung to life, my only lunch option was leftovers.
On my (leisurely) way into work one morning, I drove by a newly hung sign in the shopping center just down the street.
Camille’s Sidewalk Cafe glowed in bright cursive letters.
I counted down every minute until the clock struck sandwich, and then, like a ravenous bolt of lightning, zipped to the charming eatery and patiently waited my turn to order. I scanned the menu and was overwhelmed by the abundance of eclectic choices, but something about the aptly named “Veganini” caught my eye.
I’m usually more of a bacon-topped club sub or tuna melt kind of girl, so choosing roasted vegetables as a main ingredient isn’t exactly within my wheelhouse. Also on deck: a creamy pesto-like spread and sharp cheese pressed between fluffy focaccia.
I took my to-go box onto the sunlit patio and sunk my teeth into the crackly bread. And life as I knew it would never be the same.
Not only did this meat-free masterpiece have just as much (if not more) flavor than any other sandwich I had ever experienced, but the balance of textures was flawless.
I began treating myself to the Veganini once a week, discreetly scooting out the door earlier and earlier each time to guarantee I wouldn’t be rushed while savoring every mouthful of this special meal.
I eventually dumped the boyfriend and quit the research business, but the sandwich stuck with me forever.
A unique creation featuring mushrooms and thyme nut butter between slices of bread is my homage to that enlightening time in my life when I hated my job but loved my lunch.
In this recipe, juicy cremini mushrooms (aka baby portobellos) are sauteed with a pinch of red pepper flakes, which give them a subtle slap of spice. I crank the heat up under the pan a little higher than usual so the mushrooms gain a golden brown crust, while remaining tender on the inside.
Instead of the garlicky pesto flaunted by the inspirational panini that started it all, I heavy-handedly opt for homemade nut butter – an unusual velvety spread made of buttery crushed pine nuts, lemony thyme, and fruity olive oil. It’s smooth, savory, and an undeniably excellent partner to the earthy mushrooms.
Although each layer is well-seasoned, a bit of salty cheese to give the sandwich some extra oomph is so welcome. I reach for pungent Asiago, whose nuttiness mirrors that of the pine nuts. And to brighten things up, a combination of fresh, delicate sprouts and peppery arugula adds crunch and lightness.
I wouldn’t recommend pairing this perfect sandwich with a crappy job, but a couple of napkins, a glass of iced tea, and a long lunch hour should do the trick.Print
In this stunning sandwich, pungent Asiago cheese meets creamy thyme pine nut butter and meaty mushrooms spiked with red pepper flakes.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup thyme pine nut butter
- 4 slices rustic bread, toasted (such as focaccia, ciabatta, or sourdough)
- 1/4 cup shaved Asiago cheese
- 1 cup arugula (or watercress)
- 1/4 cup alfalfa sprouts (or broccoli sprouts)
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and the butter, and swirl to coat the pan. Once the butter starts to foam and sizzle, add the mushrooms and saute until lightly golden, about 3-5 minutes. Season with the salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes, and cook for 1 more minute. Remove the pan from the heat.
- Spread each slice of the toasted bread with 1 tablespoon of the thyme pine nut butter. Top 2 of the slices with even amounts of the mushrooms, Asiago, arugula, sprouts, and remaining olive oil. Add the top piece of toast to each, slice, and serve.
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 5 minutes
- Category: Sandwiches
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: Vegetarian
Keywords: vegetarian, mushroom, nut butter, arugula, sprouts
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Slice and Saute the Mushrooms
Slice the mushrooms.
Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and the butter to a large skillet and place over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat the pan.
Once the butter starts to foam and sizzle, add the mushrooms. Saute until they begin to take on a golden color, stirring occasionally for about 3-5 minutes.
Season with the salt, freshly ground black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Stir to combine, and cook for 1 more minute. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
Step 2 – Prep the Sandwich Ingredients and Assemble
Toast the bread.
Shave or thinly slice the Asiago cheese. A vegetable peeler works well here.
Spread each slice of the toasted bread with about a tablespoon of the thyme pine nut butter.
Top two of the slices with even amounts of the mushrooms, Asiago, arugula, and sprouts. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil.
For a more wholesome bread option, consider choosing or baking bread with more whole grains. Foodal’s soaked whole grain bread would be a perfect choice!
Step 3 – Slice and Serve
Top each sandwich with the top piece of toast. Get out your serrated bread knife, slice, and serve. Toothpicks will help to keep everything intact.
Venture into Veggie Land
If you’re like me and you didn’t always lean towards meat-free food, this sandwich is an ideal gateway into the wonderful world of veggies.
Pile on the mushrooms, and experiment with other grilled, roasted, or sauteed goodies like squash or leeks to add even more heartiness.
I’m a fan of layering on the Asiago at room temperature, without melting the cheese like you would in panini, so each tangy mouthful crumbles onto my taste buds – but I wouldn’t blame you if you decide to throw the whole thing open-faced under the broiler and adding the greens and sprouts just before serving.
For greens that pack an even bigger punch, I suggest subbing in watercress for the arugula for a slightly bitter yet lovely bite, and broccoli or radish sprouts instead of the milder alfalfa.
Join me in supporting vegetables as the true sandwich stars, and give these other meatless handheld recipes a test drive next:
- Chickpea Veggie Burgers
- Spicy Roasted Portobello Sandwiches with Bell Peppers and Camembert
- Caramelized Onion and Sundried Tomato Grilled Cheese Pitas
Though large, sliced strips of portobellos will make your sandwich a bit less slippery overall, I dig the soft richness of the creminis. Which variety of mushrooms are you partial to? Share your favorite fungi in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Shanna Mallon on February 27, 2014. Last updated on August 7, 2021.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”