Flashback Meals: The Veggie Melt (1970-1984)

If you ate in a restaurant in the 1970s through mid 80s, especially one with ferns, exposed brick walls or hanging faux-Tiffany lamps, chances are you enjoyed a Veggie Melt. This classic from the days of simpler menus, an open-faced sandwich of sauteed vegetables topped with melted cheese, epitomizes the nascent 70s trend towards plant-based cuisine for either health or ethical/spiritual interests. Pretty damn simple but still satisfying, the Vegetable Melt was most often the token meat-free dish on many menus but sometimes gussied up in natural foods restaurants; with the elan characteristic of the Disco Era, vegetarian chefs would adorn the humble sandwiches with all manner of new-fangled ingredients, such as dried cranberries, raw sunflower seeds, clover and alfalfa sprouts, even slices of avocado, a fruit still deemed quasi-exotic by some Americans in the early 70s.

Cafe Drake HRV has memories of digging in, knife and fork, to a bubbling discus of melted Jack cheese atop mushrooms and peppers and spinach, all nestled on buttery, toasted bread. Our version of the Veggie Melt thoroughly honors the original without being slavish, hence our updated Cuban flavor twist and fried banana garnish. Honestly, you won't regret making this recipe as it's foolproof, fast, economical and utterly delicious. Vegans can obtain satisfying results with any of the many dairy-free cheeses suitable for melting.

It starts with some sauteed veggies, any that you like, in your preferred combination. Although spinach and mushrooms are requisite for true retro cred. Yes, we said SAUTEED veggies. Steaming was popular but we didn't roast vegetables in the 70s.

Bread of choice is toasted and then slapped with mayo in the second step.

Cafe Drake HRV's Veggie Melt borrows loosely some Latin American flavors, hence our decision to top it with a fried banana. A very ripe plantain would be ideal but the one we bought was young and green. Just like we used to be.

Then the sauteed vegetables get draped across the mayo-slicked toasted bread.

After a minute under a hot broiler the cheese is perfectly melted. We then topped the sandwich with quartered grape tomatoes and crushed red chilies, another concession to more contemporary tastes.

A pan-fried banana and heaps of chopped parsley, cilantro and garden-fresh lovage complete the dish.

Begin by heating coconut oil (again, this is a slightly revisionist version of the 70s Veggie Melt and you should use vegetable oil if you wanna keep it Truly Old Skool) in a large skillet until hot. Add any veggies you enjoy stir-fried; the amount will depend on how many open-face sandwiches you're preparing. Cafe Drake HRV used an orange bell pepper, some sliced Cremini mushrooms, a red onion and, in the last two minutes of cooking, several handfuls of spinach leaves. Do add some crushed garlic to the stir-fry. We seasoned ours with a few dashes of ground cumin, smoked paprika and oregano. Cook until the vegetables are tender and remove them to a bowl. Season now to taste with salt and black pepper.

Return the skillet to the stove, no need to clean it, and add a bit more oil. Fry over medium-low heat some bananas, sliced horizontally in to halves. Count on 2 minutes per side to achieve a soft, slightly caramelized texture and flavor.

Toast bread, any kind of bread until just crisp. Smear one side of each slice with mayonnaise. Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and divide the sauteed veggies among each. Now top with plenty of grated Monterrey Jack and/or Colby Cheddar cheeses. Pop under the broiler until the cheese is melted and bubbling, no more than a couple of minutes.

Garnish each slice of bread, now transformed in to a Veggie Melt, with chopped tomatoes, crushed red chilies, parsley, cilantro and one fried banana.


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