It’s the dog days of summer. Who wants to slave over a hot stove? Even standing next to a hot, smoky grill can lose its appeal. This is the time of year I love pulling out my panini press and making a satisfying sandwich for a late supper. A panini press does need to heat up to toast sandwiches a golden brown and melt cheese to perfection; but the cooking time is minimal, and there’s no smoke.
We enjoyed panini sandwiches when we visited Italy. Panino is the Italian word for sandwich—panini is the plural. It seemed everywhere we went we could purchase one of these delightful treats. We found more gourmet panini available in restaurants and cafes, of course, but simpler versions could be found in delis, at all the tourist attractions, and even the train and gas stations. Ah, the panino—the Italian version of fast food!
When we encountered an Italian that spoke English, I always asked about panini. Most agreed the original version of this sandwich contained only a single filling and was never grilled. Italians prefer preparing this sandwich just before eating, so it’s perfect for outings; most of the Italians I visited with connected panini to fond memories of special lunches, picnics, trips to the seaside, and hikes in the mountains.
Italians normally make a panino with a roll or small loaf of bread, like rustic focaccia, ciabatta, or a rosetta. They cut the loaf horizontally and fill it with cured meats, like salame, prosciutto, or mortadella. Italians, also, use cheese as a filling; and the cheese of choice seems to depend on local availability. In Italy, panini are sometimes served hot after being pressed on a grill but more often are not toasted.
Here in the United States, the term “panini” refers to pressed sandwiches, which are heated in “panini presses.” And, our version of the panino usually contains a variety of ingredients, not just one or two fillings.
If you don’t have a panini press in your kitchen, consider purchasing one. They are super simple to use. I love making panini because with just a bit of creativity, a simple sandwich is turned into a gourmet treat—bread toasted golden and slightly crisp, perfectly melted cheese, my favorite Italian deli meat. Delicious! Following are two of my favorite panini recipes. If you wonder what kind of Italian cold cuts to purchase, I love Boar’s Head. Their products contain no fillers or anything artificial.
Caprese Panini with Apple-wood Smoked Bacon Serves 4
Extra virgin olive oil for brushing 8 slices artisan bread, sliced about ½-inch thick 8 slices fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese 8 slices ripe firm tomato 8 slices apple-wood smoked bacon, fried crisp 4 large fresh basil leaves, rinsed, dried and slivered 1 cup arugula Sea salt to taste Freshly ground black pepper to taste Preheat the panini grill according to manufacturer’s directions. To assemble 1 panino: In a small bowl, place olive oil. For 1 sandwich, use 2 slices artisan bread. Using a pastry brush, brush both sides of bread with olive oil. Place 2 slices of tomato on bottom half of sandwiches. Top with mozzarella cheese and 2 slices of bacon and sprinkle with slivered basil. Top with arugula. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top arugula with second slice of bread. Place panino on the panini grill. Close the lid. Apply light pressure for 10 seconds. Grill panino for 2 ½ to 3 ½ minutes or until cheese is warm and partially melted and bread is toasted to the desired level of golden brown. Using a spatula, remove panino from the grill and serve immediately.
If you don’t have a panini grill, you can prepare your sandwich on the stove. Place a skillet over medium low heat. Add butter or oil to the skillet. Add sandwich, then press a heavy pan on top to weigh it down. Cook until golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes per side.
Shopping for tomatoes: Select firm and plump tomatoes. Do not buy pale, spotted, or mushy specimens. Avoid tomatoes with blemishes or cracks. Color is a good indicator of freshness. Pick brightly colored tomatoes. My father taught me to shop with my nose. Smell the stem end of the tomato. If it’s ripe, it will smell like a tomato. Ripe tomatoes should give slightly when pressed. Storing tomatoes: Treat tomatoes gently. Place only ripened tomatoes in the refrigerator. Cool temperatures slow the ripening process. To ripen, place tomatoes at room temperature stem side down. To hasten the ripening process, place tomatoes in a paper bag and keep at room temperature.
Shopping for arugula: Arugula should have crisp emerald-green colored leaves. Do not buy this vegetable if it is yellow or if its leaves are limp or its stems are withered or slimy. If your supermarket sells arugula in bunches, check the area where the stems have been rubber-banded together. This is the first place rot may develop.
Roast Beef and Horseradish Cheddar Cheese Panini with Roasted Red Pepper, Red Onion, and Spinach Serves 4
Extra virgin olive oil for brushing 8 slices artisan bread, sliced about ½ inch thick Sun-dried tomato tapenade to taste (optional) 8 ounces thinly sliced deli-style roast beef 8 slices (about 4 ounces) Boar’s Head Horseradish Cheddar cheese 1 roasted red bell pepper, well-drained and cut into ½-inch strips 2 ounces very thinly sliced red onion 1 cup spinach Sea salt to taste Freshly ground black pepper to taste Preheat the panini grill according to manufacturer’s directions. To assemble 1 panino: In a small bowl, place extra virgin olive oil. For 1 sandwich, use 2 slices artisan bread. Using a pastry brush, brush the outside part of the sandwich (both pieces of bread) with olive oil. Spread the inside part of the sandwich (both pieces of bread) with sun-dried tomato tapenade to taste. Top with 2 ounces roast beef, 2 slices cheese, roasted red pepper strips, onion, and spinach. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with the second slice of bread. Place panino on the panini grill. Close the lid. Apply light pressure for 10 seconds. Grill panino for 2 ½ to 3 ½ minutes or until cheese is warm and partially melted and bread is toasted to the desired level of golden brown. Using a spatula, remove panino from grill and serve immediately.
If you don’t have a panini press, you can prepare your sandwich on the stove. Place a skillet over medium low heat. Add butter or oil to the skillet. Add sandwich, then press a heavy pan on top to weigh it down. Cook until golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Shopping for spinach: Spinach should be deep green in color with crisp, perky leaves. Do not buy spinach if it has yellow or broken leaves. Shop with your nose. If you smell an unpleasant odor, pass. If you are buying bagged or boxed spinach, inspect the bag or box carefully. Spinach deteriorates quickly. Also, check the “Best if Used by Date” to be sure it hasn’t passed its freshness date.
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.
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