Photograph Copyright Sandra Gutierrez, 2009; All Rights Reserved.
Two slices of artisan bread, a good amount of filling, a delicious spread, and cheese--lots of cheese. What do you get when you heat it up and weigh it down? A panini. Not just any panini but a gourmet and over the top panini at that; one that puts any fast-food sandwich to shame. As this economy keeps up straining budgets, it amazes me how many people can afford to pay big dollars for a sandwich and salad lunch, when it is so easy to recreate them at home. And no...you don't need to invest in a panini press. But more on this later.
What makes a sandwich? The bread. But what makes a truly spectacular sandwich? You got it: truly spectacular bread! So if you are going to splurge on something, instead of paying for overly marked-up food in a restaurant, you are better off buying great artisan bread and making your own sandwiches at home. Luckily for all of us, there are great bread options in the market today. If you have an artisan bakery in your neighborhood, search it out; if you do not, look for artisan bread in discount stores (you know, those where you can purchase in bulk and freeze it for up to 2 months).
The variety of bread that you select for your paninis will also make a difference. Granted, even paninis made with white, sliced bread are good (similar to childhood grilled cheese sandwiches) and there is a place for these in our culinary landscape. However, truly memorable paninis are made with breads that are sturdier, as these are capable of holding heartier fillings, while still allowing us to press them down thinly. Ciabbata (particularly, individual rolls), whole grain, rye, spelt--you name it--will work.
The fillings: deli meats, grilled vegetables, eggs, sausages, grilled chicken breasts, tuna, whatever you fancy. Paninis are the perfect vehicles for creativity. Even peanut butter and jelly taste gourmet when pressed together into one of these trendy sandwiches; so does the combo of Nutella, walnuts and bananas. But frankly, to me, what truly makes a panini is the cheese....any good melting cheese. Some of my favorites include Fontina, Cheddar, Brie, Jarlsberg, Gouda, Monterrey Jack, Mozzarella, Provolone, Havarti, Muenster, Emmenthaler, Grouyere. If it melts, it's perfect in my book. So select your favorite and indulge.
If you don't have a panini maker--and I must confess to owning two, so that I can create these specialty sandwiches for a crowd--you can improvise by sandwiching your panini between two heavy skillets, or even between two baking pans (use foil-wrapped bricks as weights). Because you see, what truly makes a panini, is the weight and heat combination. By pressing the bread together at the same time that heat is applied, the cheese is allowed to act as glue, while the filling is compressed. If you have ever tried to bite into a gigantic sandwich and found it hard to get your mouth around it or have battled with overflowing fillings falling all over your plate as you take your first bite, you will love paninis. This compression and glueing effect makes it possible to hold fillings in place so that every single bit of goodness will taste exactly the same with every bite. And that is what you want in a truly great sandwich.
My favorite thing about paninis is that they take only minutes to prepare, giving me enough time to toss a salad together while they are cooking. And for some reason, a cold sandwich just doesn't satiate me the same way that a hot panini does. I guess a warm, gooey, delicious sandwich just hits the spot right, satisfying my taste for a hot meal. I save the family budget in the process. Now that's great food in my book! And the best part is that I get to enjoy customized versions of the paninis that I used to buy in fast food places--only better....much better.
Photograph and Recipe Copyright Sandra Gutierrez; 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Turkey and Artichoke Ciabatta Paninis
4 individual Ciabatta rolls
1 pound turkey breast
8 slices Muenster cheese (or any good melting cheese)
1 to 2 cups Mesclun greens
5 artichoke hearts, chopped
1/4 cup mayonnaise (may use light)
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 garlic clove, minced
Ground black pepper
Slice ciabatta rolls in half; spread one-fourth of the artichoke heart spread on each bottom of each ciabatta roll. Place one slice of cheese over spread. Layer with the turkey and mesclun greens; top with another slice of cheese and with the remaining half of the ciabatta. Place the paninis (work in batches, if needed) in a panini press until cheese is melted and bread is golden and crispy (or bake between two weighted baking sheets at 400 degrees, until cheese is melted).
For the artichoke spread: Place the artichoke hearts, mayonnaise, parmesan cheese, garlic and black pepper in a bowl; stir to combine.
Yield: 4 paninis.
Recipe Copyright Sandra Gutierrez;2009. All rights reserved.