I’ve become a little obsessed with paninis the last few weeks. It all started when my friend Robert Deakins from the cheese department at Oliver’s Market gave me a sample of a new Mozzarella. “Try this,” he said with a grin, “it would be fantastic on a panini.”
Instantly my mind raced with ideas how to build the perfect panini. Just like an all American sandwich, the basic ingredients are protein and cheese, but one of the secrets to a perfect panini is adding layers that work on the grill. I debated between using Mesquite bbq turkey and hickory smoked ham, when my heart pulled me toward the sausage case. A little on the hungry side, I decided to buy three varieties of Aidells natural chicken and turkey sausages.
Perhaps some of you might be wondering – what is a panini? The term panini most commonly used today refers to an Italian sandwich made from a small loaf of bread cooked on a grill. In recent years a small electrical appliance called a panini press has become the cooking method of choice.
Breville, Cuisinart and Le Creuset all offer great models that serve double duty as an indoor grill and sandwich press. The average prices range from approximately $99. to $299. dollars.
Tip #1 – The Press
If you don’t have a panini press – don’t worry, neither do I. With a little ingenuity you can improvise to get the perfect crisp and golden panini. For cooking indoors, it’s best to use a cast iron grill pan with ridges to get that fabulous smokey flavor into your sandwich. To apply the squeeze on top, you can simply use a heavy cast iron skillet. Some chefs even like to use a 2-3 lb brick, double wrapped in aluminum foil.
Whatever method you choose, the secret to its perfection is to “press” down on the sandwich. The goal is to turn the sandwich into a more thin layer of crunchy cheesy scrumptiousness.
Tip #2 – Protein
When it comes to proteins, be creative. Just pick something packed with flavor and that doesn’t need to be cooked in the process, just warmed. Leftovers work great in a panini. You can turn leftover chicken or steak into a dazzling new dish when rolled into a crispy cheesy grilled sandwich. The other night I used a leftover Flank steak that had been soaked in a fajita marinade and it was amazing. One word of caution, your leftover steak should be rare to prevent drying out when reheating.
Tip #3 – Bread
Start with something dense and crusty like Foccacia, Ciabatta, French or Italian bread. Soft dinner rolls or thin bread won’t hold together on the grill. My personal favorite is French bread because it’s lighter and crispier than Ciabatta or Foccacia.
Whatever bread you choose, remember the secret to a crispy panini is not making the bread too greasy, but at the same time, not too dry. Make sure you baste your bread only on one side – the inside, and use a light hand. If you feel inspired, take the extra step and turn your bread into homemade garlic bread. It will be well worth the effort.
Tip #4 – Vegetables
There’s nothing like the sweet smokey flavor of roasted peppers. The tri-colore combination of red, orange and yellow peppers add exciting color and velvety texture. Grilled mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes and marinated artichoke hearts also work great. For the finishing touch of green, try baby arugula as it stands up well to the heat and adds that crunchy snap of green flavor to balance out the meat and cheese.
With just four or five ingredients and a little skill you can cook like a Italian food star. Have fun and experiment with some of your own favorite combinations! Here are a few of my favorites to get you started:
* Marinated flank steak, Provolone cheese, grilled mushrooms, roasted peppers & arugula
* Smoked turkey breast, St George cheese, sun-dried tomatoes & watercress
* Smoked ham, Swiss cheese, sweet roasted peppers, arugula & grain mustard
* Cajun style Andouille sausage, Jack cheese, sweet roasted peppers & baby arugula