Wanted - Perfect panino

January 21, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

About 10 years ago, I was introduced to my first panino (or what is commonly known by its plural, panini) sandwich. A restaurant near where I lived served up panini - those classic, grilled Italian sandwiches - fresh from an impressive panini press.

But in order to get the goodness from the grill, there were strict house rules. First, you had to know what you wanted before you got to the counter. Second, you had to be willing to wait. Third, if you failed to follow rule No. 1 or No. 2, you'd get the boot.

After tasting one of those delicious panini, I knew if I ever wanted another I had to follow the rules. And I did - every time.

I guess because my first panino was such a ride for the tastebuds, I have become quite a snob when it comes to the sandwich. It's like having your first hamburger made out of ground sirloin and the second one made out of ground chuck. Once you establish a high standard, anything less is second-best.


I had tried to find a panino that lived up to that first sandwich, but many failed. Why? Because a panino is more than just a grilled, hot sandwich.

Panini means "small breads" in Italian, and at the heart of all panini is the bread. I had ordered a panino at one restaurant and the waitress promised me that it was on "panini bread." I figured what she meant was any type of Italian bread. What I got was the type of bread served at an Indian restaurant. And this particular sandwich wasn't grilled, or even heated. Another tell-tell sign of an authentic panino is the grill marks.

There are arguments about the specific type of bread a panino can be made with, but I like a dense bread. Focaccia is a favorite, but I had a hard time recently finding a plain version at my local grocery. Other alternatives include ciabatta bread and sourdough, but I couldn't find a loaf I liked. So, for the sandwich I made for the photo accompanying this story, I chose Portuguese saloio bread. Not only does it smell delicious, but it was crusty enough to hold up to a press.

The base of most panini is the meat. Chicken or turkey are good choices. I like pastrami and turkey or roast beef for a different kind of combination. Salami is also a good accompaniment to the bread.

Cheese must also be carefully selected. Provolone is my favorite. Mozzarella is a wonderful Italian cheese to work with, but often it takes a while to melt on the grill. Cheddar or American cheeses are fine choices, but make sure that the cheese isn't cut too thick.

It's my simple philosophy that panini require layers of flavors. This is where cheese, vegetables and condiments come in. For the easy, chicken-pesto panino I whipped up for the photo, I only added condiments that can stand up well to heat. Lettuce, of any kind, doesn't handle heat well. Spinach, on the other hand, is still flavorful when wilted, so it's a not only a healthful addition, but a tasty one. A heated tomato releases its juices, adding a layer of flavor. Onions, especially red onions, are nice. Peppers add heat to any panino.

I assert that mayonnaise is a panino no-no. Pesto is a better way to add a layer of flavor. Extra-virgin olive oil keeps the bread moist, but doesn't overload the other layers of taste. To help with getting grill marks on your bread, lightly brush the top of the bread with olive oil.

Unfortunately, I don't own a panino grill or press (one reason I eat them while out in a restaurant). But I own a George Foreman Grill. Panini can be made using the Foreman. But in order to get the grill marks, another weight has to be used. I have a cast iron sandwich press that I placed on top. Two bricks would work, too. The only problem with using a Foreman is that it slopes, so when placing the weights on top of the grill, the sandwich slips. I suggest using a heat resistant spatula to set it into place before putting the lid down.

I may not be able to re-create that first, great panino I had. But there's one thing I know for sure - I'm going to have a lot of fun trying.

Easy chicken pesto panino

2 1/4-inch slices of focaccia, ciabatta or Portuguese saloio bread
1/4 teaspoon pesto
1 8-ounce chicken breast (can be sliced into strips)
Seven small spinach leaves, washed and dried
1 small red onion, sliced
1 slice of large tomato
4 small pieces of sliced green pepper
2 slices of Provolone cheese

Heat panino press (see Cook's note). Slice two pieces of bread about 1/4-inch. Build sandwich by slathering one side of each slice of bread with pesto. Add chicken, spinach, onion, tomato, peppers and cheese. Place sandwich on grill. Let sandwich grill for about 8 minutes or until cheese is melted. Cut in half and serve while still warm.

Cook's note: A George Foreman grill can be used in place of a panino press. Add weight to grill to recreate distinctive pressed appearance. Sandwich can be made with precooked chicken in deli section.

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