Sunday, May 4, 2008

Keeping it Simple


I feel myself heading into a phase - a "back to basics" phase. Some panini out there are just getting too frou-frou for me. Maybe it's the fact that we call them panini rather than just grilled sandwiches. They kind of sound fancy, so maybe we should fill them with fancy ingredients? It's certainly tempting. I'll be the first to admit that I've succumbed to the urge to use a roasted garlic aioli here and a dill-watercress salad there. But are hoity-toity ingredients really what panini are about? I don't think they have to be. My favorite panini recipes thus far have been the ones with the shortest ingredient lists and nearly no measurements - just simple, quality ingredients combined to create something wonderful.

It was this newfound "back to basics" mentality that led me to make a sandwich based on the simple, classic Italian caprese salad. Heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, some good extra-virgin olive oil and lemon zest - what more do you need? Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.


Tomato, Mozzarella & Basil Panini - Attempt #1
  • Bread: French baguette
  • Meat: None
  • Cheese: Fresh mozzarella
  • Condiments: Extra-virgin olive oil
  • "Goodies": Heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil leaves

THE INSPIRATION: You know, Gordon Ramsay isn't always the fire-tempered, abusive, profane (well, he is always profane) chef that he appears to be on "Hell's Kitchen". Or maybe I should say those aren't his only traits. I think the man just has high standards and low tolerance for mediocrity. This is far more apparent on his British show, "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares", which I have been watching religiously on BBC America as of late. He still verbally beats these restaurant owners and head chefs down to tears (I've learned lots of fantastic new swear phrases!), but once that's over with he seems genuinely dedicated to helping them turn their businesses around, improve their food and usually departs on very friendly terms. Usually.

Why do I bring up Chef Ramsay? His advice in almost every "Kitchen Nightmares" episode - sans the screaming - is to focus on simple, honest food. Dispense with pretentiousness and unnecessary flourishes. He believes in letting good, quality ingredients stand on their own. I can really appreciate that philosophy. Keep it about the food, not the cook. Wise words to cook by. So here's to f*&%ing simplicity in cooking!

THE PREPARATION: Slicing into an heirloom tomato is a little like opening a present on Christmas Day - there's a moment of excitement as you get to peer in and see what's inside. The often - I'll say it - ugly exterior doesn't provide many clues. I was pleased to see, as I began slicing into my bulbous red and brown tomato that it came out kind of heart-shaped and was dotted in an almost lace-like seed pattern. Pretty! I removed the seeds so the bread wouldn't get too soggy. With Chef Ramsay's Scottish bellow echoing in my ear, "TAYYYYSTE your FUUUUD!!", I sampled a little slice. So sweet!

At least the first tomato was. The second one I'd bought, a bright green one, was super-acidic and way too firm. Woopsie! Well, that's why I buy a variety of ingredients when I go shopping for these panini :-) I stuck with the pretty heart-shaped one.

Speaking of variety, I also bought two different kinds of mozzarella - one fresh and one low-moisture. Giada De Laurentiis just advised last week on the Food Network against using fresh mozzarella in dishes where you are looking to control the moisture. Generally, I'd say panini would qualify as such a situation. Still, I really love how fresh mozzarella tastes in caprese salads so I threw caution to the wind and sliced some up. Left the low-moisture stuff in the reserves just in case.

THE CONSTRUCTION: Since the tomatoes were the featured attraction on this sandwich, I chose a French baguette for bread based on texture rather than flavor. A nice big crunch was going to be a great complement to the relatively soft fillings.

Olive oil is usually an integral part of an insalata caprese, with a good amount of its fruity goodness drizzled over the top. For the panini version, I still wanted this great flavor but I thought a measured approach was in order. So I opted to brush some oil directly onto the insides of my baguette - that way I'd still have the great flavor without an excessive amount of oil seeping into the bread.

I lay down a couple of big, fresh basil leaves and added my lacy heart-shaped tomatoes on top. Then I seasoned the tomatoes with some sea salt and black pepper as well as some grated lemon zest. The lemon is kind of an optional ingredient in a caprese - sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't - but I really wanted to go for big fresh flavor on this sandwich and lemon always delivers. Lastly, I added two slices of my fresh mozzarella, closed up the top and set it on the grill at medium-high heat for about 5 minutes.

THE RESULTS: Simply delicious! I'm glad I added the lemon, it added a really nice tart accent to the sweet tomatoes. Even though I used fresh mozzarella, rather than the low-moisture kind, the sandwich didn't get too wet. The cheese melted quickly and beautifully and the slight saltiness was a nice complement to the other flavors. My toasty baguette delivered as expected, with a nice big crunch in each bite. All in all, I think Chef Ramsay would be proud (perhaps). :-)


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Monday, April 28, 2008

Look to the Salad

It never would have crossed my mind to pair roast beef with apples if Rachel of Coconut & Lime hadn't suggested it as part of my new On Your Grill series. Rachel writes:

My dream panino? A variation of a salad I had years ago that
included gorgonzola, thinly sliced tart apples and thin, rare slices of
roast beef.

That sure sounds dreamy, doesn't it? What a smart idea to look to a great salad for inspiration. In a way, panini are kind of like composed salads - complementary ingredients bound together inside some great bread. So I decided to go ahead and give this great-sounding salad the panini treatment. Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.

Roast Beef with Gorgonzola & Apple Panini - Attempt #1

  • Bread: French baguette
  • Meat: Roast beef
  • Cheese: Gorgonzola
  • Condiments: Mayonnaise
  • "Goodies": Granny Smith apples

THE PREPARATION: I started out with the apples. When Rachel said "tart", I immediately thought Granny Smith. I cored and sliced one up into thin, flat slices and squeezed lemon juice over them to keep them from browning. So far so good.

This sandwich seemed like it was going to be pretty straightforward, except for the gorgonzola. Its flavor is just so pronounced that I knew I was going to face some challenges in balancing it. I'm not the hugest gorgonzola fan, but I do enjoy it in moderation. Since this sandwich was going to be on an open-sided baguette, I thought a sliced format would be the best way to go (in my buffalo chicken panini recipe I used crumbled blue cheese, but that one was in a pita so the crumbles were somewhat contained). I should once and for all invest in a good cheese slicer, because trying to break off a thin slice of gorgonzola with a regular knife proved to be a rather sticky endeavor! Nonetheless, I got my slices.

THE CONSTRUCTION: I cut off a 5-inch section of my French baguette and sliced it again lengthwise. Then I spread a little mayo inside the bottom half of the bread to give the sandwich a little moisture, but without adding any real competing flavor. Next went on the roast beef - two slices from my grocery store's deli counter. Rachel's description of "thin, rare slices" made me long for some beautiful carpaccio, but such is not found at my local Vons. I covered the roast beef with four slices of apple and then the gorgonzola and top half of the baguette.

I put the sandwich on the grill at 375 degrees and set the timer for 5 minutes, thinking I'd likely need a longer-than-usual cook time due to the thickness of the baguette. An additional 30 seconds after the timer and it was done.

THE RESULTS: Looks pretty, but holy gorgonzola! Looking at the photo now, it definitely appeared that there would be no escaping the gorgonzola flavor. From a volume standpoint, it's the same amount of cheese I would normally use on panini, but gorgonzola is kind of like ultra-concentrated laundry detergent - a little goes a long way! In a salad, it's much easier to moderate it. I could barely taste the apples and they should have been prominent as well. Now, it still was a good sandwich - I kept taking more bites "just to check" - but my instinct told me to give it another try with a milder blue cheese.



Roast Beef with Blue Cheese & Apple Panini - Attempt #2

Fortunately, I planned ahead on the chance the gorgonzola didn't work out. I bought a Rosenborg Danish blue cheese which my local cheesemonger (aka, the nearest person I could find in the cheese section at Vons) assured me would be milder in flavor. It came pre-sliced, which was a plus! The slices were thinner than my gorgonzola ones, so for that reason alone I knew the pungency would be dialed down a bit.


Onto the grill went a second sandwich, this time with the Danish blue.


THE RESULTS:

The dream panino comes to life! I much, much preferred this version. The creamy, tangy (and somewhat milder) blue cheese was a fantastic complement to the sweet tartness of the apples. The roast beef, which had been seasoned with garlic and other spices, provided a wonderful savory component. You kind of have to open your mouth big to get through the crispy baguette but it's worth it to get all of these great flavors in one bite. Roast beef has met its panini match - thanks, Rachel, for a fantastic idea!

> Get the final recipe!

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

How to Make Panini

Panini 101Now that I've got a lot of sandwich-grilling experience under my belt, I thought I'd pause for a moment and share what I've learned about how to make great panini. What would a Panini 101 series be without a good, old-fashioned "how-to" guide? So here it is: your step-by-step guide to successfully making any type of panini you can dream up.

Step 1 - Invest in a good panini press

Breville Ikon Panini PressYup, I said it. If you think you're likely to make panini more than just a few times, I'd highly recommend buying a grill. I've tried several different panini-making methods and the panini press was, by far, the easiest and produced the best results. A lot of people will tell you can make good panini with two skillets - if that works for them, that's great. But if you ask me (and you are, if you're reading this!), I say get the press. What features should you look for? Get one that allows you to regulate the temperature and the amount of pressure on the sandwich. Some models come with removable grates, which is really helpful when it comes time to clean up. I personally use the Breville Ikon Panini Press, sold at Williams-Sonoma.

Step 2 - Pick your bread and fillings

Brush olive oil on your bread for a savory crunchOne of the best attributes of panini is that they're infinitely versatile and customizable. There's a good chance you have all the ingredients you need right in your fridge and pantry right now. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Denser is usually better, when it comes to choosing bread. You want something that can stand up to and will be enhanced by the grilling process. My favorites are ciabatta and sourdough - french and rye work really well too. Slices about 1/2" thick are best - any thicker and your sandwich is likely to be "bready"; thinner slices may flatten out too much in grilling. Want to give your bread a nice, crisp crunch? Brush a little olive oil or melted butter on the outsides before grilling.

  • Experiment with your favorite flavors. Re-create your favorite classic sandwiches or invent entirely new combinations. In the U.S., panini generally include cheese - it's a great opportunity to explore the specialty cheese section of your grocery store to discover new flavors. Got leftovers? Turn them into panini! Last night's roasted chicken tastes even better today with some swiss cheese bacon and tomatoes on sliced sourdough. Looking for some inspiration? Check out my recipes!


  • Less is more. Remember - you want everything to stay inside your panini so be sure not to overfill the sandwich!

Step 3 - Heat the grill

Adjust the grill temperatureHow high should I heat the grill? That depends on what you need the heat to do for your sandwich. With thinner panini like simple grilled cheese, where all you need to do is melt the cheese and grill the bread, a medium-high temperature (about 375 degrees) works great - 3 minutes and it's perfect. If you've got a more substantial sandwich, with meat that needs to be heated through, I'd recommend using a low heat setting (about 200 degrees) and grill for about 10 minutes. In either case, it's a good idea to lift the lid and check periodically. And if you start to hear the sizzle of cheese on the grates, that's a sure sign it's melted!!


Step 4 - Grill your panini

Adjust the amount of pressure on the sandwichA major advantage a panini press has over other types of grills or the two-pan method is that you can regulate the amount of pressure on the sandwich. If you've ever over-pressed a sandwich such that all the fillings squeezed out, leaving you with bread-on-bread you know the mess I'm talking about! Just as carefully as you place your panini onto the grill, also take care to lower the lid slowly until it makes full, secure contact with the panini. As the cheese melts, the panini will flatten further. Again, keep an eye on things and you shouldn't have any surprises.

Step 5 - Eat now!

Enjoy!Here's a step that shouldn't be hard to follow! Panini taste best right off the grill, while the bread is still nice and crispy and the fillings are hot. Got a crowd coming over? Prepare the panini ahead of time and grill them right before you're ready to serve. If you must reheat panini, a toaster oven is best - about 8-10 minutes at 275 degrees. DO NOT MICROWAVE PANINI (unless you have a tool like the Micro Grill), as it will make the bread chewy and soggy and that's just not appetizing.

These are the steps I take to my panini and I've been pleased with the results. I hope they're helpful to you as well - and, by all means, please share any other tips that have worked well for you!


Hungry for more? Check out the other posts in the Panini 101 series:

Monday, April 21, 2008

In Celebration of Grilled Cheese

Grilled Raclette Cheese & Honey Panini

As I previously announced, I've launched a new series called On Your Grill where I invite you toOn Your Grill submit your suggestions for panini and I'll choose a few each month to test out on Panini Happy. First up is a recommendation from Tiffany of Geneva, Switzerland (by way of Washington, DC!):


The best grilled cheese I've ever made is with raclette cheese on slices of french bread. To die for.

Quite a strong recommendation - sounds enticing! Thanks for the idea, Tiffany. I can't say I've ever had raclette cheese, but I'm always up for sampling new cheeses so I decided to give this idea a go. By the way, did you know that April is National Grilled Cheese Month? Seriously. Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.


"To Die For" Grilled Cheese Panini - Attempt #1

  • Bread: French
  • Meat: None
  • Cheese: Raclette
  • Condiments: None
  • "Goodies": None

THE PREPARATION: I decided to read up a little on raclette before I got started. Turns out it's a Swiss cheese - not the kind with the holes, but a semi-firm cow's milk cheese that's often used in fondue. Huh. Well, if it's good in fondue, then it's probably an excellent candidate for panini - sounds to me like a cheese that melts well. I had no trouble finding it at Bristol Farms in the specialty cheese section. And I was kind of pleased with myself to be bringing home something a little more interesting than cheddar for once (although I still love you, cheddar!).

THE CONSTRUCTION: I thought I'd make Tiffany's sandwich exactly as she described it for the initial attempt. Never having tasted raclette, I needed to get at least a baseline understanding of the flavors. This was, by far, the simplest sandwich I've made to date on this blog: brushed some melted butter on the outer sides of the bread, put a few slices of cheese in the middle and grilled on medium-high heat for a whopping 3 minutes.

THE RESULTS: Wow, that is delicious! The cheese melted beautifully, kind of stretchy like mozzarella. The flavor kind of reminded me of a really, really mild brie. I also detected a slight sweetness to it. The crisp, buttery French bread was a great accompaniment as its mildness really allowed the raclette to be the star. As good as this was, I thought I might be able to take things up one more little notch by tapping into that sweet flavor I tasted. I once had a pecorino and honey appetizer and I wondered whether honey might work here as well. On to Attempt #2!

Grilled Cheese & Honey Panini - Attempt #2

Okay, so this was the second-simplest sandwich I've made to date on this blog. I spread a little honey on the bread before adding the cheese this time.

THE RESULTS: Positively addictive! That touch of sweetness from the honey was a wonderful complement to the raclette. Incredibly simple, yet incredibly tasty. Thanks to Tiffany, this is now my favorite grilled cheese too!

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What's On Your Grill?


"Ooh, I've got a great panini idea for you!"

I've heard this from my family members and friends almost every day since I started this blog. We're all "paninistas" now! Some of my best panini so far have come from these great ideas. For example, it was my husband Mike who suggested I do a series on classic sandwiches.

So I'm launching On Your Grill - an opportunity for all of you wonderful Panini Happy readers to share your original panini ideas. Got a combination you've been meaning to try? One you make all the time and your family loves? Favorite flavors from your culture? Send them my way and I'll choose a few every month to develop into panini and feature on Panini Happy!


How to Submit an Idea

Send an e-mail to panini[DOT]happy[AT]yahoo[DOT]com with the following information:

  • Subject line: On Your Grill
  • First name
  • Location (e.g, San Diego, CA , USA)
  • Panini Idea (e.g., chicken breast, spinach & fontina on ciabatta)
  • Inspiration (optional)

By submitting an idea, you agree to allow me to publish your first name, location, panini idea and inspiration. Looking forward to hearing your ideas - as always, happy grilling!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Yup, I Grilled Cookies!

One dollar and fifty cents doesn't buy much anymore these days, but in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, just off-campus from UCLA, a buck-fitty will get you a most wonderfully decadent classic treat: a scoop of ice cream sandwiched between two freshly-baked cookies at a place called Diddy Riese. The perpetual line out the door is tell-tale. There's either something really good or something really cheap - in this case it's both. It's the original dessert sandwich, and I'm making a panini version to file in my Panini Happy Classics vault. Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.

Cookies & Ice Cream Panini - Attempt #1

  • Bread: Chocolate chip cookies
  • Meat: None...unless ice cream counts as protein!
  • Cheese: None
  • Condiments: None
  • "Goodies": Rainbow sprinkles

THE INSPIRATION: My sister, Julie, and I had our first opportunity to bake chocolate chip cookies on our own during a summer school cooking class - I was 12 and she was 9. We were supposed to bake 2 dozen cookies at our little kitchen station. Having observed our mother bake countless batches at home (Mom attempted to crack the Mrs. Fields recipe!), we decided to switch things up a little and make 6 ENORMOUS cookies instead. We piled 6 massive mounds of dough onto our cookie sheets and loaded them into the oven, with cheshire grins on our
faces. It'll come as no surprise that we wound up with 6 enormous MESSES, with burnt edges and raw centers. To this day, I still don't understand why the teacher got so mad at us - we may not have yielded any cookies but we learned a lasting lesson about adjusting the oven temperature!

THE PREPARATION: I'll admit I embarked on this one on a whim. I hoped it would be feasible to grill cookies, but I wasn't willing to risk the time it would take to mix up a whole batch of cookie dough from scratch on this chance this descended into a disaster. So I cheated and bought a tub of the store-bought refrigerated dough - a brand called Tom's, which I'd never heard of before, that was re-sealable so I could just make a few at a time.

I heated up the grill to about 325 degrees, as instructed by Tom's, and put four of the cold little discs onto the grates - left a lot of space in between, not knowing if these would spread out like pancakes. I closed the lid, pressing down until the top grates appeared to be making contact with the tops of the cookies. I didn't want to press them too hard, but I did want to get the heat to distribute as evenly as possible.

The package said to bake the cookies for 15-16 minutes, these guys were done after about 8 minutes. When I lifted up the lid, my initial impression of the way the cookies looked wasn't great. I'd hoped to see evenly grilled little rounds, but (I surmised) due to the way that cookies spread from the center out, the centers were taller and therefore only the centers received direct grill contact. However, I did not dispair! I flipped the cookies over and there was the golden, evenly grilled look I was hoping for. This panini world is an unpredictable one at times - a world where bottoms can turn into tops!

THE CONSTRUCTION: I wanted to get the ice cream inside ASAP while the cookies were still warm. I cracked open a brand new container of Dreyer's Slow-Churned vanilla, scooped out a couple of small scoops, and pressed down gently so as not to break the cookies. As a final step, I thought I'd add a little confectionary pizzazz - rainbow sprinkles! All of a sudden, I felt like an 8-year-old kid having just been handed a big cone at Baskin-Robbins, all anxious to dive in. And so I did.

THE RESULTS: Oh yeah! Nothing beats warm cookies and ice cream - the folks at Diddy Riese are geniuses. And it was so quick and easy. I don't feel one iota of guilt over not having made my own cookie dough. The less time I spend prepping these sandwiches, the more time I have to eat them! Oh, and...uh...share them too :-)

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cheeseburger Panini, Animal-Style

If you've spent any length of time in Southern California, you've probably heeded the call of the giant yellow arrow pointing to the sign that makes mouths water: "In-N-Out Burger." Mention the name near lunchtime at the office and before you can say "Not it!" you'll have five or sPanini Happy Classicsix co-workers jammed in your Jetta. Similar to Starbucks, part of the enjoyment of In-N-Out is in the ordering itself - particularly off of the not-so-secret menu. The first "secret" item I ever ordered was the Animal Style burger, featuring grilled onions and an extra amount of special sauce (similar to thousand island dressing). It's drippy and messy and wonderful! Not exactly the delicate characteristics one usually thinks of when it comes to panini...but why not? The Animal Style burger at In-N-Out is one of my favorite sandwiches and so I decided to make a panini version as part of my continuing Panini Happy Classics series. Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.


Cheeseburger Patty Melt Panini - Attempt #1

  • Bread: Ciabatta rolls
  • Meat: Ground chuck
  • Cheese: Cheddar
  • Condiments: Thousand Island dressing
  • "Goodies": Grilled onions, fresh tomatoes, green leaf lettuce

THE PREPARATION: I decided to start on the onions first - fired up the grill to medium-high heat (375 degrees). I went with white onions since I think their pungency tastes so good on burgers; I sliced one into thin rings (lit a candle to keep from crying!). Brushed a little olive oil on both sides and put 'em on the grill. I debated whether to season them with salt and pepper, but opted not to in an effort to cut down on salt - I'd live to regret this later, stay tuned. Grilled for 3 minutes until I got dark grill marks and the onions were nice and soft.

Next came the meat. I actually just caught an episode of "Good Eats" on the Food Network where Alton Brown lined a jelly roll pan with waxed paper and rolled out ground chuck with a rolling pin and divided the meat into squares. Seemed like that might be a good way to go for a more sandwich-like burger so I gave it a try. My ciabatta rolls were 4"x4", so I made burger squares that were slightly larger to account for shrinkage during the grilling. I gave the burgers a little salt and pepper seasoning and popped them on the grill. I love to hear that great sizzle as soon as the meat makes contact with the grates. I was amazed at how quickly you can grill burgers on the panini grill - a lightning fast 3 minutes to a nice, juicy medium!


While the burgers were grilling, I sliced up some fresh tomatoes and removed the seeds, per Tip #4.


THE CONSTRUCTION:

Once the burgers were done, I immediately (and carefully) scrubbed off the grill and started my sandwich assembly. On the bottom half of my ciabatta roll, I squeezed out about a tablespoon of Thousand Island dressing from the Kraft bottle and spread it around with a knife. Another little tip Alton mentioned on that same episode of "Good Eats" is that mayonnaise acts as a nice "seal" on bread, keeping it from getting soggy. Since Thousand Island is mayonnaise-like, I thought I'd give it a try. Then I added the onions, the burger, two tomato slices and a slice of cheddar cheese. I closed up the sandwich with the top half of the roll and loaded it onto the grill.

I checked after about 3 minutes, but the cheese wasn't melted yet. Another 2 minutes later, all looked good. As a final step, I opened up the bottom of the sandwich and inserted a piece of green leaf lettuce.


THE RESULTS: Not so great. For starters, despite the Thousand Island "seal" I'd attempted to create, the bread still got really soggy from the burger juices (notice how I'm avoiding the "g" word!). The sandwich also wasn't all that flavorful, no doubt due to my stingy seasoning on the onions and the burger. The lettuce didn't do much to add to the taste either and was a little bit of a pain to insert amidst all the other toppings. What was I thinking? For Attempt #2, I was going to have to rethink the soggy phenomenon and up the seasoning factor.

Cheeseburger Patty Melt Panini - Attempt #2

I re-ordered the fillings this time around - instead of applying the Thousand Island dressing directly to the bottom half of the roll, I spread it directly onto the burger itself. In its place, I added a second slice of cheddar cheese so there was now cheese on both the top and bottom of the fillings. This way, I hoped to avoid soggy bread while still keeping the Thousand Island flavor within the sandwich. I added a little more salt to the burger, but not to the grilled onions. No lettuce this time.


THE RESULTS:

Bland, bland, bland! This was getting kind of embarrassing. It's a burger - how basic is that?!! It didn't taste like anything and it was starting to annoy me. I asked my husband what he thought was missing - aside from the burger still being under-seasoned (he didn't eat the onions), and he declared that he really didn't like the ciabatta on this one. I had to agree with him. As much as I love ciabatta - and maybe it was just these particular rolls - it didn't add any flavor and the texture was rather tough and chewy. I had to shut down the panini grill for the night, but I'd procure some new bread at the grocery store the next day and continue the pursuit.


Cheeseburger Patty Melt Panini - Attempt #3

Maybe patty melts are typically grilled on rye bread for a reason. Rye definitely has a distinct flavor. And if flavor is what I was lacking, well maybe I should go back to the tried-and-true. So Attempt #3 was made with rye, with a little olive oil brushed onto the outsides for extra flavor and crispness. I dialed up the seasoning on the meat several notches, adding a liberal amount of salt and pepper to both sides of the patty, as well as a little garlic powder. To try and cut down on the excessive juiciness, I lightly blotted the burger before adding it to the sandwich. Lastly, I grilled up some more onions, this time seasoning both sides with salt and pepper. Oh, this sandwich was gonna taste like something if I had anything to say about it!


THE RESULTS:

At last - YUM! Man, that was probably more difficult than it had to have been. Lesson learned: season your food, plain and simple. Also, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Patty melts taste great on rye, panini-style or otherwise. The bread was crisp and flavorful, far less chewy than the ciabatta. In the end, this sandwich didn't deviate too far from what we commonly know and love as a patty melt, but you know what - that's fine by me!



Get the final recipe!

> More Panini Happy Classics:

Monday, March 31, 2008

A Little Breakfast Panini Party

Smoked Salmon Bagel Panini

I've decided that panini-making is a lot of fun in a social setting. Everyone gathering around the grill, assembling made-to-order sandwiches (or, in many cases, watching mPanini Happy Classicse assemble their sandwiches to order), anxiously waiting to see those grill marks and melted cheese. I had a little bit of a crowd in the kitchen this past weekend, with my husband Mike, my sister Angela, my sister Julie and her husband Jay in town. They were all game for my latest Panini Happy Classics foray - a new twist on bagels and lox. Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.


Smoked Salmon Bagel Panini - Attempt #1

  • Bread: Bagel (everything)
  • Meat: Smoked salmon
  • Cheese: Whipped cream cheese
  • Condiments: None
  • "Goodies": Tomatoes, red onions, dill-watercress salad with balsamic vinaigrette

THE INSPIRATION: When I want to make something for Mike that I know he'll really enjoy, I can never go wrong with bagels and smoked salmon. It's his "desert island" meal. And when it comes to this meal, he's pretty much a purist - sesame bagel, not toasted, (a lot of) whipped cream cheese from the tub and a good layer of salmon. Never capers. On occasion he'll ask me to blend up a salmon-cream cheese schmear. So I thought he might appreciate a panini version of his fave. Plus, I'm still on a round panini kick.

THE PREPARATION: I envisioned these bagel panini with nice dark grill marks, and I knew Bagel with top and bottom edges removedthat to achieve them I'd have to have flat surfaces...which do not come naturally with puffy, tubular bagels. So my first task was to create some flat surfaces. First, I split an "everything" bagel - freshly procured from Einstein Bros. that morning - down the middle lengthwise, as I normally do, and then I went to cut off the top and bottom edges. Problem! The bagel was so soft and malleable that it was rather difficult to cut off the edges off the bagel halves without endangering my fingertips. I managed, but I wouldn't advise this method. Note for the final recipe: cut off the edges first and then split the bagel in half.

As I mentioned, my husband foregos any accoutrements when it cSliced red onionsomes to prepping his bagels, but when he orders them in restaurants I've noticed they're often served with rings of red onion and tomato. So I thought I'd include those on this sandwich as well. For the tomatoes, I removed the seeds to minimize the chance of wet bread, per Tip #4.

Next was the dill-watercress salad. I actually was inspired to include a salad after reading this post on the Cookthink blog - what a great way to incorporate greens on a sandwich with a little acidic kick! I pictured something with a small leaf and watercress seemed to fit the bill. The suggestion for adding dill came from my mother-in-law and I concurred - salmon and dill go so well together. So I washed a bunch of watercress and loaded it into a large salad bowl. Judging from the quantity of leaves, I thought 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh dill ought to be enough to disperse throughout the salad.

Then came the dressing - I wanted to do a balsamic vinaigrette. I did a little research and found out that the typical ratio for a vinaigrette is 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar. Looking at my greens in the bowl, I thought I might need about 1/2 cup of dressing. I had to talk this one aloud at length with Angela to get the proportions right: to break 1/2 cup down into a 3:1 ratio translated to 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (my head really spun on that one - I was a liberal arts major!). Additionally, I wanted a little garlic in there as well as capers - even though my husband doesn't really like them, they're pretty traditional companions to bagels and lox so in they went. I seasoned the vinegar mixture with salt and pepper and then whisked in my olive oil to finish the vinaigrette. Zesty!

THE CONSTRUCTION: As I often do, I brushed the outer sides of the bagel halves with a little melted butter - not a lot, just enough to ensure a little color and crispness upon grilling. I Bagel sandwich on panini grillspread a generous amount of whipped cream cheese inside both halves of the sandwich. On the bottom half, I added several rings of red onion, then about an ounce of smoked salmon (basically enough to cover the bagel) and a few slices of tomato. I closed up the sandwich and loaded it onto the grill at medium-high heat (375 degrees).

The beauty of this type of sandwich is that since the cream cheese is already in a soft state, all I needed to do was get a nice toast on the bread. Two minutes and thirty seconds was all it took. I removed the sandwich from the grill and prepared it for the final step - inserting the dill-watercress salad. I turned the sandwich upside down, removed the bottom bagel half, piled on some salad and closed it back up.

THE RESULTS: Happy faces (and mouths) all around! I served the smoked salmon bagel panini with a little fruit salad and some OJ. My panini-testing guinea pigsSmoked Salmon Bagel Panini loved how the bagel came out nice and toasty on the outside while still soft on the inside. Julie mentioned that she actually appreciated that I'd cut off the top and bottom edges as it made the sandwich less "bready" than others she's had. Angela commented that the salad "made the sandwich". And even my purist husband appreciated my somewhat embellished version and gave it his stamp of approval. What more could I ask for?

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Friday, March 28, 2008

I'm All a-Twitter!

For any of you on Twitter (or anyone who, as I was until just a few days ago, is still on the fence), I wanted to let you know that I recently joined! You can find me at http://www.twitter.com/PaniniKathy

I post little updates periodically - topics not quite worthy of an entire blog post, but things I felt were worth mentioning. I didn't quite understand the point of Twitter when I first heard of it, but now that I've become accustomed to following friends through Facebook updates, it doesn't seem too strange anymore to communicate via tidbits.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

An Ode (or Two!) to California

Well, if I could dare to play around with PB&J, I may as well tackle the other "acronym sandwich" - the BLT! Bacon, lettuce and tomato is a pretty perfect combination as is, for sure. But for my continuing series, Panini Happy Classics, I thought maybe I could make it extra-perfect with a little panini-style variation. Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.

California BLT Mini-Panini - Attempt #1

  • Bread: Sourdough, cut into circles
  • Meat: Pancetta
  • Cheese: Goat cheese
  • Condiments: Mayonnaise
  • "Goodies": Baby spinach, cilantro

THE INSPIRATION: I don't know why I've become so bacon-obsessed lately. When you look at the "Browse by Topic" section on these two blogs, "bacon panini" stands out with the most recipes. I think it's the result of having been raised on Sizzlean ("Move over, bacon!") and finally having the chance to appreciate the real thing. One thing I've noticed - if a recipe calls for pancetta, rather than bacon, it somehow sounds a little less Denny's (no offense!) and a little more refined. Call it the Giada effect - with proper Italian accent, of course :-) So in contemplating a variation on the good ol' BLT, I looked to pon-CHET-tah for some inspiration. I was kind of admiring its spiraly round shape and I thought of how cool it might look with a nice round slice of bright red tomato. Then I thought, "What if it were on some circular bread?" Instead of serving one large sandwich and cutting it in half, a serving would be two round "mini-panini". Before I knew it, I was dreaming up sandwich ingredients based on their shapes in addition to their flavor.

One additional source of inspiration: my home state of California. If you recall, a while back I set out to create a panini recipe inspired by San Diego. Well, that one didn't quite work out as planned (ended up as a Caribbean tribute!), but I promised to give it another try someday. Well, that day finally came last week when I decided to make a California-style BLT. California BLTs usually include avocado, so that was a given. Going along with the circular theme I thought about nice little rounds of goat cheese as well. And, of course, the San Francisco Bay Area native in me had to put this all on some good sourdough bread.

THE PREPARATION: To get my sourdough into nice little circles, I took one of my tumbler glasses and traced it with a paring knife. The edges came out a little jagged, but the general round shape was there. Since I was making a bunch of sandwiches for testing, I pretty much blew through an entire loaf of sourdough, punching out a hole in each slice! I felt a momentary wave of guilt over the prospect of such wastefulness until my mom, in town visiting from New York, suggested freezing the excess bread (of which there was a lot) to make croutons. Perfect! So that's exactly what I did. Mom is always right :-)

While I was punching out my sourdough circles, I had the panini grill heating up to 375 degrees. I've decided I want to use the grill for prep as much as possible for these panini (as opposed to the stove or oven) - it really is quite a versatile machine. Once it was heated, on went the pancetta. I must say, a grill is great for cooking bacon (those who have been cooking bacon on their Foreman grills can attest) - most of the grease slides on down the ridges and collects in the drip tray. Not only is it easier to clean up, it's got to be somewhat healthier - at least I choose to believe it does.

I'd never actually cooked pancetta on its own before (just diced it up in other recipes) so I was a little surprised to see how much those little spiraly circles shrink up. I guess I should have known, given how American-style bacon shrinks. Oh well, I could still keep them for my round theme - I'd just need two slices instead of one. The more the merrier!


THE CONSTRUCTION: I brushed a little olive oil on what would be the outer sides of my sourdough circles. Then on the inside I spread a thin layer of mayonnaise and topped it with two slices of pancetta, a thin slice of tomato, two slices of avocado, a slice of goat cheese and the top sourdough circle. Grilled for about 4 minutes until the bread was nice and toasty.

Then - here's a new trick - I turned the sandwich upside-down, removed the bottom bread, inserted some baby spinach and cilantro (my "L" in this "BLT") and closed the sandwich back up. I just saw this recommendation for how to keep greens from wilting when you're grillling on a Food Network special recently. Had to update my Panini 101 article with this new tip- there are now 8 Tips for Making Great Panini!

THE RESULTS: Mmmmm! Like I said before, bacon, lettuce and tomato is a pretty perfect combination. I was slightly concerned that using both goat cheese and avocado would make things too mushy, but it wasn't at all. The creamy-tanginess of the goat cheese melded well with the salty pancetta and bright tomato and cilantro flavors. The extra crunch of the olive oil-brushed sourdough also helped to make this a very satisfying sandwich. Mom and Dad (who have rather discerning palates!) really enjoyed it.

Since I had VIP taste testers in the house and I wanted to offer them more than one sandwich variation to try, I went ahead and did an Attempt #2. But I'd call Attempt #1 a success!

California BLT Mini-Panini - Attempt #2

Now, we liked the goat cheese and the pancetta on my first California BLT but I was curious to see if we might prefer going a slightly more traditional route, with swiss and American-style bacon. So for Attempt #2, I swapped out the goat cheese and pancetta and held everything else the same.

THE RESULTS: Great too! The swiss and American-style bacon definitely produced very different flavors. For starters, American-style bacon is smoked while pancetta is not, so there was now a smoky taste in the mix. Swiss cheese melts a bit better and had a larger "footprint" on the sandwich than the goat cheese did so Attempt #2 was a cheesier sandwich.

We really were torn as to which we preferred - both were really good, for different reasons. So for the final recipe I'm offering both variations.



Get the final recipe!


Check out more from the Panini Happy Classics Series: