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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