Tuesday, January 1, 2008

From Panini to Bikini (or Not)

Happy New Year

With full hearts and even fuller bellies, many of us will approach 2008 with excitement and anticipation for smaller waistlines,
bigger bank accounts and more organized homes and offices.
As I begin my own annual WWF Smackdown (no, I’m not a fan of
wrestling but the quirky moniker is a perfect fit for my
self-prescribed weight loss regime of more Water, Walking and Fiber), I am also committed to my Christmas promise for self-improvement which ultimately benefits the greater good.

It was an easy decision to make my donation in the form of edibles because food remains a subject for me that is both comforting and motivating.
Food is what I know and it’s one of the few things I’m good at.
Not to mention that I am haunted by the thought of anonymous members of my own community running short of food to feed their families, while I admonish my own family (including myself) for the occasional waste resulting from hungry eyes, too large for sometimes unappreciative, well-fed stomachs.

I did some shopping for the local food pantry and as I reached for predictable non-perishables like canned beans, rice, and soup stock, I thought about a recent movie I had the pleasure of watching with my family.
It tells the story of a rat named Remy who aspires to be a multi-starred chef in Paris. With insurmountable odds against him, he fulfills his dream and acquires his own restaurant, complete with all of the kitchen gadgets any renowned varmint-chef would need.
The repetitive message throughout the movie of “Anyone can cook,” is perhaps overstated in the case of Remy and his widely extended rat family, but pertinent nonetheless to the rest of us.
It is in that spirit that I decided to mix it up a little when preparing the donation bags for the food pantry. In addition to the basic items, I threw in a few unexpected yet inspirational items for good measure, including but not limited to: coconut milk, parmesan tomato-basil oil, sweet chili oil, Thai red curry paste, Vietnamese spring roll wrappers, Nori wrappers for sushi rolls, Arborio rice, pearled barley, mixed Tuscan spices, chipotle chili spice packs for the brave, two bottles of hot sauce, and Buffalo Bills Wild West salsa (which, in conjunction with beans, beef stock, rice and a few spices would make one heck of a meal for a rainy football Sunday afternoon).
I am hopeful that the recipients of my donations will be inspired enough to experiment with the ingredients.
If for only one meal, or even one moment, they could taste
a bit of joy and forget a bit of hardship, it would make my heart glad.

On one pleasant, unseasonably warm day, after dropping off the donation bags, hubby and I headed to our favorite Italian Pastosa to stock up on fixins for the week ahead, which would be spent getting to know our new panini press.
One stop turned into two because we are both blessed and cursed to have two Italian specialty shops within just a few miles of our home. An ideal situation perhaps, if we find ourselves in an emergency situation in need of squid ink; not so ideal if we have a yen for fresh Mozzarella and we shop when we’re hungry (and when, pray tell,
are we NOT hungry?
Needless to say, I was not only successful in my acquisition of one jar of Calabrian hot peppers, one jar of Recca anchovies packed in olive oil, one bag of fresh bread crumbs, one featherweight bag of outrageously expensive dried Porcini mushrooms, one can of AsDoMar Italian tuna packed in oil ( in my opinion, there is no substitute), one bag of Farro pasta, two cans of San Marzano tomatoes, a pound of Gaeta and Kalamata olives, and a half pound of pignoli nuts, but as I expected, my husband refused to leave either establishment without his favorite four-letter-friend, MEAT.

We arrived home with my own bacchanalia of delicacies and his sinful assortment of sausages and stuffed beef pinwheels.
These substantial meats would have to wait their turn for plated performance however, because the panini press was calling.
An assorted mix of sliced salamis awaited their cue as I prepared breads and accompaniments for the event.
While our DeLonghi Retro Panini Press heated to maximum temperature, I carefully sliced, conservatively layered, cautiously spread, and gently drizzled to my heart’s content.
Throughout the process, I referred time and again to my favorite book on the subject: Simple Italian Sandwiches by Jennifer and Jason Denton. I did my homework on cookbooks dedicated solely to panini, and this one tops my list of favorites. I am also a fan of
Jo McAuley’s book, simply called Panini, but the Denton’s book delves further into the origin of simple sandwich fare and offers great recipes for condiments and accompaniments. Their book offers the reader a brief, yet engaging history of panini and tempts one to visit their critically acclaimed bistro in New York City, lovingly called ‘Ino (which loosely translates into “small precious mouthfuls”).

I knew from premiere panini production that I would be forever hooked on these simple yet symphonic sandwiches.
Truth be told, I have never been a fan of sandwiches in general, save for the occasional (albeit deadly) Reuben.
These however, offered a combination of flavors and textures which recalled favorite Italian fare of my well-fed youth. My love of all things antipasti was brilliantly showcased between slices of artisan bread grilled to crisp yet tender perfection.
My favorite panini to date (and keep in mind that we haven’t even scratched the surface of possibilities) includes soppressata, Fontina cheese and arugula, spread with sun-dried tomato bruschetta and olive oil. All is lovingly nestled between two uniform slices of ciabatta rolls and firmly pressed until golden and crisp.
Pure Panini Heaven.
While educating myself on the finer points of panini consumption, I arrived at the simple, yet unarguable conclusion that Prosecco was invented for the sole purpose of being served with panini.

My secret love affair with panini started well before the press arrived via UPS at my front door. Admittedly, I read the Denton’s book
cover to cover, before I even ordered the press. With each detailed description, I could practically taste the joy and longed to share it.
The morning after I read the last page, I efficiently e-ordered panini presses for every member of my family and for my closest friends and neighbors.
Christmas supply being unable to meet urgency and demand, I was forced to purchase three different brands; all of which fared well from recent reviews.
My first intention was to purchase the highly regarded Cuisinart GR-1 Griddler (this is not to be confused with the larger griddler that has removable plates and is made to accommodate meats and other grillables, but instead is fashioned to be a workhorse for grilling sandwiches). A major inventory faux-pas by Amazon.com left me with a replacement offer for the DeLonghi Retro Panini Press which I now own. I am pleased and satisfied and would recommend this model to any ambitious panini maker. It is both easy to use and very easy to clean—the two requirements that were non-negotiable in my quest for panini press procurement. I was fortunate to be able to attain two more DeLonghi’s to share with friends.
I was intent on providing all of my family members with the same product so my decision was made based on availability of five identical units. They each received the Breadman Panini Press, the most impressive dark horse of my purchases. For around forty bucks each, the units are sturdy, keep consistent temperature and house narrow and closely spaced grill plates which most resemble those of traditional panini presses. I was so impressed with this unit that I tried to reorder a few more to no avail. Both Amazon and Target were devoid of inventory and I was on a wild goose chase for three more panini presses. I finally settled on the Hamilton Beach version and was pleasantly surprised at its comfortable price tag and simple yet reliable construction. Each recipient found a panini cookbook firmly attached to the box containing the press, for added inspiration. Some received Jo McAuley’s book while others received the Denton’s cookbook.
Two presses in festive wrapping are still sitting idly by my fireplace, awaiting belated holiday visits from unsuspecting guests.
Oh the anticipation and joy of giving.

My panini Christmas is one I wish I could have shared with every man or woman who necessarily, but reluctantly makes their way up the old cement steps to an open, objective food pantry door.
But alas, my oddly assorted (yet well intended) donations will have to suffice for now.

And onto that dreaded subject of bikinis, I got to thinking about dinner napkins of all things, and how they played an integral role in my damnation of the bikini.

I recall around the age of junior high school, that my father was displeased with all manners of paper production pertaining to dinner napkins, toilet paper and tissues. He would occasionally mutter seemingly nonsensical negativities about such products while using them (with the exception of toilet paper as I have no knowledge, nor do I wish to continue this line of discussion about his use of this product. I can only attest to the fact that he regularly threatened divorce if our household was ever devoid of said product, however inferior).
I remember that on occasion, usually during mealtime, he would open a paper napkin to its full size, gently unfolding each layer to reveal a transparent, inadequate (albeit large) square. He would remark (to anyone who would listen) that it was wasteful if we didn’t allow our napkins to be used to their fullest potential before reaching for a replacement ( this is a common yet silly practice of fathers-- foolishly believing that their children actually USE dinner napkins), all the while shaking his head in disapproval at the inferiority of our not-so-cheap paper napkins.
He was most disgruntled however by the inadequacy of tissues. I wondered as a young teen if my father had an unusually large nose or if in fact, he suffered from some abnormal sinus condition that failed to halt mucus production. When I questioned my mother about his disdain for Kleenex, she reminded me that he was a recent convert from traditional fabric handkerchiefs and would never be satisfied with their inferior, paper counterpart.
In my true, squeamish girl-form of the era, I was horrified by her admission. I begged forgiveness on my father’s soul for his prehistoric preference and begged blessings for my mother’s dear soul for putting up with the daily laundry of five kids, two grandparents and a husband who added said handkerchiefs to the lot. I also found it both disturbing and amusing that in households across my community, where my friends were regularly admonished for failing to remove their tennis shoes before entering the home, gentleman of the house were welcomed and seemingly encouraged to add their snot to the family hamper.
At least my own mother was consistently fair, and equally welcomed both the sneakered and the hankie-toting into her home and hamper.

Back to the subject of dinner napkins; it was during my less than svelte phase of teen-hood that I devised a dinnertime plan for guaranteed weight loss.
It was a brilliant plan that required no stimulants or hokey-pokey diet tricks, but instead, the open-mindedness of family members,
an appetite, and a bikini.
With my mother’s permission, I showed up for dinner wearing only my black and white striped bikini. I explained (to the few who looked up from their dinner plates long enough to notice) that the unsightliness of my belly-rolls would surely deter me from overeating or making poor choices in regard to portion size and the ratio of proteins to vegetables which adorned my generously sized plate.
Three nights in a row I left the table victorious. I was satiated but not stuffed, and most importantly, I had the confidence of having made good nutritional choices under my invisible shrinking belt.
On the fourth night however, once the chicken cutlets and spinach-laden mashed potatoes hit the table, I soon learned the indispensable value of a dinner napkin unfolded to its full potential.
By golly, my father was on to something.
On diagonal, neatly tucked between bikini top and bikini bottom, it cleverly hid a multitude of sins and allowed for a damn good
(and temporarily guiltless) meal.

So, on the first day of this promising new year, I exist
like so many others, torn between many variables.
I will struggle with battles between what is healthful and what is delicious, between right and wrong, between dedicating myself to a cause or desensitizing myself from said cause, simply because it is easier and less painful; between greed and generosity, between willpower and won’t-exhaustion, between saving and spending, between an organized mess or just a mess, and perhaps most significantly, between myself and I.

The me who wants to be that woman in the great jeans who makes her own soap, is a markedly different me from the one who idolizes her panini press.
She is a me who loves all the flavors life has to offer and wants everyone to have a taste.
She is really the me I most enjoy being.

And should that bikini experiment rear its ugly head again, I have the perfect application for those orphaned fabric handkerchiefs I found long ago in a family closet. It turns out that they are bigger and stronger than the paper dinner napkins which accompany our daily meals.
Perhaps, when placed on point, and tucked neatly between bikini top and bottom, one will hide a multitude of forty year-old sins, while sparing the appetite of dinner companions and allowing for one
damn good meal of perfect panini and prosecco.

I think my father would be proud.

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


For those of you who haven't yet seen Ratatouille, treat yourself. It's a happy movie that will leave you hungry (but no less repulsed by rats). It is one of my favorite Christmas gifts, second only to my new Nordic Track, which is easy enough to operate while holding a panini and watching Food Network.

I am happy to share with you my favorite recipe for panini from
Simple Italian Sandwiches by Jennifer and Jason Denton.
If I could eat the book, I would.

Soppressata, Fontina, and Arugula Panini

4 Cibatta Rolls
15 thin slices soppressata or other hard salami
1 small bunch arugula, well rinsed and dried
Freshly ground black pepper
8 think slices Italian Fontina Cheese

Preheat Panini Grill.
Slice off the domed tops of the Ciabatta rolls and reserve for another use. The rolls should be about 1 inch thick. Split or slice the rolls in half horizontally.
Distribute the soppressata slices so that the bottom halves of the rolls are covered with a single layer of salami. Top with a few leaves of arugula and some black pepper. Arrange two slices of Fontina on each sandwich and trim edges of cheese to fit the bread. Cover with the top halves of the rolls.
Grill the sandwiches until warmed through completely--about 4 minutes.
Cut in half and serve immediately.

**My Notes:
I always drizzle a scant amount of extra virgin olive oil on the base roll before placing ingredients on top. If the meat is particularly greasy however, I will omit this step. On this particular panini, I added a teaspoon of sundried tomato bruschetta spread onto each side of the sandwich before closing. It is important to use only a small bit so it doesn't seep out during grilling.
This panini is especially good served with marinated artichokes and mixed olives alongside (and don't forget the prosecco).


coachh said...

Okay. Call me a blasphemer in the kitchen - the faster a food can be prepared and consumed, the happier I am (although I have a sister-in-law who puts ketsup on spaghetti and calls it Italian, and I don't believe in being THAT quick)- because "panini", "soppressata", and "fontina" sound suspiciously like coaches in the ESMSA. You are truly my hero, Michelle - can we eat at your place tonight? And maybe tomorrow night?

Michelle said...

Miss H,
You are welcome any day of the week and double-welcome if you bring the Prosecco.
Panini are so easy it's shameful (think glorified grilled cheese).
While the rest of us will eat panini in any form, our more challenged eater (the ball player) prefers bread, sauce and stringy cheese--basically a pizza sandwich.
Either way, they make for easy, weeknight fare--even easier than Hamburger Helper--if you can imagine.

coachh said...

We got Best Buy gift certificate for Christmas. Does best Buy sell Panini Presses? Although there is plenty of glory in grilled cheeses, we are a HUGE sandwich family, so shoving all 4 food groups in between two slabs of carbs sounds like a plan to me.

CurePdd said...

1 Panini, 2 Panini, 3 Panini, floor...
We were blessed to receive a Panini maker from a relatively well know person here...(Santa said the note...) and since Christmas day, my family has consumed no less then 5 to 6 Panini's a week...yet this did not come without the usually family folly...It is with due diligence that I warn ANY family using the Panini maker, and on the Gluten Free diet, that the bread does not behave well with this machine. OF COURSE the sandwiches come out delicious, and my son is addicted, BUT the consistency of the bread is such that when you close the maker the bread loves to SHOOT out of the front, and fly through the air like Santa himself...I have become an expert at gently balancing the sandwich with the spatula, and closing the lid at the same time! I'm not quite sure when I grew the third arm, yet our Panini making is successful if this procedure is carried out...I one day aspire to use the different spreads, seasonings,etc...yet my family seems to be quite content with the regular tomato, meat, and Italian spice with olive oil recipe which lets me save my energy for the energetic GFCF bread! Thank you for all of the amazing recipes, you have sparked a food revolution in our house :)!!!!! (AND WE LOVE OUR PANINI MAKER!!!!!)