During our Voyage throughout Italy, one of the simplest lunches was the affordable and cheap panino. We were making panini long before we went to my Babbo-land, but since we got back, I think they've gotten better and better. One of our favorite appliances is the Cuisinart GR-4N 5-in-1 Griddler. Lisa uses the flat plates for making pancakes and I use the grill plates to make panini. We buy ciabatta with olive oil from the supermarket and can make fantastic panini in about 5 minutes.
A Short Panino History:
The word "panino" literally means "little breads". In Latin, panis means bread. A panino doesn't really need to be heated, as in Italy it is often eaten as a quick snack on the run, in the field, or in the case of an Italian bachelor.... "Hey, Mamo, make me a snack!". Stuff some peppers and ham inside a small bread roll and Mama gives her "bambino" a satisfying, quick snack without much effort (after all, "After he gets married, HE is going to look after ME.") This type more precisely is called a Panino imbottito, literally "stuffed little bread", i.e. a sandwich. Throughout early history, bread was considered an entire meal, until it became the support or container for a condiment or filling--the sandwich.
The first reference of a panino appeared in a 16th-century Italian cookbook, with the first mention of "panini" appearing in 1954 in the New York Times in an article about an Italian festival in Harlem: "The visitors ate Italian sausage, also pizze fritta, zeppole, calzone, torrone, panini, pepperoni, and taralli."
Panini as we know them today, became trendy in Milanese bars, called paninoteche, in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, in Italy during the Eighties, a cultural fad developed in Milano where teens would meet in panino bars,... the teens were called paninnare. In Sicily, Panini cresciuti ("grown rolls") are fried Sicilian potato rolls containing ham and cheese. Today in Italy, shops that specialize in panini are called panineria, although many of these have morphed into offering a smörgåsbord of many types of sandwiches, not just the classic panino. In Italy, sandwich shops traditionally wrap the bottom of a panino in a sheet of white paper, a way to keep hands clean while making this a true finger food.
This time I made our panini with slices of salami-mozzarella roll (Boar's Head brand is nice and spicy), also becoming a commonplace item in the supermarket fresh cheese section. I learned in Italy that some of the best things can be very simple. This lunch is a good example of this philosophy. You can also get more creative too... adding grated cheeses like fontina, asiago, smoked gouda or cacciacavalo. Then you can add leftover chicken, prosciutto, sausage, caramelized onions, olives, peppers... whatever. This however was an ad hoc, simple lunch, like the ones I threw together in Italy.
I cut the ciabatta in 5 inch long sections the sliced each horizontally and folded them open. I then slice the salami-mozzeralla into slices a bit less than 1/4" thick and lay 4 on each ciabatta. Now some say you need to butter the outside of your bread or brush it with olive oil to make grill marks or a crust. Sure, brush the inside with olive oil if you want (extra virgin, of course) to add flavor, but I find nothing on the outside makes for a crispier, less greasy crust. And please, if you want to cook in an authentically Italian manner, never use butter. Butter is rarely used in Italian cooking and is never spread on bread. Drizzle your ingredients if you want with a little olive oil but never on the outside.
Setting my panini press to "grill" and to high heat, I let it preheat for a couple of minutes and then loaded in the panini (I can only do 2 at a time of this size). I give it a good pressing at the beginning and try to position the bread so the press lid sits flat. After about 2-3 minutes, I give a final press--hearing the panini sizzle. I hold this press for about 30-40 seconds, pull them out, plate them and slice diagonally into triangles.
With panini, the longer you press it and hear the sizzle, the more crunch you will have in your bread. Too many people think a panini is grilled bread, cut open and cold cuts put inside unheated (many restaurants order pre-grilled sandwich bread and just make a normal sandwich and call it a panini). A true panini must be pressed and heated to meld the ingredients (that's meld, not melt) into one cohesive, gooey mess of deliciousness. And take note, if you use cold cuts and sliced cheese, the cheese must be placed both on top and on the bottom so the melted cheese helps hold the bread together. A panini is not a sandwich... you should not be able to lift the bread off after it's been pressed and cooked.
In Italy, a passata is the most basic of tomato sauces--in fact, it's usually the base of a good sauce recipe. Typically, you can buy passata in bottles in a supermercado or alimentari with "passada pomodoro" on the label. Passata like this is nothing more than uncooked, crushed and sieved fresh tomatoes--usually a very high quality tomato at that. What I made was quick-cooked version... with spices added. Also, this is not a "marinara" sauce. The Italian word "mare" means sea. A true marinara is a tomato sauce for or with a fish ingredient... clams, mussels, anchovies, etc.
To about 1-1/2 cups of passata I added 1 teaspoon of dried oregano (use double of chopped fresh if you have it), plus 1 teaspoon of dried basil, a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon of sugar. (The sugar is needed to cut the acid of the San Marzano tomatoes typically used to make passata). That's it. I stirred it, nuked it for 1 minute 45 seconds in the microwave and presto... a fantastic, fresh tasting dipping sauce!
Enjoy... Buon Appetito!
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Copyright, Jerry Finzi, Grand Voyage Italy, All rights reserved