~ Grillmarked: Italian-Style Panini-Croissant-Crostini ~
Panini-croissant-crostini. That's a lot to digest, and if you're of Italian-heritage, simmer down, lighten up, and read on before criticizing my fun-loving play on mouth-watering words. Sandwich-press-grilled panini, full of cured Italian meats and cheese, substituting mini-croissants for the traditional rustic Italian bread (I've affectionately added the word crostini to describe them, because I serve them, crostini-style, as 3-4 bite appetizers), are crowd-pleasing snacks that get gobbled up at a tailgate party faster than beer flows at a fraternity house. While crusty, firm-textured rustic-type breads make marvelous panini, I am here to tell you, if you've never made a panini using a light and airy buttery-rich croissant, you are missing out on one of the best panini-sandwich-eating experiences of your life -- every savory bite literally melts in your mouth -- the croissant is cottony enough inside and crackly enough outside to produce extraordinary results.
Bruschetta (broo-skeh-tah) means "oiled slice" and comes from the word "bruscare" (broo-scar-ay), which means "to roast over coals". Bruschetta is the original garlic toast. Traditionally, large, thick slices of firm, crusty bread are toasted over a wood fire, rubbed with plenty of garlic while they are still warm, drizzled with the finest olive oil available, sprinkled lightly with salt and pepper, then served warm. They are classically served with fresh basil, tomatoes and buffalo-milk mozzarella, but when paper-thin slices of Italian meats, cheeses and vegetables (grilled, roasted or marinated) are added, they can turn into a hearty knife-and-fork open-faced sandwich meal.
Crostini in Italian simply means "little toast", and also means they don't always get drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with garlic. Just like bruschetta, crostini are topped with any number of savory toppings. Unlike bruschetta, they are usually made using smaller, cylindrical-shaped breads, like a baguette. Crostini are always served as a snack or an appetizer before a meal, or, an accompaniment to the meal. That said, in the case of both bruschetta and crostini, any size, color or flavor of rustic bread can be used, as long as it has a firm texture and have a good crust -- ciabatta, focaccia, michetta, baguette or batard, and sourdough are prime examples.
Panini is the Italian word for a grilled sandwich made with the same type of firm, crusty bread (or rolls) used to make bruschetta and crostini. "One panino, two panini" are the singular and plural forms of the word (which derive from the Italian "pane" and Latin "panis", referring to bread), but the use of panino is uncommon and unused nowadays. Panini sandwiches, served hot off the grill, were traditionally filled with the same thin-sliced specialty deli-meats and cheese served with or on bruschetta and crostini (ham, mortadella, salami, provolone, etc.), meaning they were associated with Italian fare, but, nowadays a panini can find itself fused with any cuisine.
A panini press is basically a double-sided contact grill that cooks both sides of a sandwich at once. Much like a grill pan, the grids of a panini press give these sandwiches their signature grill marks. There are several good brands, in all price ranges, on the market. My Cuisinart Griddler is about 5 years old. It doesn't take up too much space, controls heat perfectly, and, I love it. This gadget has earned its rightful place on my kitchen counter.
The meat, cheese, condiments & how-to assemble tips:
With the bread or rolls in hand, find a market with a selection of high-quality cured Italian meats -- trust me, there are a lot of options in every large market, some at the deli-counter and some prepackaged. Choose 3-5 of your favorites plus provolone cheese (mozzarella is typically not put on an Italian panini). Ask the person at the counter to slice the cold-cuts as thin as possible -- just short of falling apart. If the meat is sliced too thick, the panini sandwiches will be texturally off balance -- too chewy and dense. The traditional order atop the bread: a thin coating of butter or a creamy, smooth, flavorful sandwich spread, a cheese slice, the meat(s), soft leafy greens and/or herbs, and (optional) onion, roasted red pepper, or, a pickled vegetable or veggie mixture.
My favorite combo for 8, 3" snack-sized sandwiches or 16 appetizers, listed in order of assembly:
1/2 cup my recipe for Balsamic Mayonnaise: The Other Italian Dressing*
8 small 3" croissants, a total of about 9 ounces
8 slices provolone cheese folded in half, 1 full-round slice per sandwich
16 slices dry salame, 2 slices per sandwich
24 slices hot sopresatta, 3 slices per sandwich
8 slices mortadella w/pistachios, 1 per sandwich
32 wispy slices dry-aged hot capicola, 4 per sandwich
a few, 6-8-10, baby arugula leaves per sandwich
* For dressing: In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon each: garlic powder, onion powder and Italian seasoning blend. Refrigerate 1 hour, to allow flavors time to marry.
~Step 1. Slice each mini-croissant in half horizontally, then slather each half (both top and bottom and bottom halves) with 1 generous teaspoon of the balsamic mayonnaise. Take one slice of provolone cheese, fold it in half (to form, essentially, two pieces) and place it on the bottom of the croissant.
~Step 2. Place 2 slices of the dry-aged salami, 3 slices of the sopresatta, and, 1, carefully-folded-to-fit slice of mortadella atop the cheese on each panini-crostini. Finish by placing 4 wispy pieces of the capicola on top, followed by about 8-10 baby arugula leaves and put the top on each of the sandwiches.
~Step 3. Spray grill grids of panini press, top and bottom with no-stick cooking spray. Close grill and preheat to medium-high on grill-panini setting. When green light turns on, place 2-4 mini-croissant-crostini on hot grill grids. I'm demonstrating two, because it is easier to photograph -- four will easily fit, six in two rows of three can be achieved.
~Step 4. Place the top of the press on the sandwiches. Firmly, but gently, using the press's handle, press down on the sandwiches for 30-45 seconds. You are NOT trying to squish the sandwiches, but, you are trying to put just enough pressure on them to steam and crisp the bread a bit. Let go. Allow sandwiches to grill 3-4 minutes, until cheese is oozing and bread is crispy. If they don't look perfect, they're perfect.
Transfer from grill, wait 1-1 1/2 minutes, slice on a diagonal...
Special Equipment List: small bowl; spoon; cutting board; chef's knife; panini contact-grill; thin spatula; serrated bread knife
Cook's Note: When it comes to making panini, the best thing to do is be creative, meaning: test grill-pressed sandwiches using ingredients that 100% that appeal to you. I would never have created my own ~ Roasted-Chicken Caesar-Salad Focaccia-Panini ~ without one or two experiments. They don't call it 'wichcraft for no reason. Concocting a well-constructed sandwich is a serious undertaking.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2018)