On a rainy day, there is a lot to be said for sitting down to a toasty, melty grilled cheese sandwich. Now, I too loved the classic standard – Wonderbread and Kraft Singles slices, the outside of the bread slathered with butter to give a browned, crispy crust, the yellow cheese oozing out the sides, the end result a battered, smooshed version of its former self – but now I’m a big girl. I can make something a bit more… sophisticated.
Saturday’s Farmers’ Market was sparser than the two previous weekends because of the looming rainstorms, but that didn’t deter me. Before heading up to the Square, I ran by Little Bread Company to grab a loaf of their rustic ciabatta bread (and the obligatory pecan sticky bun, which totally violates the never-eat-anything-bigger-than-your-head rule). After a quick lap around the Farmers’ Market, where I picked up two bundles of the hugest arugula I have ever seen in my life, I hightailed it home and started on my lunch.
The first step was making my arugula pesto. I know, I know, pesto has been done a thousand times, a thousand ways – the most recent version I’ve seen used baby radish tops – who knew?! But pesto isn’t just a sauce. It’s a spread, it’s a dip, it’s a salad dressing, it’s a marinade. Pesto has numerous uses in the kitchen, pasta sauce being just the tip of the iceberg. A batch of fresh pesto will last you a good week in the fridge if kept tightly sealed, or up to a month in the freezer. I started by ripping my mammoth arugula leaves from their stems and toasting some walnuts. After roughly chopping a few cloves of garlic and grating some parmesan, a few quick whizzes in the food processor yielded a very aromatic pesto base. With the food processor running, I slowly added extra virgin olive oil, which emulsified the ingredients and turned them thick and glossy. Next step: the cheese.
When it comes to cheese, everyone has their favorite. Some prefer the classics, like cheddar or Swiss, while others prefer more adventurous choices, like brie or gorgonzola. For Saturday’s sandwich, I chose a mixture of extra sharp white cheddar and mozzarella. I like shredded cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich as opposed to slices; I think shredding the cheese helps it melt better and faster. (Side note: Avoid buying pre-shredded cheese at the store – this cheese often contains anti-caking ingredients, which give the cheese a powdery texture and prevent it from melting well. Buy a block of cheese and shred what you need instead.) After a generous spread of arugula pesto on each side of my bread, I piled on the cheese and carefully assembled the sandwich. Next step: grilling.
For those of you who want to spend the extra money and clutter up your cupboard or counter with a one-use appliance, a Panini press is the thing for you. For those of you who have a skillet, a brick and some aluminum foil, you can easily create restaurant-style Paninis at home – I use my cast iron grill pan and a brick that I’ve wrapped in aluminum foil. Over medium low heat, I put my sandwich in the grill pan and put the brick on top, keeping a close eye on the bread to prevent burning. After about 5 minutes, I flipped the sandwich and put the brick back on top. In another five minutes, I was sitting down to an arugula pesto and cheese Panini, worthy of any Roman food cart vendor. The ciabatta was crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, and the pesto gave a garlicky, spicy kick to the sandwich. Add melted cheese to the equation, and you’ve got one satisfying lunch.
Panini can be made with an infinite number of ingredients. Sandwich meats like ham and turkey, or fancier meats like prosciutto or spicy capicolla add great flavor, while olives, sundried tomatoes, capers or roasted bell peppers compliment many cheeses. Add your ideas and favorites to make your own signature sandwich. Enjoy!
Brick & Skillet Sandwich
1 loaf ciabatta (or similar crusty bread)
1/2 c. shredded cheese
1/4 c. arugula pesto
3 c. packed arugula leaves
1/2 c. toasted walnuts
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 c. grated parmesan
1 c. extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Combine arugula, walnuts, garlic and parmesan in a food processor and pulse to a fine chop. With the food processor running, slowly add the olive oil, until smooth and emulsified. Season with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container for up to one week in the refrigerator, or freeze for up to one month.
Slice ciabatta loaf in thirds, then slice one third horizontally. Spread the arugula pesto evenly on each side of the bread, and top one side with cheese. Place sandwich in a cast iron skillet or grill pan over medium-low heat, carefully placing a foil-covered brick on top of the sandwich. After about five minutes, flip the sandwich and replace the brick on top, keeping an eye on the bread to prevent burning. When cheese is melted and bread is crusty, remove from the heat. Slice in half and serve immediately.
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