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Published: Tuesday, 4/12/2011

Panini press is a kitchen workhorse

BY DIANE DAVIS
ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Maybe you are sick of the same old turkey sandwich day after day. Maybe you are tired of heating up your kitchen with the stove. Or maybe you want to impress the heck out of some dinner guests with a truly different dessert.

May we introduce you to the panini press? Yes, one small appliance, many fabulous uses.

Most Americans are familiar with panini. Though the Italian word loosely means "sandwiches," in the United States, it has come to almost always mean a hot pressed sandwich prepared on some kind of grill. They've been popular for about a decade, and you can buy them everywhere from generic airport lunch counters to hip wine bars.

But it's easy to make them at home. And sandwiches are just the start. Learn how to use a panini press -- a close relative of the countertop grill -- and you can pretty much make a full dinner, often faster and with less mess than with more traditional cooking methods.

"You can do chicken, you can do vegetables, you can do pancakes if you have a griddle attachment," says Kathy Shahs, who writes a blog called Panini Happy.

"It actually can replicate quite a few objects you may already have in your house -- a toaster, a griddle, obviously a grill."

And did we mention show-stopping desserts?

You can buy an electric panini press for as little as $40, or as much $300; the models around $100 often offer the most versatility at the best price point. Most of the clam-shaped devices have ridges (though some are flat and griddle-like) and heat up on both the top and bottom grill plates, so they cook things really fast.

Once you have the equipment, start off with a simple sandwich.

Jason Denton, often credited with kicking off a panini craze when he opened the tiny 'ino in New York's Greenwich Village in 1998, says less is always more. "We try to use really high-quality ingredients and try not to do too much to them," he says. Three items on the sandwich is the best balance, he says.

When it comes to cooking, remember the object is to heat the sandwich, not grill it to death, Mr. Denton says. And please, be kind to your creation when you close the lid.

"There might be a misconception about it being called a press," Ms. Shahs said. "You see someone applying all kinds of pressure and really slamming that thing down."

OK, mastered that? Here's where it gets interesting.

Love vegetables? You can press them. Thinly slice some sweet potatoes, toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then grill.

Hankering for a salad? Grill some lightly buttered strips of bread and enjoy the fresh croutons.

Sliced polenta on the press? Yes, please. And for the crispiest, most wonderfully perfect bacon without the usual grease splatter? That's right, panini press it.

How about a main course -- marinated chicken?

Here's Mr. Denton's practically effortless formula: In the morning, rub some boneless, skinless chicken breasts with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, parsley, a few chili flakes, and a pinch of sugar. Wrap each in foil and refrigerate while you are at work. Remove from fridge 20 minutes before cooking, then place seam side up on the press. Close the press and grill at 350° for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove and let rest for a few minutes while assembling some salad greens. Carefully unwrap the chicken, place atop greens, and pour any juices over the meat. Yum!

And don't stop with chicken. You can do just about any meat on the press pretty much the same as you would on a grill, but you'll probably have to experiment with cooking time. Remember, you are cooking both sides at once.

Amy Hildenbrand, who co-owns a food truck in Austin, Texas, says she cooked a 2 1/2-inch steak to a perfect medium-rare once by pressing it for 4 1/2 minutes.

Vegetarians are not left out. Ms. Shahs grills homemade falafel patties and swears they are as crunchy as those done in a skillet with oil.

College students can be masters of the countertop grill. In 2005, a University of Missouri student won a competition sponsored by the Food Network and Salton, then the makers of the George Foreman grill, by making a dinner on the grill that included crabcakes, marinated quail, proscuitto-wrapped asparagus, and new potatoes that went into a salad. For dessert? A pre-made chocolate cheesecake wrapped in phyllo dough and grilled.

Desserts are fabulous to do on the grill.

An easy one: Brush a little butter on some Granny Smith apple slices, grill, and serve sprinkled with brown sugar-cinnamon and topped with whipped cream. Ms. Shahs also suggests baking brownies by dropping batter by the spoonful on the grill and pressing for five minutes.

If you are ready for the big leagues, Ms. Shahs recommends her gingerbread blondie s'mores. Cut prebaked blondies into gingerbread men, and assemble them into sandwiches filled with marshmallow cream and shaved dark chocolate. After grilling the s'mores, dust with clementine zest.



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