Panini presses aren't just the big thing on bridal registries and kitchen counters, they're taking over lunch.
They've moved from Italian delis and into chain sandwich shops across the suburbs, allowing me to indulge my passion for paninis at will.
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Here's a breakdown of some of the paninis I've sampled recently.
Italian Chicken Panini at Einstein Bros. Bagels. My favorite so far. Because paninis have an Italian heritage, I expect them to have a bit of bite. The thin layer of pepperoni does that for me; I don't even like pepperoni on pizza, so go figure. That, along with the roasted red peppers, mozzarella and provolone cheeses and pesto, created a sandwich that made my belly happy.
Chicken Pomodoro Panini at Go Roma. I like the chicken-pesto combo, so I tried it again at this fast-casual Italian spot. This sandwich features a double-dose of basil: fresh basil leaves layered with spinach and a pesto-infused mayo. The oven-dried tomato and Italian vinaigrette added a nice tang.
Veggie Panini at Gianni's Espresso Deli. Anytime I can get artichokes on a sandwich it's a good day, and I loved how the tender hearts melded with roasted red peppers, onions and provolone between slices of bakery-fresh ciabatta bread. The fresh tomato slice interrupted the toastiness of the sandwich, so next time I'll order it without. The only location of this deli (a sibling of the popular Gianni's Cafe), is in Kildeer.
Steak Balsamico Panini at Panera Bread. I wandered into red-meat territory and met limited success. I liked the tenderness of the top sirloin but the sandwich, made with roasted red peppers and a balsamic vinegar-tinged sauce, failed to provide that bite I was looking for. I prefer Panera's smoked turkey version with the spinach artichoke spread.
Three-cheese and honey ham at my house. I needed to use up leftover Easter ham so I pulled out my George Foreman countertop grill and learned it works wonderfully for paninis. I stole the pepperoni idea from the bagel folks and gave the bread a smear of horseradish and Dijon mustard before piling on shreds of mozzarella, Parmesan and cheddar (I was in use-it-up mode). I don't think I'll ever make a plain ol' grilled cheese on the griddle again.
Here are a few make-at-home tips I picked up along the way:
• If you make paninis on an indoor grill, don't forget to use the drip pan. Because of the grill's sloping surface, butter that doesn't absorb into the bread melts downward. In my case, it dripped onto the dog (a very thankful dog).
• Butter the bread. The butter crisps and browns the panini, giving it that toasty glow.
• Don't over stuff. You're not making a Dagwood here. A thinner profile allows all the inner fixings to feel the warmth of the grill.
• Experiment. Visit your local Italian grocer and ask for a couple of slices of several types of deli meat. When you get home, unload leftovers and condiments onto the counter. Meatloaf transforms when partnered with cotto salami and garlic mayo.
Better with bacon: Learn how to make a variety of recipes using bacon with Biaggi chef Greg Smith from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, May 16.
Smith's porktastic recipes include tangerine-glazed pork belly with crispy herb polenta cakes, a tribute to pork pasta, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with braised apples, fennel and onions, with port wine reduction, and -- are you ready for this? -- bacon chocolate bars. Recipes and samples will be provided; you might want to bring a clipboard to make note-taking easier.
This Cooking with the Best Chefs class costs $40 if you register by Thursday ($50 after that) and will be held at Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano, 20560 N. Rand Road, Deer Park. Reserve your spot at BestChefs.com or (224) 353-3300. If I ask, I wonder if he'll do a chicken-bacon-artichoke panini?
Food, wine and horses: That winning trifecta awaits attendees of Chefs' Fest 2011 on Wednesday, May 18, at Arlington Park Racecourse.
The Woodfield Chicago Northwest Convention Bureau's signature food and wine sampling event has taken place at the track before, but never during the racing season. This year your $30 ticket includes entrance to the park. The feeding frenzy kicks off at 5 p.m. (and runs till 8 p.m.); arrive earlier in the day and you can stake out a coveted seat. Racing begins at 11:15 a.m. The track is at Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road in Arlington Heights.
Among the 35-plus restaurants participating are Big Shots Piano Lounge and Restaurant, Bob Chinn's Crab House, Lucky Monk, Mago, Sam & Harry's, Shula's Steak House and Weber Grill.
Advance purchase is encouraged as attendance will be limited to 1,500 food lovers. Head to chefsfest.com for tickets and details or call the convention bureau at (847) 490-1010.
Meatless Monday: Lemon Couscous with Asparagus and Tomato makes an easy side dish to enjoy as the weather warms up. Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, who developed the recipe for The Washington Post, advises using medium-thick asparagus whose spears are all about the same size.
"This is best served right after it is made; otherwise, the lemon juice will discolor the asparagus," she adds.
• Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at firstname.lastname@example.org or (847) 427-4524. Be her friend at facebook.com; Deb Pankey Daily Herald.