My parents recently acquired a panini press, courtesy of my aunt who was cleaning out her kitchen. I forewent the kitchen appliance due to lack of space, but I am very glad that I did. In my dad’s hands this became not only a sandwich maker, but a meal maker given his creativity and penchant for transforming whatever is on hand into something delicious. While my siblings and I would whine in between grocery-runs that there was “nothing to eat” my dad would swing open the refrigerator door and look at us in disbelief declaring, “we have stacks of food!” Shortly after, the kitchen stove top would be aflame and something garlicky and creamy or oniony and sweet would be defiantly simmering in a pot for us all to share. Having worked as a sauté chef during summers in his hometown, he was likely to effortlessly whip up a big batch of tomato sauce or slap some steaks on the charcoal grill he prepped and serve them with a special red-wine sauce. I write in the past tense, but this is what my dad will still do. With an empty nest now, he enjoys taking on most of the cooking and he does so very well. No need for recipes, just an earnest appreciation for flavors, ingredients and how they work well together. For Christmas last year, one of his gifts was a big smiley-faced spatula.
My dad called me up the other day and we set a date for dinner, the theme being different takes on the panini sandwich…what new, creative combinations can be done with some bread, fillings and a panini press? We found that it is hard to go wrong with warm toasted bread, gooey cheese and some meats, fruits and veggies. My grandparents came over for dinner too and we all tried the courses of small sandwiches, complete with a salad and dessert that my dad carefully prepared. All of us gathered in the kitchen, chatting as we looked on at my dad working above the huge cutting board my parents have had since my first memories, the panini press heated sitting to it.
Earlier in the day, we had gone outside to collect herbs from the garden. While my little apartment herb garden is looking shabby these days, my parent’s basil plant is a beast. The first course was demolished, but we had fresh mozzarella, basil, tomatoes and a beautifully rustic homemade pesto all pressed neatly between a potato bun. Served with a balsamic glaze, the little disks were essentially caprese salad sandwiches.
For the second course, we feasted on prosciutto, salami, havarti and granny smith apples with ciabatta bread. My dad bought the ciabatta bread half-baked so that by the time the paninis were ready, the bread was toasted to perfection with the fluffy innards softened just right. I believe there were dashes here and there of garlic powder, black pepper and whatever tasty spice.
To end the succession of savory paninis was the sandwich on a pretzel roll. Roastbeef, swiss cheese and a horse-radish cream sauce. Some very lovely sautéed baby bellas were intended…but conversation and cocktails will occasionally lead to little mishaps and their burning in the pan was not a biggie.
The tender roast beef and the sharp cheese played out nicely against the salty pretzel, elevating the sandwich to a sophisticated philly cheese steak. At one point we were scratching our heads, “hmmm…what could we add here?”, but that is the fun experience of the whole food that the evening was centered around – there are few limitations to what you can toast between two slices of bread. As long as you slice thin enough and don’t think that skittles meld perfectly with bay leaves you can handle making tasty panini creations.
Resting for a moment, we all tucked away into the den. At this point a drooling labrador, Chip, who could no longer be fended off was sent outside. My dad makes amazing coffee too and presented us with French-pressed coffee, each cup to our liking.
The final touches are sometimes the most remarkable, and the last panini we ate was arguably the best of them all in that it touched upon our most basic desires, yet it might have been easily overlooked had my dad not planned this night for us. For dessert the four of us savored every bite of a buttery croissant enveloping mascarpone, honey apple butter and various melted chocolates. I had to pause for a moment to grab napkins as the chocolate oozed onto my face.
The panini press is definitely getting some use out of it, in fact, the handle is becoming rickety. As long as both sides heat up and they heat up well enough to toast and melt, that machine will be righteously run into the ground. Perhaps for Christmas this year we should invest in a commercial-strength version for my dad (and show up with stacks of panini-friendly food!).
I love you Dad ☺