Grilled goodness

Tasty breads, cheeses pile on flavor and turn sandwiches into upscale grill fare

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Time was a simple grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup could satisfy winter appetites.

That was before panini came to town. The American take on the Italian sandwich has given new meaning to grilled sandwiches. The difference is threefold:

First, there's the bread: Panini is made with bread with some heft, usually sliced thicker than the traditional sandwich bread. Favorites are focaccia or the asiago cheese bread that has developed such a following around here. While ciabbata or rustic farmhouse breads might seem appealing, their large holes may make for dripping fillings. Just remember that store-bought bread in a plastic wrapper is not the right choice. These are sandwiches for grown-ups.

Second, the fillings: While the ingredients in the original panini may be simple, everything upscale goes into this stars-and-stripes version of the sandwich. The cheese may be smoked mozzarella, paired with roasted red peppers. Chipotle mayonnaise, roasted garlic or artichoke pesto may dress the bread. Bacon may stand in for the usual ham, and the choice of cheese may turn to herbed Boursin, imported Fontina, Havarti or creamy blue.

And third, the preferred method of cooking, which produces artful grill marks and seals the sandwich.

Panini machines are available, including the $899 model in the latest Williams-Sonoma catalog - but that's for those who want restaurant equipment in their home kitchen. Cheaper panini presses and sandwich makers can be substituted.

And you can even make do with a pair of cast-iron skillets, especially if one is ridged to provide those distinctive marks. Heat the ridged grill slowly over low heat until hot, brush the assembled sandwich with oil and place on the grill. Rest a second cast-iron skillet on top to press the sandwich. Cook each side two to three minutes. The bread should be crisp and browned, and the cheese oozing.

Grilled Black Forest Ham

on Salt Rye

Makes 2 sandwiches

4 slices salted rye bread

2 tablespoons coarse mustard

4 slices Black Forest ham

4 ounces grated aged or smoked gouda

Melt a little butter in a cast-iron skillet and toast one side of each slice of bread until lightly browned and crisp. Remove from skillet and spread the toasted sides of the bread with the coarse mustard. Layer ham and cheese, then top with with bread, toasted side down.

Heat additional butter in the skillet and grill the sandwich, pressing down with another heavy skillet, until both sides are browned and crisp.

Mozzarella is an excellent melting cheese but it is bland. This sandwich uses smoked mozzarella to boost flavor. Bottled pesto sauce and roasted red bell peppers, available in jars or in bulk in some deli sections, add enough interest that the sandwich is full-flavored, even if vegetarians omit the salami.

Smoked Mozzarella

and Red Bell Pepper Panani

Makes 2 sandwiches

4 slices sourdough bread, sliced 1/2-inch thick

2 tablespoons pesto sauce, homemade or bottled

4 ounces smoked mozzarella, sliced thin

Two halves roasted red bell pepper

6 to 8 thin slices salami, optional olive oil

Spread the pesto on one side of each slice of bread. Layer the cheese, roasted pepper and salami on the bread. Place second slice of bread on top. Brush one side of the assembled sandwich with oil. Using a heavy skillet to weight the sandwiches, grill on a preheated cast iron grill for about 2 minutes until browned. Brush top side with oil, turn and grill another 2 minutes. If cheese is not fully melted, remove pan from fire, cover sandwiches with foil and let residual heat melt the cheese.

Think of this as a breakfast sandwich, one that's just right for Sunday brunch. The best way to slice the cheese is to use a cheese plane, which virtually shaves the cheese. If you don't have one, use a vegetable peeler to shave off ribbons of cheese.

Grilled Bacon and Cheddar Sandwich on Raisin Bread

Makes 2 sandwiches

4 slices high quality raisin bread

4 slices bacon, preferably the Nueske brand, cooked until crisp and drained on paper towels

1/4 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shaved

2 tablespoons butter, softened

Arrange the cooked bacon between two thin layers of cheese on the raisin bread. Spread butter on top and bottom of the sandwiches and grill for two minutes per side, pressing down on the sandwiches with a heavy skillet or spatula. If cheese is not fully melted, remove pan from fire, cover sandwiches with foil and let residual heat melt the cheese.

(Recipe from Bon Appetit)

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