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Paninis bursting with zesty flavors

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Vegetarian patties, peppers, chutney and cheese create a flavorful grilled panini sandwich.

Vegetarian patties, peppers, chutney and cheese create a flavorful grilled panini sandwich.

Larry Crowe, Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — Always on the lookout for high-flavor, low-labor meals that can be tossed together in just a few minutes, I recently have become somewhat obsessed with panini.

If you're not familiar with this staple of Italian street food, think grilled cheese for grownups.

But panini, which means "small breads" (panino is the singular), are a world away from the white bread and melted American cheese so many people grew up with.

These sandwiches — which often, though not always, are grilled and served hot — can be packed with a melange of fillings in addition to cheese, ranging from roasted eggplant to grilled peppers and prosciutto.

Regardless of the assortment, intense flavors are key to proper panini. That's why assertive Parmesan and pecorino cheeses, cured anchovies and fresh basil are common ingredients.

In other words, this sandwich should slap you around a bit as you eat it.

Most grilled panini are compressed as they cook, and vendors often have a waffle iron-like device for pressing down and grilling them simultaneously on both sides.

The resulting sandwich ends up toasted crisp on the outside, but gooey and flavorful on the inside.

For my own panini, I wanted something substantial enough for a meal, and that meant adding protein. Without it, I'd be likely to inhale a dozen or so panini.

My solution was an unbreaded vegetarian "chicken" patty. The "chicken" bulked up the sandwich, gave it a meaty chew, but had a nice mild flavor that wouldn't compete with the others I had planned.

For the bread, there were many options. A large crusty roll (make sure it's real bread — no burger buns or the like need apply) or section of baguette would work nicely.

I happened to have a round loaf of multigrain peasant-style bread, and two thick slices were perfect.

Those were the basics. Time for the flavor.

In what only can be called a supreme clash of culinary cultures, I decided to use a sweet and spicy Indian chutney. Hardly traditional, but I knew it would be great with the other ingredients.

To that I added roasted red peppers (from a jar for ease) and shredded cheese. I ultimately opted against Parmesan, which had been my first thought, because I thought it would conflict with the chutney.

That said, if you want to leave out the chutney, ditch the Cheddar or mozzarella and head for some of the hard Italian cheeses, such as the aforementioned Parmesan or pecorino.

When cooking the panini, I like to use a cast-iron skillet or griddle with grill ridges.

Whatever you use, be certain it is quite large. Once you've assembled your sandwich and placed it in the pan, you will need to set something on top of it to compress it as it cooks.

I prefer to use a smaller cast-iron skillet because it is heavy, heatproof and has a handle. If you don't have such a pan, try a tea kettle filled with water or a plate weighed down with canned goods.

In the end, you get a delicious toasted sandwich of contrasts — crisp bread and melted cheese, and tangy chutney and sweet roasted peppers. Truly wonderful.


(Start to finish 20 minutes)

4 thick slices bread, preferably cut from a large round or peasant loaf

4 tablespoons mango or other sweet chutney

2 vegetarian "chicken" patties (thawed if frozen)

2 roasted red (or yellow) bell peppers

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar or mozzarella cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil cooking spray

Heat a heavy grill pan over a medium high flame.

To assemble the panini, spread 1 tablespoon of chutney over one side of each slice of bread. Set two of the slices aside. Top each remaining slice with a "chicken" patty, a roasted bell pepper and 1/4 cup cheese.

Sprinkle the cheese with black pepper, to taste, then top each panini with one of the remaining slices of bread.

Generously spray the grill pan with cooking spray. Carefully transfer the panini to the pan. Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to cook them one at a time.

Place a heavy (such as cast iron) skillet on top of the panini and firmly press straight down, compressing the sandwiches. If you don't have a heavy pan, use any that fits in the grill pan and weigh it down with canned foods.

Cook the panini 4 minutes, or until the bottom is well toasted. Remove the top pan and flip the panini. Replace the heavy skillet, compress and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, or until well toasted. Makes 2 servings.