Feeling pressed?

Maybe you are sick of the same old turkey sandwich day after day.



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.

There are few in Canada and the U.S. today who are not familiar with panini. Though the Italian word loosely means “sandwiches,” in the U.S. and Canada 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-panini 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 Strahs, 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, Denton says. And please, be kind to your creation when you close the lid.

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

Love vegetables? You can press ’em. Thinly slice some sweet potatoes, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, then grill. (You can even call them “tiger chips” for their dark grill marks and talk your kids into eating them.)

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 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, refrigerate and go to work.

Remove from fridge 20 minutes before cooking, then place seam side up on the press. Close the press and grill at 180 C (350 F) for five to six 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.

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 the Austin Daily Press food truck in Austin, Texas, says she cooked a six-centimetre (2 1/2-inch) steak to a perfect medium-rare once by pressing it for 4 1/2 minutes.

And vegetarians are not to be left out. Strahs grills homemade falafel patties and swears they are as crunchy as those done in a skillet with oil (and probably healthier). Hildenbrand cooks eggs on her griddle-like press but does not close it.

“I did it once by accident and I definitely don’t recommend doing that,” she says.

She does recommend that anyone pressed for space or living without a kitchen consider buying a press to easily make scrumptious and healthy meals without a stove.

“It seems like a cool thing to have if you are limited in space for kitchen size,” particularly college and university students, if their dorms allow cooking devices, she says. (Many do not.)

College students, in fact, 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 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.

To start simply, brush a little butter on some tart, firm apple slices, grill and serve sprinkled with brown sugar-cinnamon and topped with whipped cream. Strahs 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, Strahs recommends her gingerbread blondie s’mores. Cut pre-baked blondies into gingerbread men, assemble them into sandwiches filled with marshmallow cream and shaved dark chocolate. After grilling the s’mores, dust with clementine zest.

“It’s a creative outlet for me,” she says.

Yet another use for the panini press.

Who knew a panini press and a package of frozen puff pastry could be combined to create such a light and elegant dessert?

Best yet, the whole thing comes together in little time and with even less mess. You simply thaw the puff pastry (available in the grocer’s freezer section), cut it into squares, then throw it on the panini press. Really.

Cooking the pastry on a panini press makes for perfectly golden, crisp and gently puffed flaky layers. Once your pastry layers are cooked, you simply layer them with whipped cream and fresh berries. The result is a dessert to rival restaurant offerings.

Countertop Napoleons

Start to finish: 20 minutes

1 pkg frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions (each pkg contains 2 sheets)

250 ml (1 cup) heavy cream

125 ml (1/2 cup) sour cream

30 ml (2 tbsp) orange marmalade

15 ml (1 tbsp) honey

340 g (12 oz) fresh raspberries

Powdered sugar

Heat a panini press or countertop grill.

Cut each sheet of puff pastry into nine 7.5-by-7.5-cm (3-by-3-inch) squares.

Working in batches according to how many squares will fit on your press at once, cook pastry squares with the cover set gently down on them until lightly browned and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. As each batch cooks, transfer squares to a plate to cool, then set aside.

To make the filling, in a large bowl use an electric mixer to whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Fold in sour cream, orange marmalade and honey.

To assemble napoleons, spread a layer of the whipped cream over 6 of the pastry squares. Top each with a few of the berries, then another square of pastry. Repeat with another layer of whipped cream, fruit and a third pastry square. Finish napoleons with a final layer of cream, then fruit. Dust with powdered sugar.

Makes 6 servings.