Take your grilled cheese sandwich to the next level

Grilled cheese sandwiches are right up there with the best of cool-weather comfort foods and this is the time of year to enjoy them.

A Panini Toscano grilled cheese created by Chef Michael Howell.

A Panini Toscano grilled cheese created by Chef Michael Howell.

Grilled cheese sandwiches are right up there with the best of cool-weather comfort foods and this is the time of year to enjoy them.

“When you get into cooler weather you want food that makes you feel good and toasted cheese sandwiches do the job,” says Michael Howell, owner and chef of Tempest Restaurant in Wolfville, N.S. He recently won first prize for his creation at a national competition.

Howell won for his Panini Toscano recipe using havarti and prosciutto on a ciabatta bun.

Here are some important tips to make sure they turn out perfectly.

After assembling the cheese and other ingredients, butter the bread or buns and place them in the skillet with a lid on it so it will create a little steam to give it some moist heat.

Go slow and easy; the thicker the bread is the lower the heat should be.

Use a spatula, press down on the sandwich to make sure all the edges of the bread are pressed at once into the pan and the cheese is melting evenly.

Don’t over-flip. Wait until the bottom of the bread is toasted and the cheese has melted.

Panini Toscano

You could also use provolone or smoked mozzarella to replace havarti cheese.

1 fresh ciabatta bun, about 12 cm (5 inches) square

15 ml (1 tbsp) lemon aioli (recipe follows)

1 ripe fig, cut into 4 to 5 slices

2 slices prosciutto, thinly shaved

2 slices harvarti cheese, 3 mm (1/8 inch) thick

30 g (1 oz) baby arugula

1/2 roasted red pepper, peeled and cut into 2-cm (3/4-inch) slices

15 ml (1 tbsp) balsamic vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Lemon Aioli

50 ml (1/4 cup) prepared olive oil mayonnaise

Juice and zest from 1/2 lemon

1 clove garlic, minced

Balsamic Vinaigrette

5 ml (1 tsp) balsamic vinegar

Pinch each salt and pepper

2 ml (1/2 tsp) Dijon mustard

Pinch sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

50 ml (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing on bun

Lemon Aioli: In a small bowl, mix together mayonnaise, lemon juice and zest and garlic and let flavours mingle for half an hour.

Split fresh ciabatta in half and brush both sides liberally with lemon aioli.

Layer 1 slice of havarti cheese on the bottom of the bun, then top with sliced figs, prosciutto, a couple of sprigs of arugula and finish with the other slice of cheese.

Top with other side of the bun. Lightly brush outside of bun on both sides with extra-virgin olive oil. Place sandwich in a preheated panini press and grill until cheese is melting and bread is lightly marked.

If using a grill or barbecue, place a weight on top of sandwich and flip halfway through cooking.

Balsamic Vinaigrette: While sandwich is grilling, in a small bowl, combine vinegar, salt, pepper, Dijon, sugar and lemon juice. Slowly whisk in oil until incorporated.

In another small bowl, dress arugula with 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the vinaigrette and place on a plate. Toss two slices of red pepper in same bowl to dress lightly and place on top of salad.

When sandwich is ready, remove from press or grill and split in half diagonally.