Strategy 1: Jury-rig a press for panini
Panini means “sandwiches” in Italian, although the word has come to refer specifically to ones that are pressed and heated. The cheese melts and fuses the other fillings into a toasty, delectable whole that’s much more than a mere sandwich. You don’t need to buy a purpose-built panini press: Fake it with a stovetop griddle, a ridged stovetop grill pan, or a large frying pan and one or two heavy weights, such as aluminum foil-wrapped bricks or flatirons (the cast-metal irons that lurk near the woodstove in old cottages). You can also grill your panini directly on the rack of your barbecue. Assemble the panini early in the day—next sneaky trick: delegate the job to guests—wrap well, and keep cool until
lunchtime. A few tips on panini-building:
- Don’t use bread that’s too thick. Pita-like “sandwich thins” work well; so do thin ciabatta rolls and loaves. (If necessary, take a slice out of the middle to skinny them down.)
- True Italian panini have one type of meat (and never more than just a couple of thin slices), and only two or three other ingredients.
- Panini usually don’t have dressing or condiments. That said, no one will shoot you if you brush the insides of your panini with olive oil or pesto, or include a smear of mustard. Don’t butter the outside of the bread, however; they’re not grilled cheese sandwiches.
Enjoy these tried-and-true panini combos or invent your own:
- Calabrese or Genoa salami, fresh mozzarella, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil or arugula
- Bocconcini, tomato slices, and fresh basil leaves
- Roasted vegetables such as zucchini and eggplant (cook them on the barbecue when you’re grilling dinner the day before), goat cheese, and pesto
- Prosciutto, Brie, and arugula
- Rare roast beef, roasted garlic (wrap a head in foil and throw it on the barbecue with the vegetables), Swiss or provolone, and arugula
- Turkey, provolone, and roasted red peppers (DIY, or buy jarred)
- Grilled portobello mushroom slices, mozzarella, and tapenade
When it’s time for lunch:
- Take sandwiches out of the fridge and let them warm to room temperature. Preheat pan on stovetop over medium heat, or preheat barbecue to medium.
- Place panini in pan or on barbecue rack. Rest weights directly on top or, if you’re using the stovetop, put them in another pan that fits on top of the first one (a smaller frying pan, say, inside the
large one). Cook 2–3 minutes, until bottoms start to brown. Remove weights, flip panini, replace weights, and cook 2–3 minutes more, until bread is toasted and cheese is melted. Cut panini in half and pile on a platter. Serve with bowls of marinated olives and sweet cherry tomatoes.
Strategy 2: Repurpose a cocktail-hour
Popular in Middle Eastern countries, mezzo are small plates, dips, and spreads meant to be shared as appetizers. Moving them to lunch allows guests to graze without worrying that they won’t have room for dinner. You can buy containers of Mediterranean spreads such ashummus, tzatziki, and eggplant-based baba ghanouj in most supermarkets (unopened, they’ll last several weeks in the fridge) or, with minimal effort, make your own. (See recipes, here.) Other store-bought possibilities include:
- Deli-style olives: Serve them straight—or turn them into your own Citrus-Marinated Olives with Rosemary. (See recipe, below.)
- Jarred marinated artichoke hearts.
- Cubes of feta cheese. You can use plain or a jar of marinated feta.
- Canned dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves. The ingredient list is a tip-off to taste; I like Cedar brand dolmades from Turkey, which are stuffed with rice seasoned with onions, mint, and parsley. Serve the mezze with a basket of pita bread and/or pita crisps, and (if you’re feeling ambitious) raw vegetables for dipping. I sometimes add more heft—and a homemade feel—to the assortment with chilled marinated shrimp, tails left on so guests can eat them with their fingers. (See recipe, here)
Strategy 3: Go retro and turn your hot dogs into pigs in blankets
Hot dogs wrapped in dough are a crowd-pleasing lunch that will have grown-ups reminiscing and kids clamouring to help. You may have to negotiate conflicting family traditions: I grew up with bitesize piglets; my husband, Steve, insists proper pigs in blankets are full hot dog size—and they must include a slice of cheese inside. Whichever version you prefer—and whatever kinds of wieners suit your crowd—ballpark mustard and ketchup are the essential condiments for dipping. Though Steve calls such refinements heresy, you can also set out spicy barbecue sauce and Dijon. Serve with potato chips and vintage Weequahic Salad. (See recipe, here)