Monday, February 06, 2006

The De-Evolution of the Panini

Is that even a word?

I first tried a panini when I was almost 16 and in Paris for my cousin Ben's Bar Mitzvah. At the time I was extremely fond of the "University" sandwich at Strawberry Fields - fresh mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes (added), avocado paste and balsamic vinegar on a sourdough baguette. I had actually had my first encounter with fresh mozzarella and avocado and tomato combined into sandwhich form was when I was eleven and in London after my cousin Jon's (Ben's brother) Bar Mitzvah. But back to Paris. My family and I were heading over to Musee D'Orsay and we stopped to eat lunch. Regardless of the gastronomical delicacies in Paris, Kosher food is really hard to come by out of the Marais. So we ALL got mozzarella and tomato paninis. I was skeptical at first - why would I want them heating up my good old mozzarella sandwich? - but when I noticed that the cheese was in cube form I realized that I could only eat it when it was melted. And it was delicious. It was a lot simpler than the University, the taste was fresh, the bread gave the sandwich a needed crunch and the cheese wasn't as melted as on a slice of pizza but was still chewy. Too bad America hadn't heard of the delicacy.

The summer after my freshman year I bought a George Foreman grill at Rite Aid for $19.99. Around that time the New York Times Dining section had a spread on panini makers. Apparently they had caught on. During the summer I would buy fresh mozzarella from Zabars, tomatoes from Fairway, and whole wheat rolls from Milano market and create my own panini. I sliced the cheese and put them on either side of the bread, sandwiched the tomatoes between it, wrapped the whole sandwich in tin foil and stuck it on my George Foreman (the tin foil was mostly to keep the grill somewhat kosher since I primarily used it for meat). The result was not the charred and crisp sandwich that I had endulged in on the steps of the Musee D'Orsay but nonetheless edible and filling. I made a habit of eating them regularly for dinner and saved myself a lot of money, since the little sandwiches cost about $2 apiece at most.

The spring of sophomore year Jon (my boyfriend... it gets confusing when him, my brother and my cousin and all of my other friends have the same name) and I went to Paris for Spring break. After the Holocaust most of my dad's family moved there and with the exception of my dad's nuclear family, all still reside there. We were on total student budgets - we stayed at my dad's cousin - Jean-Jacques' - house in a French suburb (a block from 'La Varenne' station, and close to the riots this year) and bought weekly metro passes into the city. We lunched with my dad's cousin Patricia, went to her house right by Jim Morrison's grave for dinner, and only endulged in the 10-euro prix fixe meals when in the Latin Quarter. We managed to come back without being completely broke only because we lived off of paninis for a week.

They were everywhere.

Whether we were near the Musee D'Orsay or in the Latin Quarter or in La Marais or lost in a residential district we could take solace in the three-euro sandwiches. They were enormous and fresh and crisp and warm and we probably ate a dozen between the two of us. That and the smoked salmon and baguettes that we would buy at the Monoprix and eat in random parks were what filled our tummies during lunchtime.

When I returned to New York I was happy to see signs in nearly every deli marking that the panini had arrived. Yet I was disappointed to see their interpretation of the panini. The closest thing to the mozzarella one (aptly named 'Fromage et Tomate') was the 'Meatless Panini' - so named by every deli and lunchtime joint. The filling: "Fresh mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, fresh sundried tomatoes, fresh spinach, fresh pesto on fresh European flatbread." I kid you not. Yet the Mozzarella is often dry, the spinach gets lodged between my teeth, and the "European flatbread" is soggy AND has fake grillmarks (you'll notice that they're present on the bread before they go to the grill). At $6+ it was also more expensive than the 3 Euro panini, which, given a dreadful exchange rate was still no more than $4. I won't complain about them being made in advance, because that's what they did in Paris (no substitutions like you can get in NY or LA) but this was so unappetizing.

I am assuming that panini bread and its innards are now being mass produced and shipped everywhere from Hamilton Deli to Jubilee to Pret a Manger to Cafe 75. When I was a freshman I wanted to do none other than create a restaurant with a toss-your-own salad bar and a make your own panini bar and all that jazz and have it be fresh. Now I notice that such establishments exist yet the quality is just hideous. I was at work today (right in Rockefeller Center) and decided that the cafe downstairs just wasn't cutting it for lunch so I walked down the street. I was disappointed in my lunch options. While they do offer some fancy sitdown options, all of the 'grab and go' meals are exactly the same. Maybe it keeps employees from venturing to establishments outside of the building. Nevertheless, mediocre (and not that cheap either) lunch food has become the norm. And they've taken the dear panini with it.

Thus, the Panini's evolution has fallen into a downward spiral into the stomachs of New Yorkers with no appreciation for the real cheap and tasty sandwich.

The 'Fromage et Tomates' Panini (NOT the Meatless)
If you don't have a panini grill (by the way, Uris has two available for your use by the seating area) you can use a George Foreman. If that doesn't work, use Rachael Ray's technique of sticking the sandwich onto a frying pan and weighing it down with a cast iron skillet.

- crusty baguette or another crusty roll (like sourdough)
- 4 oz fresh mozzarella, sliced
- 4 thin slices tomato
- balsamic vinaigrette (or balsamic vinegar and oil), apply as desired

Slice the bread horizontally. Sprinkle with vinaigrette. Place 1/2 of the mozzarella on the bottom half of the bread, followed by the tomato and then the other half. Close it with the rest of the bread and wrap in tin foil (optional). Place on/in a hot grill until the cheese is melted but not oozing. Enjoy!


At 7:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Word. What poses for a panini at places like Nussbaum and Wu is pathetic. It looks like a ragged hobo. With AIDS.


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