Sunday, January 26, 2014

Panini!!! (chicken or vegetarian). The sun-dried tomato pesto is the secret

Panini.  Flash back about fifteen years and if you mentioned panini to me I'd think you might be talking about a street name in Rome, but I wouldn't have thought of a sandwich.

When I first learned what it was I made them quite a bit, experimenting with all different types of meats, breads, toppings and spreads (see how I did that? nice little rhyme, huh?).

I liked all of them, but only one stuck with the entire family. It uses ciabatta (and really, how can ciabatta be bad in most anything?), chicken breast, baby spinach, fontina cheese, grilled onions and the key to the whole thing: sun-dried tomato pesto. I've come to believe you could put this particular pesto on just about anything and it will make it better.

My middle daughter just turned 22 this week and the tradition in our house is that for your birthday dinner you can name anything you want (well, within reason) and Dad will make it for you. This particular panini is one of her favorites and it's what she wanted for her birthday dinner. Actually, it was about time since I've been wanting to post it anyway but wanted to wait until I had pictures before I did.

This is also one of my wife's favorite dishes as well (and she's a vegetarian). Instead of chicken, I simply substitute a Quorn "chicken" patty or TVP (or equivalent). You could do the same or even make it vegan by using a portobello and leaving out the cheese (or making a vegan substitution) and doing the same with the cheese in the pesto.

Pan and weight that I use to make panini if I'm not using my press

I have an actual panini press though I don't usually break it out unless I'm making them for a larger crowd than I did this time. If you have a grill pan (available here), it works every bit as well - you simply need some weight to press down on top of the sandwich. I have one that was made specifically to fit my grill pan but you can easily use a bacon press or, as I've seen some TV chefs do, a brick wrapped in tin foil.  No, it's not fancy, but it works and that's all you really need.


  • Chicken breast, sliced (or pounded) thin
  • Ciabatta rolls or loaf of ciabatta bread cut into sections
  • Sun-dried tomato pesto (recipe here or buy here)
  • Havarti cheese, sliced thin, available at most delis (by all means use a different cheese if you don't like havarti, but I'd suggest a cheese that melts well)
  • Baby spinach leaves, just enough to cover the sandwich
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (enough for sautéing chicken)
  • 2 tbsp butter (enough for sautéing chicken)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (enough to cover top and bottom of ciabatta rolls)
* I'm not many giving measurements here simply because it all depends on how many you're making. You want a piece of chicken large enough to cover the ciabatta roll you're using, a slice (or two) of cheese for each sandwich, and enough baby spinach leaves to cover the sandwich. I find that a pound of chicken cut thin will easily make three or four (or more!) sandwiches depending upon how large your rolls are.

Optional ingredients

  • *Seasoning salt (to taste)
  • *Pepper (to taste)
  • *Garlic powder (to taste)
  • *Freshly ground dried rosemary (to taste)
  • *Dried oregano (to taste)
  • Grilled onions
  • 1 cup red or white wine to make wine reduction sauce (which kind is really a matter of preference - for me, it all depends on what we have sitting around that I can use up since I like both!)
*I lightly season the chicken with all of these prior to sautéing - use whatever spices you'd like or none


  1. Heat butter and olive oil in heavy bottomed skillet (I like to use stainless steel for this) on medium heat
  2. Season chicken (if using seasonings in optional ingredients)

    Sautéing seasoned chicken in butter/olive oil
  3. Sauté chicken in oil/butter mixture until golden brown (3-4 minutes per side, depending upon thickness)
  4. Remove chicken from pan and set aside - repeat as necessary until all chicken is done, not crowding the pan (you may need to add more butter/olive oil to the pan depending upon how many pieces you are cooking)

    Making a wine reduction sauce
  5. If you'd like to make a wine reduction sauce, pour off the excess oil, then pour the cup of wine in the pan. It will sizzle and you can scrape all of the "bits" off the bottom of the pan. Turn up the heat until the wine is boiling and cook until reduced by half

    Ciabatta rolls split in half, ready to go
  6. Split the rolls/loaf in half if not already cut

    My panini "station" with everything I'll need
  7. This is easier if you set up a "station" with all of the ingredients you'll be using close at hand. Start by spreading the sun-dried tomato pesto on both both halves of the ciabatta. I use approximately a tablespoon per side, but that depends on how large your rolls are and how much you want per sandwich

    Both sides spread with pesto
  8. Next, place a slice of cheese on the bottom half of the bread, on top of the spread (you may need to cut/tear the slice of cheese to adjust it to fit the shape of your bread)

    Add the cheese...
  9. Cover the cheese with a layer of baby spinach leaves

    ...and the spinach leaves
  10. Place a piece of chicken on top of the cheese (again, you may have to cut the chicken in order to make it fit the shape of the bread)

    The chicken is next
  11. If using grilled onions (and it makes it taste SO much better if you do!), spread them out and place on top of the chicken

    Then the grilled onions
  12. If you made the wine reduction sauce, pour a tablespoon on the cut side of the top of the roll (over the spread you put on earlier)
  13. Place the top piece of bread on the rest of the sandwich

    Sandwich oiled and ready to go in the pan
  14. If you have a mister, spray the top and bottom of the sandwich with olive oil. If you don't have a mister, simply pour a bit on each side and spread it on with your hand. You don't want to skip this step - the oil is what will help give the panini the nice firm crunch that makes it so good
  15. Preheat your pan (or press). You want to do this for at least five minutes to give it time to get good and hot. If you're going to be cooking them immediately upon making them, you may want to move this step up just a bit so it's preheated when you've finished the sandwich making step
  16. Place the sandwich(s) in the preheated pan and put the weight on top. I typically press it down for at least a few seconds just to help flatten it a bit

    After being flipped once. The one in the front needs to be cooked a bit more.
  17. Cook until the bread is starting to brown on the bottom. I like to have dark grill marks (closer to black), so if you do as well, adjust the cooking time accordingly. It's important not to have the heat too high; if you do, the bread will burn before the interior of the sandwich is hot enough to melt the cheese. I find that a medium heat seems to work well. It's better to err on the side of not quite hot enough - once the interior is hot you can always crank the heat up to brown the bottom of the panini
  18. When the bottom is cooked the way you like it, remove your weight and flip the panini. Cook until the other side is once again turning brown. Done properly, the panini should be hard on top and bottom but soft just under the outer crust

  19. Remove from the pan. If you are cooking several you may want to put them in the oven on warm while you cook the next batch.

  20. Cut on a diagonal, serve and enjoy!

COOKS NOTE: You can do some of these steps ahead of time. I typically make a large batch of the sun-dried tomato pesto ahead of time so I have it whenever I need it. Likewise, you can sauté the chicken early as well so when you're ready to make your panini you simply have to assemble them using your premade pesto and chicken.


  1. It looks good... except for the chicken. lol Gimme some vegetarian love. ~Linda

  2. Hi Linda - I put a comment in about when I wrote this about a vegetarian version. Looking at it again now, I can see that I could probably make this part stand out more.

    I made this for my wife and used Quorn chicken patties instead of chicken and I've also made it using a large portobello or TVP in place of the chicken. Other than that, all of the steps are the same.

    Thanks for the comment!!