Home Cooking, From Italy & Harlem
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The sandwich started out as a simple notion: two slices of bread with a few tasty ingredients in between. But nowadays, at least in America, sandwiches are often far too big for their britches. They’ve become larger (corned beef on rye, I’m looking at you) and the fillings more and more elaborate. Pesto chicken with balsamic onions and fig jam might sound interesting, but who wants to eat it for lunch?
Italian sandwiches, by comparison, seem as minimalist and classic as an Armani suit. I’m not talking about sandwiches piled high with three kinds of meat, provolone, and olive salad to boot. Real Italian sandwiches are models of restraint. A couple of slices of mortadella, some fresh goat cheese, and a few drops of aged balsamic vinegar, and there you have it — a sandwich divine. Jason and Jennifer Denton make some of New York’s best at their shoebox of a panino bar, ‘Ino, in Greenwich Village. In “Simple Italian Sandwiches” (Morrow, $21.95), they share recipes for bread-based treats, from panini and bruschette to the dainty tramezzini.
‘Ino has always seemed more like a home kitchen than a restaurant – the entire menu is prepared in the sliver of a dining room, with just a tiny bit of counter space, a panini press, a toaster oven, and a hot plate. Luckily, the minimalist approach of Italian sandwiches suits their cramped space — and home kitchens, too. “We like to keep the number of sandwich ingredients to three or under for the sake of simplicity,” they write.
Panini are the most famous of Italian sandwiches, and rightly so. The panini press does far more than merely toast bread and melt cheese — the heat releases the flavors of the ingredients. The Dentons wisely remind readers to layer the cheese on last, so that when the heat of the press hits the cheese, the flavor flows down and infuses the rest of the sandwich.
The Dentons’ way of combining ingredients is just as savvy. A few of the panini are unabashedly rich, like the Three-Cheese or the Nutella, but most balance heavy flavors like soppressata, coppa, or fontina with an acidic bite from ingredients like pickled onions or a bit of greenery like arugula.
Tramezzini are the polar opposite of panini, dainty and fresh rather than toasty and rustic. Since tramezzini use soft, bland white bread, they need fillings that are delicate but still have backbone. Chicken Tramezzini has a filling of just wellmade chicken salad, infused with rich roasted garlic mayonnaise, while the egg-salad version gets a bit of extra lushness from lemon mayonnaise and asparagus cooked right on the panini grill.
With simple recipes like these, it’s love and attention to detail that makes the difference between a good sandwich and a great one. The Dentons know just when to remind you to trim the ciabatta rolls to create the right proportion of bread to filling, and when to warn you not to overcook the scrambled eggs for a caciocheese and sweet onion panino. Many of the recipes call for quickly made condiments like black olive pesto or oven-roasted tomatoes. Once a batch is in the fridge, it becomes even easier to quickly improvise sandwich combinations based on what’s on hand.
With a George Forman Grill or just a grill pan, “Simple Italian Sandwiches” makes a convincing case for breaking out of the tuna-salad-on-wheat rut at home. “Panini are fast, handheld foods that you should be able to whip up during a commercial break,” they write. Another benefit of sandwich simplicity.
For hungry folks who aren’t, ahem, pressed for time, there’s the new 30th-anniversary reissue of Edna Lewis’s beloved classic “The Taste of Country Cooking” (Knopf, $22.95). Lewis, who passed away earlier this year, created a swoon-worthy ode to the long-simmered, well-buttered, slow-baked food of her rural Virginia childhood, packed with the honest goodness of baked Virginia ham, southern fried chicken, cucumber pickles, and caramel layer cake. Born in 1918, Lewis grew up in a close-knit farming community where lives revolved around the pleasures of the table and neighbors shared epic Revival Sunday dinners. Food was always homemade and usually raised or grown on the farm.
The world Lewis describes seems almost absurdly idyllic, but her recipes are pragmatic. These are dishes that have been streamlined by generations of busy farmers who didn’t have too much time to dally in the kitchen. Simple home-cooked food like rabbit braised with bacon, corn pudding seasoned with milk, sugar, and nutmeg, and scallions pan-fried in butter reminds you how seductive simple dishes can be. Lewis may not entice you to pack your pantry with bottles of homemade dandelion wine, or cook her “busy-day” menu of cold chicken gelatine, pork-seasoned greens, boiled new onions, tomatoes, stewed blackberries, and cake, but no need to be that ambitious — cooking two or three recipes will give you a taste of country cooking, too.
THREE CHEESE PANINI
(From “Simple Italian Sandwiches” by Jennifer and Jason Denton.)
4 ciabatta rolls
2 ounces Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, thinly sliced
2 ounces Crotonese, thinly sliced
2 ounces Cacio di Roma or Pecorino Romano, thinly sliced
Preheat a panini grill. Slice off the domed tops of the ciabatta rolls and save for another use. The rolls should now be about 1 inch thick. Split the rolls horizontally.
Spread a thin, even layer of Grana, followed by the Crotonese, and then the Cacio over the bottom of each roll. Generously drizzle some truffle oil over each before closing up the sandwich.
Grill each sandwich for about 3 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and the cheese melted.
Makes 4 panini.