The Great Sarello’s Soup-Off is underway, and we are delighted with the selection of recipes that have already been submitted for the contest.

The entries are creative and diverse, with everything from a simple wild mushroom soup to a hearty-looking salmon chowder or flavorful sausage, spinach and squash soup. Suffice it to say, we have soup on the brain these days.

One of our favorite ways to enjoy soup is when it’s partnered with a sandwich, and for us that means a grilled Italian specialty called panini. A panino (panini is the plural) is a grilled sandwich created by using a panini press, which comes either as a stand-alone grill or a stove-top iron press.

The bread (think ciabatta, baguettes, focaccia, sourdough) is important, as it is wonderfully transformed by the panini press, which leaves its signature grill marks on both sides and gives the bread great texture and crunch. Our local Breadsmith store has a wide selection of breads that are perfect for panini, and we are thrilled to announce that they have joined us again this year as a prize contributor.

You can choose any variety of meats, cheese and/or vegetables for your panini. We typically prefer to use Italian cured meats like prosciutto, cappocollo and soppresata, as their already-terrific flavor is enhanced even more in the grilling process, but any deli meat will do.

You could also skip the meat and opt for a vegetarian panino instead. We love to use veggies like grilled zucchini, eggplant, onions and mushrooms, as well as roasted red peppers and sliced tomatoes. Grilling the vegetables first helps build flavor, and you can even use your panini press for this job. Make a big batch to have on hand throughout the week. You could roast the peppers yourself, but for time and convenience I often keep a jar in our pantry just for this occasion.

Look for fresh mozzarella or a good, semi-hard cheese, which tend to have better melting properties. Tony typically uses Italian cheeses like fontina or provolone, but I love a good white cheddar or havarti in my panini. Hard cheeses like Parmigiano or aged gouda, which our son Gio prefers, work well if shaved into very thin slices.

The panini press can even be used for old-school favorites like a classic grilled cheese or fried egg sandwich. For this column, we made a grilled cheese panino using slices of sharp orange cheddar and fontina cheeses with crispy bacon, and a full-on Italian specialty with roasted red peppers, grilled zucchini, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto ham and basil pesto. Other condiments we’ve enjoyed in our panini include aioli, good mustard (I love Coleman’s) and horseradish sauce.

Depart from the world of sandwiches for a moment, and you’ll find myriad more ways to utilize this kitchen tool as an indoor grill: hashbrowns, waffle cones, bacon, chicken breasts, and even hamburgers have been made with our press.

We hope we’ve got you thinking about the wonderful world of soup and all of the comforting ways it can be enjoyed.

Next week we’ll be sharing our ideas for ways to garnish your soup, and in the meantime we hope that you’ll share your favorite soup recipe with us.

Entries will be received through Oct. 15. For more contest information, visit http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

Grilled Veggie & Prosciutto Panini

Makes: 2 to 4 sandwiches

Ingredients:

1 loaf artisan bread (sourdough or ciabatta) sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons basil pesto

2 balls fresh mozzarella (1 pound), sliced

1 zucchini sliced length ways, grilled

1 roasted red bell pepper (about half a jar), seeds and skin removed

4 slices of prosciutto ham

Season with salt and pepper

Directions:

Brush two slices of bread with olive oil on one side (the outer side). Spread pesto on the other side(s) of the bread. Layer with the cheese first, followed by the zucchini, peppers and meat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place on grill and close for 3 to 5 minutes until golden brown on both sides. Remove from grill, cut in half and serve.

Other recommended melting cheeses include fontina, provolone, white cheddar, havarti, Monterey Jack, or very thinly shaved hard cheeses like Parmigiano and aged Gouda.

Grilled Cheese and Bacon Panini

Makes: 2 to 4 Panini

Ingredients:

1 loaf artisan bread, sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

2-4 slices fontina cheese

4-8 pieces cooked bacon

2-4 slices sharp orange cheddar cheese

Directions:

Brush each slice of bread on the outer side with olive oil. Place a slice of fontina on the other side, followed by two slices of cooked bacon, and top with a slice of cheddar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cover with another slice of bread, place in the panini press and grill for about 3 to 5 minutes until golden brown on both sides. Remove from grill, cut in half and serve.

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 10-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com

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