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Summertime weekend lunches can sometimes present a unique set of challenges.
Since it's summer, you might find yourself craving something grilled. But midday temperatures may simply be too hot for firing up the outdoor grill.
You probably want something deliciously flavorful, but all too often, coming up with a well-balanced range of lively flavors can take time. And, you don't want to spend too much time cooking when so many other activities await on a summer weekend day. But quick and simple recipes can run the risk of being boring.
What's a hungry home cook to do?
You'll find the solution to all those dilemmas in some of my favorite lunchtime treats: Italian panini. These hot, crusty sandwiches, simultaneously griddle-grilled and pressed, offer a quick way to combine a variety of flavors and textures into one handy sandwich you'll savor bite by bite. Case in point: my Grilled Chicken Panini with Artichoke Hearts and Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto.
Let's start with the grilling. For panini, there's no need to fire up the outdoor grill, since they're most easily, authentically and quickly cooked on one of two similar, inexpensive countertop electric appliances: a panini maker or a hinged two-sided grill. Either one will press and seal the sandwich while it cooks, producing a crunchy golden-brown exterior attractively ridged with grill marks. Even better, as you'll see from my recipe, you can also use either appliance to grill the protein -- here, boneless, skinless chicken breasts -- for the panini filling.
As for the complex tastes you crave, an hour of marinating in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice and fresh herbs, plus a sprinkling of salt and pepper just before cooking, imbues the chicken with wonderful flavor. And the condiments or sauces section of a well-stocked supermarket will supply the perfect readymade spread -- here, a jar of sun-dried tomato pesto -- to add an extra burst of fragrant flavor. The canned artichoke hearts, well-drained so they won't turn the filling watery, also add a surprisingly good flavor and texture. And the creamy, tangy goat cheese contributes its own perfect complement. Salad greens, tucked into each sandwich before serving, add yet more color, taste and texture.
Following the basic approach, you can create all sorts of other panini. Try salmon fillets, turkey cutlets, or thin, tender cuts of beef, lamb, or pork in place of the chicken. Use other pestos, gourmet mustards, or other spreads. Substitute roasted peppers, caramelized onions, or other vegetables for the artichokes, and different meltable cheeses for the goat cheese.
Whatever your selections, the result will be a multi-dimensional sandwich that, delightfully complex though it may be, is just what you want in summer: a lunch that's very easy to assemble.
GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST PANINI WITH ARTICHOKE HEARTS AND SUN-DRIED TOMATO PESTO
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch kosher salt
Pinch coarsely ground black pepper
4 medium-sized skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, each 6 to 8 inches long, trimmed of any fat or connective tissue
1 large loaf Italian bread
1/2 cup prepared sun-dried tomato pesto
1 can, 14 ounces quartered artichoke hearts, drained well and thinly sliced
4 ounces fresh creamy goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup mixed baby lettuces
In a nonreactive mixing bowl, stir together the olive oil, lemon juice, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. Add the chicken breasts, and turn them in the mixture to coat them thoroughly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the chicken breasts to marinate them for at least 1 hour.
Preheat an electric panini maker or double-sided hinged electric countertop grill. Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade, shaking off excess liquid, and cook them in the panini maker or grill, in batches if necessary to prevent overcrowding, until cooked through, 8 to 12 minutes depending on their thickness.
Meanwhile, cut the Italian loaf in half lengthwise; then, cut each half into 2 equal pieces. Spread the cut side of each piece with the sun-dried tomato pesto. On each piece from the bottom half, evenly arrange the artichoke slices and the crumbled goat cheese.
When the chicken breasts are done, transfer them to a cutting board. Turn off the grill and unplug it; then, use paper towels to wipe its cooking surfaces clean, taking care not to burn your fingers. (You won't be able to remove all the chicken residue, but the little that's left will add flavor to the sandwiches.) Plug the machine in again and turn it on.
With a sharp knife, cut each chicken breast crosswise and at a 45-degree angle into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Arrange the slices evenly on top of the goat cheese on each bottom half piece.
Close each sandwich with the top piece of bread. Put the sandwiches in the hot panini maker or grill, working in batches if necessary, and cook until the bread is nicely toasted on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove the sandwiches from the machine. Carefully lift off the top piece of bread from each sandwich and top with the salad greens. Replace the top pieces. With a sharp, serrated knife, cut each large sandwich in half. Place a large sandwich half on each of 4 serving plates. Serve immediately.