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Microwave Tricks: Melts and other Hot Sandwiches

Microwaving the cheese and eggplant while the bread is toasting makes homemade panini a lot quicker

Microwaving the cheese and eggplant while the bread is toasting makes homemade panini a lot quicker--though not necessarily neater

Last year for his birthday my Italophile in-laws gave my husband the ultimate kitchen gadget. Because they loved theirs so much, they gave him…a panini press. I gawked. My husband is almost famous for not cooking. At all.

In more than 20 years of life together, I’ve rarely seen him make an actual sandwich for himself–does shmear on a bagel half count? I’m sure he believes in his heart that he still remembers how to flip one piece of bread on top of the other and seal the deal, but I’ve yet to see evidence of an attempt. Even without grilling.

Somehow I don’t in my heart of hearts believe this panini press is going to be removed from the box and used. Not by my husband, and not by me. It’s not that we’ve never been to Italy or eaten actual panini (we have, on both counts). It’s not that we hate panini or toasted sandwiches in general (we actually like them quite a bit).

It’s that the free-standing real, authentic, Michael Chiarello-approved-and-branded panini press weighs even more than the professional-grade waffle iron my in-laws gave us 10 years ago (and which we’ve used a total of 10 times since, because it’s such a pain to clean). The panini press also takes 3-4 times as long to preheat before you actually get to make the panini. Somehow a grilled cheese sandwich of whatever nationality just shouldn’t take 45 minutes to make. Which it did, when my in-laws, with all the innocent gadget-happy enthusiasm of Toad and his motorcar in Wind in the Willows, brought theirs out to demonstrate.

As a cheese-and-toast fanatic of some standing, I have a few very specific criteria for my grilled cheese sandwiches, grinders, melts, etc., etc.:

1. They have to be substantial and taste good–classic or adventurous, they have to be worth eating. That means the bread, the cheese, and any other fillings under consideration.

2. The toasted bread must be crisp. It must not crush, mush, squash, crumble or absorb tons of cheese grease. It must stand up to the fillings.

3. The cheese must have body and flavor even when melted–it shouldn’t run away, sink into the bread, turn into a pile of salty but otherwise flavorless grease, swamp everything else on the plate, or become a rubber eraser.

4. The whole sandwich must not take longer than about 7 minutes to put together and toast.

Normally you’d say panini fit the bill for an ideal toasted cheese sandwich, and I’d agree–if I were eating out and didn’t have to put up with preheating the grill. If you’re running a corner grill in a touristy Italian city, you’ve got a hot press at the ready and you’re turning out panini by the score for large crowds of passersby, an individual panino probably doesn’t take more than 5-10 minutes. At home, though, all you want is your d–n sandwich. You don’t want to heat an expensive and cluttersome gadget 45 whole minutes just to get there.

You’d also say that the standard white-bread-and-Velveeta fried cheez sandwich was out of the running. You’d be right there as well. No exceptions or passes.

However, in my kitchen, with its limited counterspace and my dislike of extra washing-up, waiting, or fussing, I sometimes get impatient even with the toaster oven classics of good bread, good cheese, and foil underneath to catch the drips.

A quesadilla is obviously no trouble in the toaster oven. Practically designed for it. Neither, really, is a simple sandwich-bread-and-cheddar grilled cheese. But for anything more complicated, or any thicker, more substantial filling, sometimes melting the cheese is the longest part of waiting, and in the meantime you’ve either pretoasted the bread so it stays crisp (in which case it burns around the edges waiting for the cheese to melt) or else you didn’t pretoast the bread and it remains too soft underneath the cheese (and maybe absorbs some of the grease while it’s doing that). Sometimes the other filling ingredients–tomatoes or tomato sauce, mushrooms, lentils, artichoke hearts, etc.–make the bread soggy while you’re trying to melt the cheese on top. Sometimes they don’t cook all the way through.

Here, surprisingly, the microwave comes to my rescue, particularly with fillings that aren’t just cheese but rather cheese melted onto vegetables or sauce or lentils or tuna or some combination. While the bread is toasting to my liking so that it’ll stay crisp, I put some sauce and/or vegetables and/or cooked lentils (or tuna salad, veggie burger, whatever) down on a microwaveable saucer or plate, slice some shavings of cheese over it, and microwave on HIGH for about 30 seconds to a minute, enough to heat up the portion and melt the cheese on top.

As soon as the bread is done, I slide the mass of hot filling onto it as neatly as possible, sprinkle on a pinch of oregano or hot peppers or fennel seed as desired, and either sandwich it or eat it open-faced. I get the best of both worlds–crunchy bread and whatever hot filling I feel like that day–and I get it quickly. The pressing together I can do myself. I don’t need a namebrand gadget.

Filling Combos

These are just a few vegetarian ones–change ingredients at will. Microwave these fillings on an open plate until the cheese melts (about 30 seconds to a minute), then slide them onto your toasted bread of choice. Ingredients are listed in the general order you’d put them on the plate (sauce on the bottom to prevent sticking, solid vegetable in the middle, cheese and herbs on top)

  • veggie burger, slice of cheese (mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss, whatever)
  • spinach and egg “fritada” patty, cheddar
  • tomato sauce (sprinkling of fennel seed as desired), pre-nuked eggplant slices, ricotta and/or feta, mozzarella, Italian herbs as desired (oregano, thyme, hot pepper flakes)
  • tomato sauce (fennel seed if desired), marinated artichoke hearts, mozzarella, herbs
  • tomato sauce (fennel seed and hot pepper), cooked green lentils, mozzarella, herbs
  • eggplant, cheese, herbs; pesto on the freshly toasted bread before putting the filling on it
  • portobello or other mushroom slices, mozzarella; pesto on the toasted bread
  • mushroom slices, Jarlsberg or baby Swiss, thyme/marjoram/sage (pesto or mustard on the toasted bread, optional)
  • roast (or nuked) eggplant, red bell pepper and onion salad, hummus (cold) on the toasted bread
  • roast (or nuked) eggplant, red bell pepper and onion salad, microwave this first by itself, then add thin slices of bleu or gorgonzola to top the hot vegetables but DO NOT NUKE THE BLEU (major stench throughout the house?)
  • thick homemade-style hummus with spinach (mix together, microwave, doll up with extra cumin, lemon juice, hot pepper or z’khug as needed)
  • tomato slices (dash of wine vinegar and olive oil as desired), sliced kalamata or other good olives, few basil leaves, feta and shredded mozzarella

etc. etc. etc.

I haven’t tried doing a black bean burrito or enchiladas this way–I’m not sure I could contain the mess successfully (but it would be fun to try)–just don’t nuke the sour cream or guacamole with the beans, I guess.

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