Asparagus, Romesco, and Manchego Paninis
Seeing a plethora of asparagus at low prices is a good bellwether that spring has arrived. Asparagus tends to be my gateway into more greens and lighter eating that comes with the seasonal shift, transitioning me away from the heavier comforts I subside on from fall through winter. Last summer I made this asparagus, romesco, and manchego panini, which was delicious, but definitely had a heartier touch that made it feel out of place in the heat and humidity of mid-summer, but would be very fitting as a winter to spring transition dish, so I held onto this recipe to share at the appropriate time, which has finally arrived.
The majority of the effort that went into constructing this panini came from the need to make romesco, which is a tomato-based sauce that has its origins in Catalonia, Spain as a pairing with fish. The base of the sauce is roasted tomatoes with a fair amount of garlic and nuts, of which, almonds, hazelnuts, or pine nuts can be used. Bread is utilized as a thickener and nyora peppers add earthy notes. Not having a source of nyora peppers, I subbed in anchos, which are similarly mild and earthy, with a bit more of a smokiness. All of these ingredients went onto a sheet pan and got roasted in the oven.
While those were all baking, I also throughly charred a red pepper on the range, then placed it in a bowl and covered to allow it to steam. Once cool enough to handle, I peeled, stemmed, and seeded the pepper. At this point, the almonds, bread, and anchos were all done roasting, so I removed them from the sheet pan and allowed the tomatoes and garlic to continue to cook until done, about 20 minutes later.
Next, everything went into the food processor, along with the additional seasonings of smoked paprika and sherry vinegar, and I pureed until the mixture was finely chopped. Then, with the motor running, I drizzled in extra-virgin olive oil until I had an emulsified, thick sauce.
So that was the labor intensive part, the rest of these paninis was a cinch. You may not think of grilling asparagus due to its shape that's apt to fall through the grates, but they do incredibly well cooked over the high heat of charcoal. In order to prep these little stalks for the grill, I merely snapped off the tough ends and then tossed them all with oil, salt, and pepper on a baking sheet.
I cooked the asparagus over high, direct heat, which cooked the veggie really quickly. To keep them from falling through, you merely have to arrange them perpendicular to the grates. Even when doing this though, it's not uncommon that one or two might get lost to the fire, but that's just collateral damage to get the rest tasting so great with a nice char and mellow smokiness they pick up from being cooked over a live fire.
Once the asparagus were done, I transferred them to a cutting board and put my cast iron presses on the grill to heat up. I then chopped the asparagus into roughly one-inch portions and piled them onto ciabatta rolls that I had spread a thick layer of romesco onto. The asparagus then got a hearty helping of manchego cheese on top before going on the grill.
I set the assembled sandwiches on the cool side of a two-zone fire, placed the presses on top, and pushed down to start the panini compression—this was done wearing my welding gloves to protect me from the super hot cast iron. With the grill covered, I let the paninis cook until they compressed a bit further, the cheese was melted, and the bread crisped, which took about five minutes.
After removing the presses and slicing the paninis into two triangular halves, I snapped some photos and dug in. This sandwich was deceptively light looking, while it actually have a good heartiness to it. A large part of that was thanks to the romesco, which has an amazingly strong and complex flavor that had smoky, fruity, nutty, and tangy notes. Asparagus is also not the lightest flavored vegetable either, which added to the heft here and made it a very apt pairing with the romesco and the sharp and savory manchego. Taken altogether, the panini felt very on point and very much like something I'd take great pleasure in at the outset of spring, getting in some first tastes of the veggie, fruit, and grilling seasons that are all about to come in full force.
Asparagus, Romesco, and Manchego Paninis
- Yield 6 servings
- Prep 40 Minutes
- Cook 10 Minutes
- Total 50 Minutes
- For the Romesco Sauce
- 2 large tomatoes (about 2/3 pound)
- 2 1-inch thick slice of crusty bread, crust removed and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 ounce ancho chili peppers (about 3 small)
- 1/2 cup skinned almonds
- 8 cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 1 large red bell pepper
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- For the Asparagus
- 2 lbs fresh asparagus, washed and tough ends trimmed
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- For the Paninis
- 6 ciabatta rolls, split in half horizontally
- 8 oz Manchego cheese, grated
- To make the romesco sauce: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place tomatoes, bread, ancho chilies, and almonds on a large baking sheet and place in the oven. Roast almonds and chilies until fragrant, and bread until crusty and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Remove almonds, chilies, and bread and continue roasting garlic until soft and tomato until tender, about 20 minutes more. Remove from oven, let cool slightly and remove skin from tomato, peel garlic, and stem and seed ancho chilies.
- While other ingredients are roasting in the oven, roast the bell pepper over an open flame on a gas stove or grill until skin is blackened. Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap and let sit until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Remove charred skin, seeds, and core.
- Place bread, tomato, almonds, chilies, red pepper, olive oil, vinegar, paprika, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Puree until smooth. With motor running, drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil. Season with salt to taste. Transfer sauce to an airtight container and store in refrigerator until ready to use, up to 5 days.
- To make the asparagus: Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place asparagus on a shallow plate or dish, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Gently toss asparagus to thoroughly and evenly coat in oil and seasoning. Place asparagus on grill, perpendicular to the grates, and cook until tender and lightly charred, about 5 minutes, turning occasionally. Transfer asparagus to a cutting board and roughly chop.
- To make the paninis: Place cast iron panini presses or foil-wrapped bricks on hot side of grill and allow to preheat while preparing the sandwiches. Spread a layer of romesco on cut side of bottom half of each roll. Top romesco with asparagus and Manchego cheese. Place top halves of rolls on top to make a sandwich. Working in batches as necessary, place sandwiches close to, but not directly over, the fire. Wearing well insulated grilling or welding gloves, place panini presses or bricks on top of sandwiches and press down to compress. Cover grill and cook until sandwiches are heated through and well compressed, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer sandwiches to a plate, cut into two pieces, and serve immediately.