Tomato, Mozzarella, and Pesto Panini
As a kid, I never could have imagined I would have been exuberant about any fruit or vegetable in my lifetime. With my diet leaning heavily into the fried and processed families, shunning most things that were fresh, things like tomatoes entered by force rather than desire. It was really joining a CSA that changed things for me, and there was no bigger revelation than tomatoes in that experience—I had only known them as flavorless, mealy orbs, not the explosions of sweet and acidic flavor they're meant to be. The CSA was a gateway that only lasted a couple years, now I stock up on my seasonal favorites at the farmer's market, and there's still nothing that grabs me like the tomato. Once the season for them hits, I'm buying bagfuls every weekend and often using them as simply as possible to feature their naturally amazing flavor, which is what this tomato, mozzarella, and pesto panini does quite well.
Originally I was going to go even more simple with tomato, mozzarella, and basil, but that wasn't much of a recipe, plus there did seem to be a flavor advantage to adding a little more complexity by choosing to use pesto. I opted to used my food processor instead of the mortar and pestle this time around, so the pesto really didn't represent much extra effort—I just started by dumping basil, toasted pine nuts, and garlic cloves into the workbowl and pulsing everything together until finely chopped.
Then, with the motor running, I drizzled extra-virgin olive oil in until I had a thick and somewhat smooth sauce. With a final addition of parmesan cheese and some salt to taste, the pesto was complete and provided a ton of that fresh basil flavor with nutty and garlicky bonuses.
You can use your favorite tomato variety here, and if you pick up some larger specimens, you should only need a couple tomatoes to make four sandwiches. I'm really drawn to the varieties with lower acidity and higher sweetness, which I think worked really well in the final paninis. Since the tomato is so central to the success of these sandwiches, I do warn that this really needs to be a summer dish because those tasteless winter tomatoes will not cut it when they're the main focus.
Assembling these sandwiches as a cinch since all that was required was slicing a ciabatta loaf in half lengthwise, and then into sandwich-sized portions. Next I just laid on the tomato slices and some torn fresh mozzarella, and I then spread a layer of pesto on the top halves of the bread.
I use my grill for panini making, which I like because I can make three or four sandwiches at once. To grill paninis, I start by heating cast iron panini or bacon presses over the hot side of a two-zone fire for about five minutes. I then place the sandwiches on the cool side of the grill, and wearing my welding gloves, place the heated presses on top and push to flatten. I then cover the grill and let the paninis cook until well compressed, the bread is crunchy, and the cheese is melted.
Usually this takes about another five minutes, at which point the paninis usually look amazing, like this one above. If you're not as inclined to grill everything like I am, this can be done on the stove top or in an oven as well without the need to buy a standalone panini press appliance.
With such a simple and classic pairing of ingredients, I'm not sure I can say anything that hasn't already been said about combining tomato, mozzarella, and basil. The day I made these sandwiches, a guest at the cookout had brought the same grouping of ingredients, just on skewers to be eaten raw, and I can say that the paninis definitely provided a different way to enjoy the trio that didn't feel like you were essentially eating the same thing twice. The crunch and heartiness of the bread was key, of course, but also the way the melted mozzarella added a creamier texture was notable, along with using pesto, which definitively upped the complexity just enough to give the paninis a more distinct personality. All-in-all though, it really just represented another way to feature and get in those incredible summer tomatoes, which is enough to make it a winning recipe for me.
Tomato, Mozzarella, and Pesto Panini
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 15 Minutes
- Cook 5 Minutes
- Total 20 Minutes
- For the Pesto
- 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves, rinsed and dried
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
- 2 medium cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons finely grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- For the Paninis
- 2 large ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 6 oz fresh mozzarella, roughly torn
- 4 ciabatta rolls, halved
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- To make the pesto: Combine basil, pine nuts, and garlic in the clean bowl of a food processor. Pulse until basil and pine nuts are finely chopped, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. With the food processor running, pour oil in a slow, steady stream, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl as necessary. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano and pulse to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
- To make the paninis: Lay 2 to 3 tomato slices on bottom half of each roll and season with salt and pepper to taste. Top tomatoes with pieces of mozzarella. Spread a layer of pesto on cut side of top halves of rolls and place each atop tomatoes and mozzarella to make a sandwich.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place cast iron panini presses or foil-wrapped bricks on hot side of grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes.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, 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.