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Grilled eggplant, arugula and mozzarella panini

Time15 minutes
YieldsServes 4
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The panini press is on its way to becoming this decade’s version of the gelato maker or espresso machine: a sophisticated appliance that promises to turn out a simple Italian pleasure right in your very own kitchen.

Panini, of course, are the thin sandwiches Americans are becoming addicted to. The components are simple: bread and cheese, vegetables or meat. The sandwich is put into a contraption like a waffle iron, toasted and pressed until it becomes an irresistible sum of its parts.

Who wouldn’t want to reproduce that at home? And so store shelves now display these latest gadgets for the counter top, ranging in price from about $80 for a basic model to $600 for a professional version.

We put a couple to the test and threw in a little of our own ingenuity: How good a panini could we make with nothing more than a cast-iron skillet and a “press” made from a baking sheet and a couple of bricks?

At the top of the scale, the $600 Equipex almost frightened us. Heavy and capable of high heat (up to 570 degrees), it pressed the sandwich the best, producing deep grill marks; it was nice, flat and looked made in Italy -- or at least a restaurant. The top adjusted to fit what was on the grill, and held the sandwich firmly in place.

The modestly priced grill by Flama produced a disappointing sandwich; the adjustable lid wasn’t heavy enough. Our panini stood taller than it should have and looked like an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich. The grill marks on the bread were golden but uneven (probably because of that lack of pressure).

Finally, there was our do-it-yourself model. We heated a cast-iron grill pan, slapped on some sandwiches, and smooshed them with two bricks on top of a baking sheet. The result: Grill marks scored the bread in a deep, rustic way and the cheese melted in gooey dribbles down the crust. The sandwich was hot and messy -- a perfect panini.

Are we ready to run out and buy one of these machines? No, but if you can point us in the direction of a brickyard, we’re set.

The Ferrari of sandwich presses

What’s the difference: The Equipex panini press is almost too heavy for one person to lift. Big and industrial-looking, it has the heft and high heat to flatten and evenly grill a sandwich in minutes.

What we thought: The adjustable lid made panini making a snap, but we’d buy this baby only if we ran a restaurant.

How much: $600 at Surfas in Culver City, and at other restaurant supply stores.

The middle of the road: no fuss and no frills

What’s the difference: The Flama looks like a waffle iron -- it’s lightweight but the adjustable lid isn’t heavy enough to flatten a sandwich. The result: more a grilled cheese than a panini.

What we thought: Kind of wimpy. Sure, you can say you make panini at home, but is this what you really want?

How much: $89.95 from Sur La Table stores and at www.surla table.com, as well as other kitchen stores and Web sites.

For do-it-yourselfers: Take two bricks....

What’s the difference: No trip to the store is necessary. Just heat a grill pan over medium-high heat, slap on the sandwiches, top with a baking sheet weighted with two bricks, and grill 2 1/2 minutes. Flip, weight again, and grill 30 seconds.

What we thought: Outstanding. Sometimes, technology isn’t better.

How much: Free, or the cost of two bricks.

1

Heat a grill pan over high heat, or heat an electric panini grill on the highest setting according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

2

Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the eggplant on the grill pan, set a small baking sheet on top and weight evenly with 2 bricks. (Or, arrange the eggplant on the panini grill and close the lid, making sure it makes even contact with the eggplant.) Cook until dark grill marks appear, 2 1/2 minutes, then turn and cook the second side 30 seconds. (On the panini maker, cook 3 to 4 minutes.) Transfer the eggplant to a warmed plate.

3

Brush one side of each slice of bread with olive oil. With the oiled sides of the bread down, arrange the eggplant, arugula and mozzarella on 4 of the slices, seasoning each layer lightly with salt and pepper. Top each with one of the other slices of bread, oiled side up. Season the outside of the sandwiches with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-high and place 2 of the sandwiches on the grill pan, cover with the baking sheet and again weight with the bricks. Cook until dark grill marks appear, 2 1/2 minutes, then remove the bricks and baking sheet and turn the sandwiches carefully. Weight them down again and cook 30 seconds. (For the panini maker, reduce the heat to 400 degrees, close the lid and be sure it makes even contact with the sandwiches. Cook until dark grill marks appear, 3 to 4 minutes.)

4

Transfer the sandwiches to a cutting board and cut in half. Serve immediately and repeat with the remaining 2 sandwiches.