A Gourmet Fusion
Two of my favorite sandwiches are New Orleans Muffulettas and Italian Panini. I suppose that’s not a huge surprise given that I was born in New Orleans to Italian, specifically Sicilian, and Spanish parents. I’ve combined these two loves into one amazing creation that I call the ultimate Muffuletta Panino. Before I share this deliciously easy and gourmet, restaurant-quality recipe with you, let’s take a look at the history of these heavenly stacked combinations of Italian cured meats, nutty cheeses, tangy spreads and crispy, yet chewy, Italian bread.
The New Orleans Muffuletta
I grew up in New Orleans, a city which is as famous for its food, as it is for its Mardi Gras traditions, libations, Jazz music and architecture. Tourists flock to New Orleans every year in search of the perfect Gumbo, Jambalaya, Crawfish Etouffee and even Pralines, King Cake and Beignets. New Orleans is not only home to over a dozen cajun creole specialities, but it’s also the origin of some of the world’s greatest sandwiches. Where else can you get an over-stuffed Po-Boy or an authentic Sicilian Muffuletta? Well, the answer is in my kitchen and soon to be in yours too!
The sesame seed-flecked round loaf of Italian bread that is traditionally used for Muffulettas was first introduced to New Orleans by Sicilian immigrants in the early 1900’s. Sicilian farmers would sell their produce to the Central Grocery, which is located across from the French Market on Decatur Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Central Grocery was the first to stuff these crusty round loafs with capacolla, salami, mortadella, provolone and their own homemade olive salad. The Muffuletta was born in 1906 and to this day tourists and locals alike can still be seen forming a line outside of the store waiting for a taste, well actually a half or a whole, of this delicious sandwich.
The Italian Panino
There seems to be a misconception in America as to what is a panini. First of all, in Italian, panini is the plural form of the word panino, which refers to a sandwich made from flavorful meats, cheese, pesto sauce and most importantly, high quality Italian artisan breads like ciabatta or focaccia. The difference between what Italians call a panino and what Americans consider to be a panini is that the authentic Italian version is made from bread that is sliced horizontally across the length of the bread and is literally stuffed with deliciousness. The sandwiches which most Americans use sliced bread, albeit artisan ones like sourdough or my personal favorite, La Brea Bakery’s Rosemary Olive Oil Loaf, is actually more similar to the Italian Tremezzino or Tremezzini, in the plural form. However, the authentic Italian tremezzino is made from thin bread that is very much like our sliced “toast” with the crusts usually cut off and sliced into two triangles. In other words, it looks like something you might have packed in the lunch box of your picky 8 year old.
Crafting a Muffuletta Panino
Because I have lived outside of New Orleans for over 15 years now, I’ve had to make some adjustments when I can’t get my hands on authentic Muffuletta bread. Fortunately, this has led me to the discovery of something that I love so much more. And because it is easily accessible, our family gets to enjoy these wonderful gourmet panini at home on a regular basis. Thanks to the endless combinations of fresh meat, cheese, artisan bread and other ingredients, we are constantly discovering new favorites. Panino night at our house is never dull, and when you make the ultimate Muffuletta Panino, it’s like a Mardi Gras party in your mouth that you can enjoy any time of year!
My favorite bread choices for the Muffuletta Panino are herbed focaccia, a large ciabatta loaf or single serving size ciabatta rolls. I build layers of flavor into every dish I make, so that the end result is an explosion that jump starts every taste bud for an overall sensory experience. For this reason, I choose breads that are seasoned with herbs or garlic and meats that are also infused with flavor, such as rosemary ham, or add a smoky element like speck or prosciutto. I also like to use a combination of cheese, my favorites being smoked mozzarella and muenster.
For this particular sandwich, I typically purchase authentic olive salad when visiting family in New Orleans, although one time I was in a bind and had to pick some up at a local store in Atlanta. It was pleasantly surprised at how good it was and would purchase it again if I didn’t have access to the New Orleans’ originals. If you are purchasing olive salad and are unsure of the quality or authenticity, just take a look at the ingredient list. It should read similar to the following: green olives, olive oil, cauliflower, carrots, celery, sweet peppers, black olives, capers and other spices.
The original Muffuletta was served cold and some people still believe it is a sacrilege to heat it. Personally, I like melted cheese and caramelized, slightly crisp meat on my panino, and my Sicilian half of the family doesn’t seem to mind. You can stuff your panino with meat, cheese and olive salad to taste. In our house, my husband’s half always gets more olive salad and my half gets more cheese. The key is that you use fresh, quality ingredients.
For a little variety we sometimes make this sandwich with homemade cilantro or basil pesto instead of olive salad. I like to mix a little mayo with the pesto before spreading it on to the insides of the bread top and bottom, but my mayo-averse husband spreads on the pesto as is. You can find the recipes for these easy homemade pesto sauces that you can keep in your freezer year-round, like Basil Pesto and Cilantro Pesto. I also make a mouth-watering panino out of basil pesto, fresh Buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes and call it the Caprese Chicken Salad Panino.
The American Panini
If you think you still prefer the American version of a warm, melty sandwich that has been pressed in a sandwich grill, I’ve got a fabulous recipe for you too! One fact remains- the layering of flavors and fresh, quality ingredients is key. For my pressed panini, that is better than anything I have ever tasted at any restaurant or deli, I like to use La Brea Bakery’s Rosemary Olive Oil Loaf or Roasted Garlic Loaf, but in a bind a seasoned Sourdough loaf will do.
In order to get the most life out of your bread, the first thing you should do it slice it into thin slices. Melt equal parts of butter in olive oil in a small bowl and brush it on both sides of each slice. Sprinkle fresh black pepper and a little sea salt over the bread and bake it in the oven for about 10 to 12 minutes at 375 degrees. You are just trying to form a small crust on the surface so that the bread does not go stale right away. You can then store the slices in an airtight bag for up to a week. This is a great trick if you are going to the beach for a week and want to have bread on hand for quick yet deliciously gourmet sandwiches for lunch!
The process is the same whether you are going to make these panini immediately or over the course of a few days. Once the bread has had it’s initial bake it is ready for your creative touch. Layer on your ingredients of choice and don’t forget the sauce, preferably pesto. All you need now is another 10 or so minutes in the oven or you can also heat these up in a panini press or sandwich grill if you prefer the “authentic” American panini grilled look. I don’t have either of these appliances but have discovered that the old George Foreman grill, that has otherwise been collecting dust, does the trick! You now have an original, masterful creation that is better tasting than anything at your local deli. I bet you even saved a buck or two!
Suggested Wine Pairings
Foods made with olives typically pair best with red wines full of substantial, ripe fruit like a California Zinfandel or Italian Primitivo. However, a Beaujolais, which is made from the Gamay grape, or a slighter fuller-bodied Italian Barbera would also be a good match for this gourmet Italian meat and cheese sandwich.