Recipe: Eggplant Pesto Panini with Caprino and Basil
Perfect, compact, portable, there’s a certain kind of panini you can pack up and go with, a solid meal, with minimum mess. This type of eat-and-run panini can be built with low on the fat but flavorful meat (tenderly treated pork loin, for instance) or a frittata, roasted vegetables, some non-gloppy cheese, a little lettuce. Nothing wrong with that. But when a panino is dripping with good olive oil, overstuffed and oozing it makes great table food eaten with a knife and fork, or just shoved into your mouth while hovering over your plate; the Provençal pan bagnat comes to mind (love this sandwich loaded with wet tomatoes, anchovies, oily tuna, and then mashed down and left to get all soaked), but so does my childhood favorite from Razzano’s shop in Glen Cove, a crusty Italian roll stuffed with hot capicola, old-fashioned Genoa salami, provolone, and mortadella and topped with a big spoonful of dripping, vinegary sweet and hot red peppers that miraculously balance out all the pork fat to create a taste that says Southern Italian perfection. This panino is always a mess to eat, but it’s such a taste memory I get a little choked up just thinking about it. It reminds me of my dad—he loved those vinegary peppers. But this sandwich, with all its salumi variations, also recalls the mid-seventies Donna Summer dance era. Love to love you baby. It’s a great restorative after eight or nine hours of out-of-control disco dancing (and it can soak up White Russians like nobody’s business.)
I do like the pressed panini you find in many wine bars in Manhattan these days. They can’t fit much in them, but they are good and oily and flat. I sometimes like flat, but if I have really good bread, which I think you’ll want when constructing a panino, I say show it off. Sometimes it’s better just to grill or toast the bread and then pile the stuff inside, or on top for an open-face version.
I’ve been making vegetable pestos lately. You might remember my posting of a recipe for a Zucchini Pesto with Anchovies and Summer Savory a few weeks ago. I spooned it onto crostini. Very delicate. This eggplant version is also a great match for bread, but I feel its more robust taste is more suited for an all out big sandwich. I’ve topped it with melted Caprino—fresh Italian goat cheese—but a few slices of tomato would be ideal instead, for a lighter result. Try and include the fresh basil on the panino. It bring out the cumin and chili flavors in the pesto.
Eggplant Pesto Panini with Caprino and Basil
(For 1 long baguette panino to feed 2, or, spread on crostini, enough pesto for 6 as an antipasto)
3 cups cubed eggplant, partially skinned
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small fresh green chili, seeded and minced
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon freshly ground cumin
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ cup lightly toasted pine nuts
A squeeze of lemon juice
A handful of basil leaves, chopped, plus a few whole leaves reserved if you’re making the panino
1 small log of caprino (fresh Italian goat cheese), or a French or American brand, if you prefer
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Lay the eggplant out on a sheet pan. Drizzle it with enough olive oil to lightly coat it. Scatter on the minced chili, and give everything a toss. Spread the eggplant out in one layer, and stick it in the oven. Roast until it’s fragrant, lightly browned, and tender, about 15 minutes, or a little longer. In the last few minutes of roasting add the garlic, cumin, sugar, and salt.
Add the pine nuts to a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough chop. Add the eggplant and a squeeze of lemon juice, and pulse once or twice, just until you have a slightly chunky texture. Spoon it out into a bowl and add the basil. Taste for seasoning. Eggplant can take a fair amount of salt. I like serving this pesto the day I make it. It will keep refrigerated for several days, but the color gets a bit drab.
To make the panino, split the baguette lengthwise, and toast it. Give each side a drizzle of olive oil, and then spread the flatter side with the eggplant pesto. Top with crumbled caprino, and run it under a broiler for a few seconds, just until the cheese is soft and lightly golden. Season with a little salt and fresh black pepper, and scatter on the basil leaves. Put the top on the panino, and cut the sandwich in half. If you’re making crostino just cut the baguette into thin rounds and toast or grill them. Top with some eggplant pesto and a little caprino, which you can melt or not. It’s up to you.