My friend and longtime cooking assistant, Emily Bell, drives from her home in Ohio several times a year to visit her young grandchildren in New Hampshire. Although her visits are devoted to helping her daughter and son-in-law with babysitting, she always finds time to make side trips to other parts of New England. After a recent foray to Maine, she called to tell me about a unique sandwich she had enjoyed in a small coastal restaurant.
She'd been intrigued by a grilled crab salad sandwich on the menu, and after her first bite knew that she had ordered a winner. Golden toasted bread slices encased a filling of delicious crab salad topped with creamy melted Havarti cheese, sliced tomatoes and baby spinach leaves.
My mouth was watering after this description, so I asked if she could try to reproduce the delectable seafood sandwich in her own kitchen. Several days later, a recipe with the name Crab Panini arrived by e-mail. I wasted little time before making it for my family. The sandwiches were as good as described, and after serving them to several others, I realized what a great addition this recipe would make to my repertoire for the summer months when we are hosts for simple, informal meals, often at the last minute. And you don't have to have a panini maker to prepare them. A stove-top grill pan or a griddle works fine.
Accompanied by glasses of iced tea and some sliced melon, these heavenly panini would be ideal to serve for a weekend lunch.
Emily Bell's Crab Panini
2 / 3 pound fresh crab meat, drained and picked over
3 tablespoons finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
4 teaspoons finely chopped red bell pepper
1 tablespoon capers, drained and coarsely chopped
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup mayonnaise
3/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
8 ( 1/4 -inch thick) sourdough bread slices cut from the center of a 7-inch round loaf
about 4 tablespoons olive oil for brushing on bread and more for oiling grill pan or griddle
4 ounces thinly sliced Havarti cheese (see note)
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
small bunch baby spinach leaves, cleaned and stemmed
For crab salad, mix together crab, celery, onion, red pepper, capers, 1/4 teaspoon salt, scant 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, mayonnaise and lemon juice in a nonreactive bowl.
(Crab salad can be prepared 3 hours ahead; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before using.)
For the panini, brush one side of each bread slice with olive oil and place, oiled sides down, on a work surface. Divide cheese evenly and place on four of the bread slices. Then cover the cheese layers with 3 or more tomato slices and sprinkle lightly with salt. Cover tomatoes with several spinach leaves, then divide crab salad evenly and spread over the spinach. Place remaining bread slices, oiled side up, on top of sandwiches.
Oil a stove-top grill pan or griddle generously and place over medium heat. Heat until very hot. Place enough sandwiches to fit comfortably on grill or griddle and weigh down with a heavy skillet. Cook until cheese melts and sandwiches are rich golden-brown on bottom, about 2 minutes. Turn and repeat, cooking another 2 minutes. Total cooking time should be about 4 minutes. If you have more sandwiches to cook, cover cooked ones loosely with foil while you repeat the process. (If you have a panini machine, count on 4 minutes to cook the sandwiches, which will not need to be turned.)
Cut sandwiches in half and place two halves on each of four salad plates. Serve warm.
Note: Make sure you use plain Havarti cheese, not caraway or dill Havarti.