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Yeah, I know, everybody’s throwing a Super Bowl party. But on this day, I avoid the celebratory one-upmanship and stick with an easy, stress-free concept that allows me to enjoy the actual football-watching part of the big game (imagine that!).
I’m all about a sandwich bar and beer. Albeit a little spiffed up because I toast the sandwiches and serve craft beers, but straightforward enough, right?
Now I realize that, depending on your comfort level in the kitchen, “easy” and “stress-free” are relative terms. But taking this notion of sandwiches and beer and kicking it up a notch really is simple — even for the novice cook or reluctant entertainer. Honest.
The ground rules are simple: Invite a bunch of friends, tell them to bring something (ice, drinks, a side or dessert), and you provide the main course (in this case, sandwiches). Gone is the pressure of heavy-duty cooking, replaced by a focus on enjoying your pals and having a good time.
Here’s the playbook:
• Panini or indoor grill press: You probably got one for Christmas a few years back, so here’s the perfect excuse to fire it up. A panini or indoor grill press cooks both sides of the sandwich simultaneously, so there’s no need to flip. Most can easily cook two sandwiches at a time.
• Cast-iron skillet: No panini press? Either a cast-iron skillet or sturdy grill pan (large enough to hold two sandwiches) makes a worthy stand-in. If you go this route, though, you’ll need something to “press” the sandwiches. I recommend using a smaller skillet or an aluminum foil-wrapped brick. Cook one side of the sandwich, pressing with a skillet or brick, until bread is golden-brown. Flip, press and cook the other side until golden-brown and cheese melts. This only takes about 2 or 3 minutes on each side.
• Practically any bread will work, from slices to rolls, but don’t let it be an afterthought. Choose breads that play well with the filling’s textures and flavors. My favorites are hearty Italian (multi-grain is even better), crusty ciabatta and tangy sourdough.
• Keep the stress to a minimum by tossing a pork or beef roast in the slow cooker the day before. Chop or shred the meat, and you’re ready to go. If you have more time, bake a ham or turkey breast. For the truly time-pressed or less-confident cook, pick up a rotisserie chicken or two from the deli (and don’t forget the salami and prosciutto). I’m also a fan of stopping by the local barbecue joint for chopped smoked chicken, pork and brisket.
• You can count on jarred items such as olives, marinated vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted bell peppers to add a zesty pop of flavor.
• It may be winter, but that’s no excuse to forget about fresh veggies and fruit. Try peppery arugula or tender baby spinach. Sliced Roma tomatoes are just the right size to sit atop a sandwich. Use a vegetable peeler to make thin carrot ribbons — a simple kitchen trick that adds color and crunch. Crisp, thinly sliced apples (Gala, Granny Smith) and pears (Seckel, Bartlett, Anjou) are a tasty way to balance out more savory ingredients.
• The key here is “meltability,” which ensures a high ooey-gooey quotient. You can play it more middle-of-the-road with relatively mild cheeses like Monterey jack, fontina and provolone, or mix it up a bit with more flavorful options like smoked Gouda, aged goat or Gorgonzola. And don’t forget about the super-versatile, spreadable garlic-and-herb cheese typically found in the supermarket deli case.
• Regular mayo and mustard are fine, but here’s a chance to really have some fun with condiments. A few of my picks are pesto, red pepper jelly, Sriracha chili sauce, chutney, whole-grain mustard, barbecue sauce, balsamic vinegar and aioli.
• Create your sandwich bar using plates, platters and trays to display the various ingredients, allowing guests to build the perfect panini.
• Brush bread slices with olive oil or melted butter (or a combo of both) to maximize browning and crispiness. Vegetable spray works too.
• Mind the heat. Stick with medium heat for perfect, golden-brown sandwiches. Too hot and the bread will burn before the cheese melts.
• Sandwiches cook in about 5 minutes, so even if you use a skillet or grill pan, the line should move quickly.
There are classic pairings like peanut butter and jelly, Page and Plant, Montana and Rice — and the Super Bowl and beer. No disrespect to the mass-produced lagers and ales, but there’s an entire world of micro- and craft-brewed beers out there just waiting to be sipped and enjoyed with food.
For the sandwich bar, I recommend two styles: rich winter lagers and crisp American pale ales.
• Winter Lager: Despite their deep color, these sturdy, cool-fermented brews stay true to their roots with restorative hoppiness and tongue-tingling carbonation, both of which prep the palate for the next bite. The toasted, slightly caramelized flavors lend more muscle to the beer — a tasty asset alongside heartier meats and full-bodied condiments — without the high level of head-numbing alcohol. Take it one step further with a dark lager, which has even more wintery notes of caramel and coffee with a touch of smokiness.
• American Pale Ale: These crisp, aromatic ales are anything but pale. While less hopped than their IPA siblings, American pale ale still packs plenty of fruit and floral aromas, which play well with spice and heat, as well as the rich cheese. And with more fizz than English pale ale, the livelier American style delivers enough carbonation to cut through even the richest condiment.
Scott Jones is a food and wine writer who lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Find more of his cooking tips, recipes, and wine recommendations at his blog Jones Is Hungry. He also writes a monthly wine column for Cooking Light called, “The 10-Minute Wine Matchmaker.”