Healthy Cooking: When you’re pressed to make dinner, go for panini

Slices of leftover grilled chicken breast, spinach, Gruyere, and pickled red onions get pressed into dinner duty. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but exasperation was the genesis of my family’s easiest healthy meal.

A few weeks ago, after Dear Husband Bob and I collapsed on the sofa and discussed our equally overwhelming and exhausting days, he looked at me and said, “So, what’s for dinner?” Readers, he did not get a menu in response. Instead, he was treated to the unholy diatribe that is the internal monologue of every individual who serves as their family’s Chef, Chauffeur, CEO, COO, and, you know, whatever their actual day job is. Bob, who no doubt had his own internal monologue going, gathered the other able-bodied people in our household, and all agreed to share the burden of culinary procurement. Thus, DIY Panini Night was born.

DIY Panini Night is Leftover Night’s more sophisticated sister. You use whatever protein and vegetables you have on hand, and everyone makes their own hot sandwiches. There are three keys to a successful DIY Panini Night. The first is to use an actual panini press, which is an inexpensive small appliance with inexplicably big entertainment value. Kiddos can make their own sandwiches, thereby giving them a sense of accomplishment and you a break. If you have neither a panini press, nor a desire to purchase one more gadget, simply rebrand the evening’s adventure as DIY Open-Faced Sandwich Under the Broiler Night.

Some panini options (from left): baked shrimp, shaved Parmesan, fresh basil and a bacon slice on a sourdough roll; white bean hummus, with mixed lettuce greens and fresh tomato slices on pretzel bread; grilled chicken breast, spinach, shredded Gruyere, and pickled red onions on a French baguette. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES

A loaf of hearty, crusty bread, such as ciabatta or a French baguette, is the second essential element of DIY Panini Night. This is not the time for pedestrian white bread; you need a sturdy starch that will hold its shape under pressure. And good bread makes the meal feel more festive and less, well, tired.

Then curate high-quality ingredients for your sandwiches, with bonus points for Pinterest-perfect presentation in bowls or Mason jars. Here’s where your leftovers get a new life. A single grilled chicken breast from Sunday’s cookout is enough for two sandwiches if you slice it thinly. Same with the turkey bacon from brunch. And don’t forget the cheese! A sprinkle of shredded Gruyere or Parmesan will melt beautifully, with all of the flavor and less fat than a thick slice. Plant-based friends will enjoy a sammie made from mashed white beans and basil, particularly when brightened with fresh ripe tomatoes and a splash of balsamic. And my very best fancy-sandwich-making ingredient? Pickled onions.

Tangy, easy-to-make pickled red onions bring out the best in supper sandwiches. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES

If you have any deep-seated guilt about not cooking a 1950s-style meal for your family, homemade pickled onions will improve your outlook by a thousand percent. They’re crisp, tart and ridiculously easy to make ahead of time. Cut up a whole red onion (or use the remainder of an onion you’re slicing for another recipe), throw it in a glass jar filled with apple cider vinegar and aromatics. Refrigerate it overnight, and just like that, you have fat-free flavor-boosters on hand and ready to go.

Here I’ve included a basic recipe to get you started down your own pickled onion path, but feel free to experiment. Try Champagne vinegar or white-wine vinegar if that’s what you have on hand. Or use white sugar or agave nectar instead of honey to temper the vinegar’s brash flavor. Garlic is an easy aromatic that I always have in the kitchen; branch out with cloves or star anise for different deliciousness. Pickled onions will keep in an airtight jar in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. But they won’t last that long, because you’ll be adding them to the buffet for DIY Taco Night, DIY Salad Night and DIY Pizza Night. It’s the condiment that works as hard as you and I do, which everyone should fully appreciate.

Note: To enjoy same-day pickled onions, bring the vinegar, honey and 1 cup of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the remaining ingredients and let the onions cook for 1 minute or until they wilt. Remove from heat and let the onions and vinegar mixture come to room temperature before serving.

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