My go-to plan for larger gatherings lately has been a build-your-own panini bar.
It doesn’t get any easier for the host/ess, and guests of all ages love it. Picky younger guests get to build exactly what they like to eat, and adults love getting warm sandwich hot off the grill (with yummy grill marks!) made just for them. With this menu, you don’t have to worry about vegetarians or other dietary concerns. Everyone is in control of his or her own meal—and the pressure is off of you!
Follow these steps to build an easy, crowd-pleasing feast:
1. Get your grills
The most labor-intensive part of this plan is securing a few panini grills. If you have more than 12 people on your guest list, I’d suggest getting at least three grills. No need to run out and buy them—I have always managed to borrow grills from friends. If you have any friends who were recently married, I’d bet they have a panini grill, as this has become a very popular item on wedding registries. Ask coworkers, family members and friends. I’m always amazed how many people have these and are happy to see them get some use.
2. Get your sandwich fixin’s
These are the “must have” items:
- A few loaves of high-quality bread that will toast well
- A selection of deli meats. I suggest turkey and ham
- Cheeses. Provolone and cheddar are my favorites, but stay away from low-fat versions, as they tend to not melt well.
- Sliced tomatoes. If it’s the time of year when heirlooms are available, grab a few of those. The colors will make your table beautiful.
- Mayo, mustard and other condiments
3. Get a few gourmet fixin’s
To make your party truly fabulous, gather and prepare at least a few of these “fancier” items to step up the sandwich style.
- Pesto or thinly sliced basil leaves
- Grilled vegetables. I like zucchini, onion and portabello mushrooms. Slice them thinly and grill them in a sauté pan with a little splash of Italian dressing. You can do this ahead of time and store them in the fridge. They’ll be warmed up by the grills.
- Bacon. Cook it ahead by laying slices on a cookie sheet and baking them at 400 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut the slices in half to make them appropriate sandwich size.
- Olive tapenade
These panini recipes can also help jump start some creations for your guests to try:
Turkey, Apple and Cheddar Panini (Featured below)
4. Make a few sides
In warmer times of the year, I like to serve pasta salad, Caesar salad, spinach salad, or potato chips. Pasta salad is best made the night before so the flavors have time to really blend.
Check the seasoning right before the party—you may need to toss a little more olive oil or vinegar in right before the party if the pasta has soaked it all up.
Green salads can be chopped and prepped before the party, but add the dressing just before guests arrive so everything stays crisp.
I probably don’t need to tell you this, but if you’re doing potato chips, make sure to put them in a bowl! There’s nothing classy about a potato chip bag on your table!
In the cooler fall and winter months, soup is the perfect companion to your panini. I’d suggest making a simple minestrone soup the night before the party, then warming it up about 20 minutes before guests arrive. Guests can serve themselves directly from a large pot on the stove. Or you can place it in a warm slow cooker on your table and let them help themselves from there.
5. Prep your grill station
Clear counter or table space before the party to make room for several grills with clearance all around so people have room to work. Make sure they’re all plugged in properly. Then, before guests arrive, turn them on and test your circuit breaker—you don’t want a power outage during the party!
Place olive oil and a small pastry brush at each grill. Encourage people to brush oil on their bread before grilling so it’s crisp
6. Enjoy your party!
And make yourself a delicious panini along with the rest of the guests!