When I was in high school, my friends and I used to sneak out at lunch and go to Bagel Bakery, a bagel and sandwich shop just down the road. My friends would usually order a plain bagel, since at the time, they were following "the bagel diet," - in hindsight, basically the worst diet ever. But me, I always ordered a panini. At the time, it made me feel fancy and totally superior to my friends with their boring, plain bagel.
I still have a soft spot for paninis. It's probably the melty cheese. Actually, it's definitely the melty cheese. But I can't forget the crunchy, toasty, buttery bread, which I love almost as much. Whether it's a dense garlic studded ciabatta, a soft, sweet slice of brioche, or a tangy, crusty piece of sourdough, there are few things I love more than fresh, artisan bread. While I indulge on occasion, for the most part, if I'm making a panini at home, I stick with the healthiest bread I can (because that cancels out the cheese, obviously).
Bread is one of the most maligned foods. In a way, it's for good reason. Bread is the third greatest source of calories in the average American diet. A bagel for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, and biscuit from a can at dinner - all that white flour adds up!
But bread isn't inherently bad. There are healthy, minimally processed options out there...but you've got to do a bit of digging. I think front-of-package labeling for bread is of the most confusing and misleading out there. Check out the ingredients list instead. If you know what to look for, it will save you a lot of time and trouble.
100% Whole GrainWords like multigrain, wheat, whole grain or white wheat don't mean a thing. More often than not, these breads are made with a blend of refined and whole grain flour, or are simply white bread with a little a little caramel coloring to make it look brown. If you're not sure, check the ingredients list. All flours listed should have the word whole in front of it.
Added SugarEven if it is 100% whole grain, you're not out of the woods. Many companies add sugar to make their whole grain breads more palatable to our sweet-loving taste buds. If you've ever made bread at home, you may have added a teaspoon or two of honey or sugar to bring out the flavor. No big deal, especially when it's divided between 12 or so slices. If you see a gram or maybe two on the label, I wouldn't worry. More than that and you may be getting into dessert range. Take Sara Lee 100% whole grain bread with it's 3 grams of sugar per slice. Doesn't sound like a lot, but if you have a sandwich with two slices, that's 6 grams or 1 1/2 teaspoons, about as much as you'll find in a couple of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies.
Artificial SweetenersNot a place you would expect to find artificial sweeteners, but surprisingly, many companies use artificial sweeteners in their bread, especially sucrulose. Personally, I avoid artificial sweeteners, given the research linking it to weight gain, insulin response, and it may even increased perceptions of hunger.
Dough ConditionersI avoid dough conditioners, such as azodicarbonamide, monoglycerides, diglycerides, potassium bromate and DATEM. A lot of the online information about these ingredients is a bit alarmist and not exactly scientifically founded. Still, I take special care to avoid these ingredients as they are made from manipulated fats and given the history of trans fats and how long it took laboratory research to reach the public, I'm a bit weary. Rather be safe than sorry! One exception is potassium bromide or bromated flour, which I always avoid. It has been linked to cancer in lab studies and is considered an endocrine disruptor that affects thyroid health. Because of this, numerous countries including the UK and Canada have banned this ingredient. Many large companies no longer use bromated flour, but some still do.
Caramel ColoringSounds pretty innocuous, but most caramel coloring used in the food industry isn't made by burning sugar. It's created by reacting sugars with ammonia and other compounds under high pressure, a process that creates known carcinogens, 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole.
Sounds pretty scary, but I promise, there's some good stuff out there!
Sprouted grain breads are my absolutely favorite. Instead of being made with flour, the grains are soaked in water until they start to sprout, then ground and baked into bread. Sprouted grains have more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Also, the sprouting process decreases phytic acid, a compound found in grains (nuts and beans too) that decreases vitamin and mineral absorption. My favorite is the classic Ezekiel 4:9 bread by Food for Life, which is in most grocery stores. Trader Joe's has a great selection of reasonably priced sprouted grain breads. Speaking of which, Trader Joe's is where I purchase most of my bread, as it's inexpensive, minimally processed and actually 100% whole grain. Their 100% whole grain sourdough is one of my favorites! Being part German, I also have a weak spot for the real, dark German rye breads, which are almost always 100% whole grain (check the ingredients list first though to be sure!). I also purchase local breads from places like Heather's Artisan Bakery. Even if it's not 100% whole grain, it's delicious and totally worth it!
Zucchini and Gruyere PaniniServes 4
Adapted from Food & Wine
1/4 cup pesto, prepared or homemade
1/2 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing
2 large zucchini, halved and cut lengthwise into 4 slices
8 slices whole grain bread
4 ounces Gruyere or Appenzeller cheese, shredded
In a small bowl, combine the smoked paprika with the pesto.
Place a grill pan over medium-high heat, or set outdoor grill to medium high. Brush zucchini with olive oil and grill about 3 minutes per side, until lightly charred and tender. Remove from grill and reduce heat to low.
Spread pesto over 4 slices of bread. Divide cheese over the slices of bread spread with pesto. Top with zucchini and other slice of bread.
Place the sandwiches on the grill, pressing down with the back of a grilling spatula. Flip after 2 minutes, and repeat on the other side. Slice in half and serve.
Place sandwich on the grill, weighing down with a can. Grill