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Caprese panini gives chance for one last taste of summer season

The Heirloom Tomato Caprese Panini — a perfect late-summer combination of bread, tomato, mozzarella and basil
The Heirloom Tomato Caprese Panini — a perfect late-summer combination of bread, tomato, mozzarella and basil Special to The Kansas City Star

Some combinations are simply timeless. Gin and tonic. Baseball and beer. Lennon and McCartney.

These things are considered classics for a reason, as they go together without thought or effort, perfect pairs impervious to the fickle nature of styles and trends.

There may be no better illustration of this notion than the elegant simplicity of a classic caprese salad. The red hues of ripe summer tomato blend with soft whites of mozzarella, contrasting against the vibrant green basil leaves adorning them both with an herbal aroma.

Like its not so distant cousin, the traditional Pizza Margherita of Naples, it bares the colors and soul of the Italian flag in an edible, operatic fashion. The flavors and textures are in ideal balance, rich yet refreshing, with each ingredient harmonizing like an original song of summer.

With tomatoes being an exemplar of seasonal eating, the caprese salad is one that only truly exists in that window of time when tomato and basil flourish in the summer sun. When that window closes it is gone, never to be disgraced with an out-of-season “zombie” tomato flown in from half way around the world and looking the part but lacking any of the true vigor that comes through in the ripest of heirloom tomatoes.

And so it is in these waning days of the tomato and summer season, the time to enjoy the trio of caprese’s ingredients in all of their glory, if not always in their traditional form. There are other ways to let these stars shine, and what better co-stars could tomato, basil and mozzarella hope for than an impeccably crusted bread, grilled to sweet, melting perfection in the form of the panini.

Panini has become commonplace in cafes and sandwich shops throughout the world, immediately identifiable by the characteristic grill marks gained from the high heat and compression of a panini press. Consider the panini a more worldly version of your childhood grilled cheese, a grown-up sandwich whose texture is equal parts crispy bread and molten filling — when done properly, of course.

There is a magical alchemy in the mere grilling of bread and the wonders it works when paired with a ripe tomato and fresh mozzarella. It composes a symphony for the senses — the crunching of crisp bread as your teeth slide into the oozing cheese just as the moist tomato splashes onto your palate, fresh basil seamlessly perfuming the proceedings as your taste buds dance with delight.

Savoring that moment of bliss is like a snapshot, the memory of a time and taste of the summer season.

As autumn nears, time is running out to make fresh memories, so take the occasion to enjoy these last days of summer with a simple sandwich befitting its star, the tomato. There is beauty to be had in such timeless combinations.

Heirloom Tomato Caprese Panini

We’ve talked tomato all summer, from pickled to smoked in vinaigrette to green and fried. This is one more great tomato recipe to add to your kitchen arsenal. For a gluten-free version of this sandwich, substitute a sturdy gluten-free bread and pay close attention during the grilling process to achieve the optimum balance of golden brown crust and melted cheese.

Makes 2 sandwiches

2 medium or 1 large heirloom tomatoes, 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick slices

8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut in 1/4-inch thick slices

4 slices whole-grain bread, preferably Farm to Market

2 sprigs fresh basil, leaves removed from stem

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon flaky sea salt

Optional: Red chili flakes to taste for heat

Preheat Panini press or grill pan to medium high heat. On 4 slices of bread, lay out a thin layer of mozzarella slices on each, followed by basil leaves. Place thick-cut heirloom tomatoes on two bottom slices, then drizzle liberally with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and chili flakes, if using.

Place top slices of bread and cheese on top, then drizzle outer slices with remaining olive oil. Place sandwiches onto panini press or grill pan and cook until golden brown outside and mozzarella is meltingly oozing but not overflowing.

Tyler Fox is a personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes a “nose to tail” cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local-farm-to-table foods.