By Karen Billing
A panini press is one of the most common wedding registry gift items — a machine also known as a sandwich maker or griddle that heats food from the top and bottom.
“A lot of people make one ham and cheese sandwich, put it on a shelf and never touch it again,” said Kathy Strahs, author of “The Ultimate Panini Press Cookbook.”
The Carmel Valley mom, food blogger and first-time cookbook author is determined to get people to take that press off the shelf and put it to good use.
She has put her panini press to work making everything from chicken cordon bleu paninis to ice cream cones – she can even bake a miniature birthday cake on it.
“I think people will be really excited to learn there’s a whole lot more that they could be doing,” Strahs said.
Her cookbook, featuring over 200 recipes for the countertop grill, will be published on Sept. 10 by the Harvard Common Press, the end result of Strahs leaving behind a marketing career six years ago to pursue her passion for food.
She now writes two food blogs, the panini-driven “Panini Happy” and “Cooking On the Side,” where she tries recipes from the sides of food and product packages, and inserts.
Strahs found there are hidden gems of recipes to be found on almost everything — a tag around a bunch of asparagus yielded a recipe for asparagus torta; a recipe for chicken, caramelized onion and mango quesadillas was picked off a three-pound bag of white onions.
“I do cook with an oven and skillet too and I’m a huge baker,” Strahs said. “I wanted to do a blog about all other kinds of cooking I do and I think I found a unique niche.”
Strahs has always been interested in cooking and food, noting her beginnings watching her mom in the kitchen. She said her mother was a really good cook who took on the challenge of making the best-ever chocolate chip cookies — Strahs and her sisters served as official taste testers.
“I really got into cooking more in earnest after my daughter was born,” said Strahs. “I was watching a lot of Food Network and not going out to eat, but we still needed to eat.”
A few months after her daughter was born, Strahs’ sister gave her a panini press for Christmas. Strahs had been in search of a project to throw herself into in her time away from work so she put the press in action.
“I was afraid I would put it on a shelf and use it really rarely so instead I took it as a challenge to see what all I could do with it,” Strahs said. “I made very simple classic sandwiches, but it wasn’t too long before I was trying a whole lot more…There’s almost no limit to what you can cook on there.”
She tried to come up with good, legitimate uses for the press — “they’re not all intended to be gimmicky, it’s more about how to look at this tool in a different way,” she says.
She came up with healthful meat and fish recipes, recipes to use up leftovers and vegetarian options like the kale, grilled garlic and cheddar panini. She found ways to whip up breakfast on the machine, such as strawberry, banana and Nutella paninis or bacon breakfast burritos.
Then she began to tackle desserts — coming up with the idea to make ice cream cones with the press just like they do at the ice cream parlor.
At one point she thought she could probably bake on the press as long as she had something small to bake items in. She thought of ramekins — another popular wedding gift item and out popped a mini layer cake.
“You just have to be willing to mess up a little bit,” Strahs said of her experiments. “I am willing to make a mess of my grill, the point is to push your limits and see what you can do.”
She started her Panini Happy blog in January 2008 and had been logging recipes for three and a half years when she was approached by a few different publishers, one of them Harvard Common Press, which does a lot of single subject cookbooks.
While her blog has more recipes on it than she’s been able to tally (her celebratory 100th recipe was a pumpkin duck confit and feta panini), the cookbook will feature at least 100 never-seen-before concoctions.
Strahs set off on the challenge of writing the new recipes for the cookbook while continuing to maintain her two blogs and being a busy mother to a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old.
“It’s been a full two years and I’m very excited to hold the first copy in my hands,” said Strahs, who additionally did all the food photography for the book. “The whole thing is me. I have my hands all over it and that makes me feel proud even though it was challenging.”
The cookbook weighs more than 2 pounds and is over 400 pages long — there’s a whole lotta panini sandwiched in there. There’s no way a person could justify making just ham and cheese paninis with that many recipes to try.
She is now on her second press of the brand she received from her sister that fateful Christmas and has also purchased other versions so she is better versed on how they all work for her blog and cookbook.
With hope, her first cookbook will not be her last — Strahs said she has ideas for books two and three in her head.
“I learned a lot in this process. I was really curious to see what it is to write a book; a friend told me it would be the hardest thing I’d ever attempt to do and she wasn’t wrong,” Strahs said. “Next time there’s a few things I might do to make it easier, but I did like the process. I love cooking and I love to come up with creative ideas, collaborate with people and see them come to fruition.”
Strahs’ first event promoting her book locally will be at California Fig Fest on Sept. 8 at the San Diego Public Market (1735 National Avenue, San Diego, 92113) from 4-7 p.m.
On Tuesday, Sept. 10, Strahs will host a cookbook release event at Whole Foods Del Mar from 6-8 p.m. Guests can get books signed, taste bites from the book and enjoy a complimentary glass of wine or beer.
On Wednesday, Sept. 25, Strahs will also host a panini party at Venissimo Cheese at Flower Hill Promenade. For the $25 class, Strahs will demonstrate four recipes from the cookbook and books will be available to purchase for signing. To register visit venissimo.com.
The book will be available on
and all booksellers. Check out Strahs’ blogs at