Chicken Pesto Panini

By Ryan McKay

Father’s Day is rapidly approaching, and nothing makes a man smile on this day more than a hot cheese sandwich, aka “the panini.” Now, the panini is considered a sandwich that is pressed everywhere but Italy, where a panini (known as a Panino) is just a sandwich on a roll. Working in the firehouse, I’m sure you won’t have the luxury of having a panini press, so I’ll show you how to work around it using common cast iron pans. I lean toward cast iron pans for the heat retention and weight (and they are just about the best thing to own in your kitchen). But, alas, no classic grill marks.  

I’ve added chicken breast and pesto to this recipe, but the panini encompasses just about any protein and cheese. I added roasted red peppers here as well, but tomatoes (fried green, anyone?) are a great replacement. When cooking for the crew (in bulk), you can skip the whole “pressing” and just bake them en mass on a baking sheet in the oven (350°F) till the cheese has melted. Enjoy!

A few after-the-fire critiques: In reference to the baking option, I still use the cast iron pans to weigh down the top baking sheet; works like a charm. You can make your own pesto (as I do when I can), but be forewarned: It’s expensive (pine nuts) and has a short shelf life, so store-bought is good here. Lastly, I’d like you to consider making vinaigrette by adding some of the brine from the roasted red peppers for a side salad. Don’t waste all that flavor.

Happy Father’s Day!



Chicken Breast (4-5 either sliced in half or pounded out to between ½-¾”)

Pesto (½ Cup)

Mozzarella Cheese (Sliced)

Bread Rolls (8-10 Ciabatta or Torta Rolls)

Mayonnaise (1-2 Tbs.)

Roasted Red Peppers

Pepper and Salt



Panini Press or two large and heavy Cast Iron Pans

*Grill (Optional)

Small Bowl

Bread Knife




Heat the grill set to high for 10-15 minutes if using a gas grill or heat up 2-3 cups charcoal to an ashen color if using a traditional charcoal grill. Allow the chicken to come to room temperature (20-30 minutes), season with pepper and salt, then place directly over the heat and cook 3-5 minutes each side. Remove and reserve. Meanwhile, place the two cast iron pans on medium-high heat and allow them the heat up (5 minutes). Place the pesto and mayo in a small bowl and mix to combine. Place the pesto mix on both sides of the bread roll; season with pepper and salt; then add the chicken breast, cheese, and bell pepper. Place the prepared sandwich on one of the cast iron pans, then carefully place the other heated cast iron pan, allowing the weight of the pan to “press.” Cook until the cheese melts. Slice in half and serve immediately.


Ryan McKay is a 12-year fire service veteran and a firehouse cook from Atlanta, Georgia. His goal is to bring the fast-paced lifestyle of the fire service with the slow-paced art of cultivating family and crew through the tool that is food. He has made an appearance on NBC’s primetime show “Food Fighters,” is a co-founder of the Metro Atlanta EMS Conference, and works intimately with the SafePath Child Advocacy Center.

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