GOD-DESS

Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

March 2005
© 2005 by Bret S. Beall

NOT-YOUR-KIDS' GRILLED CHEESE

Don't even THINK that I'm referring to American "slices" on squishy white bread. Sure, I ate my share of those in my childhood (mostly at school cafeterias), and I'm sure that was the starting point for the trajectory that led me to still love grilled cheese sandwiches. However, even as a child, I disliked squishy white bread, as did my parents, so at least the bread improved quickly. And, at some point, American "cheese" became American "slices" (which I think was because whatever this American product is, it no longer is cheese!), so my mother started making my grilled cheeses with Colby, Swiss and cheddar cheeses. So, not only was my palate primed early for better ingredients, but also the flexibility of this basic dish became obvious.

Over the years, I have made thousands of grilled cheese sandwiches, using untold combinations of ingredients. The only constants were the basic "types" of ingredients, and the technique. I will outline the basic technique using basic ingredients, and then provide a listing of suggestions for you to vary your creations, and some specific creations that I have named, or came already named!

With a simple construction like this, it is crucial that you use top quality ingredients to gain the most flavor. You deserve only the best!

Grilled Cheese "Plus"

Following are proportions for one sandwich, and I recommend making one at a time. I am using common kitchen tools (specifically, an 8" cast iron skillet and a small ceramic plate), rather than any sort of fancy sandwich press; if you have one, use it, but I design general recipes rather than highly specialized ones.

I want to call your attention to the fact that the cheese is GRATED in my sandwiches. This is done for health and economic reasons. I have actually measured the difference, and by grating the cheese, you can use half as much as you would if you were dealing with slices. Keep in mind I am NOT talking about pre-sliced cheese (or "cheese food"). I am talking about quality cheeses that come in blocks, chunks and wedges. The best cheeses tend to very flavorful and rather expensive, and of course are high in fat, so by grating the cheese, you get more even melting, faster cooking, and use less cheese, which saves calories and money. Try it!

Spread one side of each piece of bread with 1 T mustard (if using). Top the mustard-coated side of one piece of bread with the cheese, spreading it evenly to the edges of the bread. Add any of the additional add-in fillings (see below), top with the second piece of bread (mustard side down), and set aside. Heat skillet over medium heat. When hot, add half of the butter, and swirl to cover the bottom of the skillet when melted (you could use olive oil, but the butter browns the bread so nicely). Add the sandwich, and cover with a plate that will fit inside the skillet. Press slightly while sandwich is cooking. Cook for about one and a half minutes (90 seconds), checking periodically to determine the degree of browning of the bread. When the bread is nicely toasted, remove the plate, use a spatula to remove the sandwich, add the remaining butter to the skillet and swirl when melted, return the sandwich to the skillet, uncooked-side-down, and replace the plate on top, pressing down again. Cook for another 90 seconds, remove to a serving plate using the spatula, and cut crossways or diagonally, or leave whole. Serve immediately.

Grilled cheese sandwiches are great for lunch (with soup and/or salad), of course. They also make terrific breakfasts (rather European). They are wonderful for a light dinner. When quartered and made with "exotique" ingredients, they are fabulous as part of a brunch buffet or an appetizer platter. Once you begin to think outside of the grilled cheese skillet, the applications are endless.

Variations:

Bread ideas: whole wheat; multigrain; rye (dark or light, seeded or seedless); sourdough; Italian; French; any rustic "country" bread; challah; your favorite … it really doesn't matter as long as it has FLAVOR.

Bread Spread ideas: any mustard; ketchup; pickle relish (sweet or dill); roasted garlic; chile sauce; salsa; worcestershire sauce; horseradish ... use your imagination, as (again), it's about FLAVOR (note: because of the heat involved, I tend to not use mayonnaise.).

Add-in Filling ideas: Grilled cheese sandwiches are a great way to use leftover meats and vegetables! Waste nothing!

Veggies: Roasted (or raw) bell peppers, poblanos or other chiles; leftover steamed broccoli; cooked, raw or marinated mushrooms; marinated artichokes; roasted or grilled or steamed asparagus; pickles (dill, sweet, bread & butter, or whatever strikes your fancy); cooked onions (caramelized, roasted, sautéed, grilled … red, white, yellow, green or whatever you have on hand); any leftover veggie will work!

Meat: Of course, meat is optional (it is grilled CHEESE after all). But, when I'm feeling carnivorous, I like to add leftover roast beef (particularly good with sharp cheddar), lamb or pork (a sliced chop makes a great add-in); your favorite cooked sausage; cooked chicken (grilled, BBQ or pan-fried, or other technique); roast turkey or duck; smoked poultry; cooked shellfish (lobster, shrimp, your favorite); smoked shellfish (mussels, scallops, clams) or other seafood (smoked salmon and trout are two of my favorites); gravlax (homemade, preferably, using the super simple and sensational recipe at Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® December 04. Again, let your leftovers guide your decision-making process.

Cheese ideas: As I've said, use your favorite. There are thousands of types of cheeses, each begging to be grilled in your sandwich.

Special versions:

Patty Melt: This diner classic is nothing more than grilled cheese made with a pan-fried hamburger patty (ideally the same size as your bread, which "must" be dark rye and slathered with mustard, preferably stone-ground or Dijon style), and topped with grilled (or sautéed) onions, and some Swiss cheese, and then cooked in a skillet as I've described in the basic instructions. There are those who would cook the sandwich in the hamburger renderings; let your conscience be your guide.

Tuna Melt: Make your favorite tuna salad (consider replacing the mayonnaise with a highly flavored olive oil; I'll probably be doing a column on tuna salads over the summer); for this sandwich, the tuna salad needs to be a bit on the dry side. Flavor your bread (any bread will do, but whole wheat or multigrain is the best here, I think!) as you choose; I prefer mustard (but then, I'm a mustard freak!), add the tuna salad (as much as you like, but don't sog up the bread!), maybe some dill pickle slices, grate on your preferred cheese (I think Swiss is traditional, but I like a sharp cheddar!), and cook your sandwich. Serve immediately.

Reuben: Yes, the famous Reuben is a fancy grilled cheese sandwich. Start with rye bread; slather with Thousand Island dressing if you want to be traditional, but I prefer using a coarse, hearty mustard. Pile on thinly-sliced but highly flavored corned beef (as much as you like, but there's no need to make it larger than your mouth!). Add as much sauerkraut as you like. Grate on some full-flavored (aged!) gruyere. Now grill!

Croque Monsieur: I remember years ago watching Julia Child make this grilled ham and cheese sandwich on TV, and I think that may have been the beginning of my understanding of "marketing." Truthfully, this is really just a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Sure, there are all kinds of variations (depending on the choice of ham, and cheese, and whether you put mustard on the bread [which I understand was an addition made by James Beard … good for him!]). On the web, I even saw something called the Croque Neptune that was a grilled clam and cheese sandwich. In general, broiled ham coupled with gruyere, and then grilled in butter, equals a Croque Monsieur (with or without mustard).

Croque Madame: Again, there is a lot of discussion regarding the "original" version of this sandwich. I have seen versions made with the addition of a béchamel sauce. Sometimes wine is added to the béchamel or to the cheese before grilling. Sometimes it is grilled open face. Sometimes it is dipped in an egg batter (see my comments below on the Monte Cristo sandwich). The version that I will recommend you serve is any basic grilled ham and cheese (though for this one, consider removing the crust, unless the crust is integral to the bread's flavor), and simply topping the completed sandwich with a fried egg (or two). It's that simple!

Croque Señor y Croque Señora: Moving from France to Spain, these two sandwiches came about when I was thinking about how to popularize some of the products of my friends Guillermo Trias and Ivan Bravo, culinary ambassadors of Spain and owners of Solex Partners (http://www.solexpartners.com/; see also http://www.tastepassion.com/ if you have Flash). Anyway, what better way to say "Spain" than Jamòn Serrano and Manchego cheese? They offer Serrano ham from Campofrio, as well as a manchego-like sheep's milk Zamorano cheese called Montellereina that is magnificent. Make grilled cheese sandwiches using Serrano ham and the Zamorano on rustic country bread, and you have the Croque Señor; eat them whole, or cut them into small pieces, and you have the quintessential tapas for a party buffet. The Croque Señora is a Croque Señor with a fried egg on top, and maybe some strips of super flavorful roasted pimento peppers! Delicous! Since "croque" means "crunchy" or "crusty" in French, I could have called these two sandwiches "Crujiente Señor" or "Crujiente Señora" ("crujiente" means "crunchy," but the marketing appeal would have been lost).

There are two grilled cheese sandwiches that I am going to avoid here, each for completely different reasons. First, the Monte Cristo: maybe it's because I first had this atrocity in a college dorm cafeteria, but I have a permanent bias against this gloppy, soggy, gooey, egg-coated version of grilled cheese. Essentially, it's a ham and cheese sandwich, dunked in beaten egg (like French toast) and then fried. Sorry; I just don't get it.

I'm also not including that south-of-the-border grilled cheese sandwich, the Quesadilla. Why? Because I am going to do an entire column on this taste treat. If you are getting my free monthly e-newsletter, you'll be notified when my column on quesadillas is ready.

Until then, experiment with breads, cheeses and the other variables I describe above to make some great (and I do mean "great," not simply good!) grilled cheese sandwiches. YUM! Let me know about your favorite combinations at 773.508.9208 or email me. Please tell me about your flavor epiphanies!

 

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