Food — Grilled Cheese Junkie

Grilled Cheese Junkie

By Amy Diaz []

I am a grilled cheese junkie.

Like any addict, I have my preferences—grilled cheese with tomato on rye bread, pickle on the side. But, like any addict, I will not scoff at substitutes. Velveeta on white bread? Sure, I won’t live as long, but what’s the point of a life without a good greasy grilled?

In Manchester, one of the best ways to go grilled is at the Puritan Backroom, where the aforementioned rye-tomato combination is prepared exactly right—no runny tomato, no greasy bread. And it’s no easy taste to recreate; cheese can easily remain in a cold little hunk while its bread burns. Tomatoes frequently add so much liquid to the mix that the sandwich can lose its structural integrity before it even hits the pan.

Fall is a perfect time to examine the complexities of this simple yet classic sandwich. With the air crisp and the nights cool, a piping hot grilled cheese is the perfect complement to salad or, when the temperatures really start to slide, to soup (with a split pea or a spicy black bean—magnificent).

Grilled cheese sandwiches also have the benefit of seeming like a treat even if they are a last-minute culinary decision (one made with, say, slightly stale bread). From the always crowd-pleasing white bread with cheddar to more complicated variations, these sandwiches usually require a minimum of preparation and cooking time for a maximum taste outcome.

A recently-released cookbook backs up my devotion to this sandwich perfection. Great Grilled Cheese: 50 Inovative Recipes for Stovetop, Grill and Sandwich Maker, by Laura Werlin, gives this mom standby new gourmet life.

First, she gives the standard recipe for “The Best Grilled Cheese”—about half a tablespoon of butter spread on two 1/4-inch-thick slices of sourdough topped with about 1 1/2 ounces of grated cheddar cheese; assemble the sandwich with the butter side out; cook, covered, for 2 minutes on one side; flip and cook uncovered for a minute; flip for 30 seconds and serve.

Then, she begins the fancying process. We get combinations of red onion and gouda on rye, apple and ham with cheddar on sourdough, feta and eggplant on pita with sesame-yogurt sauce and even grilled ricotta and shrimp with cilantro pesto. (Werlin also does some fine desserty things—raspberry brioche, creamy chocolate with pear, Nutella and goat cheese melt.) For each recipe, she suggests stovetop, sandwich maker (though I find a waffle iron also works in those occasions) and gas grill cooking methods. Frequently, the resulting dish is exotic enough to serve as an appetizer or even side dish (it’s really just a form of bruschetta with an additional slice of bread).

The book, in addition to being a serious appetite enhancer, is marvelous for the way it gives this theretofore humble snack its due. Though so often lumped in with the peanut-butter-and-jelly crowd, when done right, grilled cheese can be as upscale (if not as diet-friendly) as any wrap.

In my long experience with grilled cheese, Werlin’s advice on stovetop cooking of the sandwich is right—high heat is not as good as medium heat and then leaving the lid on the pan for a few minutes. The bread will cook far faster than the cheese will melt, especially if it was recently in the refrigerator. Werlin is also spot-on with her advice about grating cheese, which helps speed up the melting process.

In lieu of grating, slice thin—and that goes for everything from the cheese itself to add-ons such as tomato, meat or vegetables. A loaded-down sandwich will take longer to cook (in the middle) and be harder to flip, resulting in something closer to grilled hash.

In terms of meat additions to your perfect grilled cheese, bacon (pre-cooked) seems to work best, the crispier the better. (Microwaved bacon works OK, but can be a bit rubbery, making the sandwich harder to cut and harder to bite into.) Very thinly sliced ham, salami, roast beef or corned beef also works well—though beware of the saltier meats, which, when mingled with the cheese, can produce an overly salty sandwich.

In the vegetable category, tomatoes are my preference but peppers, either red bells or jalapeños, add zest to the sandwich. Unlike tomatoes, which work best in thin, slightly-overlapping slices, peppers work best when diced fine and mixed together with the grated cheese. Onions—specifically red onions—also add kick, but can upset the delicate moisture balance in a sandwich, producing something a little soggier than grilled food should be.

Of course, nothing goes better with cheese than more cheese. Cheddar, Monterey jack and Havarti make good sandwich components because of their melty properties. But adding a couple of tablespoons of feta, grated parmesan or asiago or other more exotic cheeses can also add to the flavor without any bothersome vegetables. With grated hard cheeses, such as parmesan or asiago, sprinkle the accessory cheese with the main cheese before baking, then, after flipping the sandwich once, sprinkle a few shavings of the hard cheese on top of the sandwich. Let the cheese melt slightly, and then flip the final time. The result is a toastier taste and a festive appearance.

However you prepare your “cheese dream” (the dish’s original name, according to Werln), the sandwich is a respectable and worthy addition to your fall diet.

And now there is a book to prove it.

- Amy Diaz

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