Create: Grilled Cheese Glory
from top: spinach pesto with fresh mozzarella cheese; The Food Network's Chef Michael Chiarello’s brie, smoked ham, mustard and roasted red peppers on ciabatta; and apples and cheddar on cinnamon bread.
photography by Janet Warlick
Grilled cheese got its start in the United States in the 1920s when inexpensive sliced bread and processed cheese became available. As is often the case, something that started out as inexpensive, convenient and comforting has morphed over the decades into a much fancier experience. This month’s assignment was to offer “fancy-schmancy” grilled cheese recipes in honor of Grilled Cheese Month.
To that end, we tasted quite a few combinations, including combinations of leftover cheeses — i.e. putting cheddar, Gruyère and goat cheese all together. Every one, from classic to odd, was delicious. In the end, the simplest version — bread-cheese-butter — even if the bread is stale, is still just scrumptious.
There are three core ingredients to a grilled cheese sandwich: cheese, bread and butter. Additional fillings are optional and unlimited. My husband sent me a link for an “ultimate grilled cheese” that included pepperoni, and my son reminded me that Panera Bread’s “Big Kid Grilled Cheese” has bacon in it. How about pulled pork? See the sidebar for some ideas and unexpected combinations.
Bread + Butter + Cheese + Filling (optional) + Grill, Skillet or Panini Press = Yum!
Method for Grilled Cheese
Step 1: Choose your ingredients
You’ll need bread — firm bread holds up; soft bread squishes down. Try ciabatta, brioche, sourdough, sandwich bread, artisan whole grain bread or baguette. Choose “melt-y” cheeses, such as cheddar, Monterey Jack, Swiss, Gruyère, mozzarella, goat, Brie or camembert cheese. Lastly, you’ll need either butter or olive oil to spread on the outside of the sandwich.
For fillings, try pesto: fresh spinach or basil; sundried tomatoes; roasted peppers; caramelized onions; sautéed mushrooms; avocado; fresh tomato; ham; pancetta; bacon; or olives. Fruit is a great contrast in flavor and texture; try grapes, apples, figs, fig jam or pears.
Step 2: Build the sandwich
Spread butter or oil over one slice of bread, and put it butter/oil side down onto your work surface. Cheese is next, then any filling, then cheese again. Top with a second slice of bread and brush oil or butter on the top. Hold any fresh greens, like spinach or basil, until after the grilling (see tips).
Step 3: Grill
You have lots of choices here. You can use a flat griddle surface or a skillet and weigh the sandwich down with a foil-covered brick or a heavy saucepan if you like the bread compressed, or use a panini press. This is my favorite option, as you don’t have to worry about the ingredients shifting or spilling when you turn the sandwich over (and the panini press leaves those nice grill marks). Grill until the cheese melts and the outside is a dark golden brown, usually 4 to 5 minutes per side.
Step 4: Eat and enjoy
• If you are using spinach, basil, arugula, kale or lettuce, grill the bread and cheese first, then take the top off, and add the greens.
• Sauté add-in ingredients, like mushrooms or bell peppers, before adding them to the sandwich to keep the sandwich from becoming watery.
• Butter or oil the bread — not the pan or press — to get a crispy exterior.
Uncommon — but delicious — concoctions:
• apples and cheddar on cinnamon bread
• mac-n-cheese with pulled pork
• extra-sharp cheddar with roasted red peppers
• grilled pimento cheese
• spinach pesto with fresh mozzarella cheese
• bacon and Brussels sprouts (sliced) with Gruyère cheese
• camembert and apple
• from Panera Bread: Gruyère, Vermont white cheddar, sliced American cheese and applewood-smoked bacon on country white “Miche”
• Gruyère and bacon on whole grain bread, mozzarella, provolone, olives and roasted red peppers
• from “Top Chef”: Chef Tom Colicchio’s Gruyère with caramelized onions
• dried figs or sliced pears, sliced almonds and brie
• from The Food Network: Chef Michael Chiarello’s brie, smoked ham, mustard and roasted red peppers on ciabatta
Yield: about 1 cup
• 2 cups lightly-packed baby spinach leaves, about 2 ounces
• 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
• 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
• 1 to 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
• 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 1/3 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Directions: Combine the spinach, pine nuts, lemon juice and lemon peel in a food processor. Lightly pulse. With the machine running, gradually add 1/3 cup of the oil, blending until the mixture is creamy. Add salt, and pulse. Transfer the spinach mixture to a medium bowl. Stir in the Parmesan. Grind two or three turns of fresh pepper. Taste, and adjust seasonings (the pesto should not be too salty), adding another tablespoon of Parmesan if desired.
Classic Basil Pesto
Yield: about 1 cup
• 3 cups fresh basil leaves
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped, more or less to taste
• 1 cup walnuts or pine nuts, lightly-toasted
• 3/4 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
• 1/8 teaspoon salt, optional
Directions: Combine the basil leaves and olive oil in a food processor. Lightly pulse. Add garlic and nuts, and pulse to combine. Add cheese, and pulse until just combined. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding a bit of salt, if desired. Unused pesto can be frozen.
Do Some ‘Wining’:
Paninis — or, as my editor called them, “fancy-schmancy” grilled cheese sandwiches — are not only fun to eat, but can be dressed up even more so with a great bottle of wine. Try these suggestions, courtesy of my friend Jonathan Looney.
Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay, 2011, $29
Rich, balanced and fragrant, this classic Napa Valley Chardonnay is fermented and aged in French Oak using great fruit from nearby vineyards. Classic scents and flavors of apricot, toast, peach and lemon balance the palate-cleansing acidity in this wine.
Alpha Omega Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, 2011, $40
From winemaker Jean Hoefliger, this pristine example of the varietal from Napa exhibits layers of lemongrass, citrus, pear and honey; a great wine that drinks like a much more expensive counterpart from Bordeaux.
Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti “Le Orme,” 2010, $18
Robust and round on the palate, this Barbera exhibits classic flavors of blackberry, red cherry and cedar; a great value and rated as such by Decanter Magazine, Wine Spectator, and the Wine Advocate.
Jonathan Looney, CS, CSW
#3 Rahling Circle, Suite 2
Little Rock, Arkansas 72223
Faith conducts cooking programs for kids and adults in central Arkansas. She can be reached at email@example.com.