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Say Cheese: Grilled, Please


I can't resist grilled baby Swiss with tomato on country white bread. (Domenica Marchetti)

There’s something about September — the cooler morning air, the back-to-school routine — that puts me in the mood for a grilled cheese sandwich. As we all know, it is the ultimate comfort food: warm and rich and oozy, and, if made correctly, it has just the right amount of crispiness to the pan-grilled bread.

Recipe Included

But what kind of bread? And, more importantly, what kind of cheese? And no, the answer is not those plasticky individually wrapped singles on Wonder; at least not for me, and I hope not for you. Not as long as there are sweet nutty Swisses, sharp cheddars and aged Goudas to choose from, not to mention Italian country, whole-grain to Black Russian breads.

When I was a kid, the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich in our house was grilled mozzarella and prosciutto on Italian bread. Although mozzarella is mild in flavor it possesses the best stretching qualities, and when you’re a kid that counts (actually it counts when you’re a grownup, too).

Over the years I’ve tried all sorts of grilled cheese combinations and have even found my way back to tradition. One of my favorite pairings is baby Swiss and ripe, in-season tomato (and bacon, if you like) on country white bread. When I want a more assertive sandwich I reach for pumpernickel (or Black Russian) bread, smoked ham and good Gouda, and I tuck in a few spicy cornichons.

Making good grilled cheese is easy; for great grilled cheese, keep these tips in mind:

1. Make sure your butter is at room temperature so you can easily spread it on your bread slices without tearing them. Use salted butter if you have it. Those salt crystals provide additional flavor. Years ago I learned that mayonnaise makes a pretty good alternative to butter. In fact, it’s what I use on my grilled baby Swiss and tomato sandwich. (Be advised this will add milligrams of sodium.)

2. Use about two ounces of cheese for a standard size sandwich. Slice your cheese very thinly or shred it on the large-hole side of a box grater. The shredded cheese melts the best, but it can sometimes fall out of the sandwich when you’re transferring it from work surface to pan. In some cases, as with fresh mozzarella, the cheese may be too soft to shred, so thinly sliced is the way to go.

3. Don’t slice the bread too thickly or the cheese won’t melt well and the sandwich will not come together in that perfect crisp-oozy union — somewhere between 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch works best.

4. Use a nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron pan. Either option will give you bread that is beautifully browned and a little crisp. Take care to regulate the heat under the pan, especially if you’re using cast-iron. I’ve found that medium-low is a good temperature for nonstick, and medium-low to low is best for cast-iron once the pan has heated up. Always use a spatula to check the underside of the sandwich as it is cooks.

5. Cover the pan. The captured heat will help the cheese to melt.

Here are a few of my favorite grilled cheese combinations. What are some of yours?

-- Domenica Marchetti

Grilled Baby Swiss and Tomato Sandwich
Makes 1 sandwich

1 tablespoon low-fat mayonnaise
2 slices country white bread
1/2 ripe Roma or other tomato, cut into thin slices
2 ounces thinly sliced or shredded baby Swiss cheese
2 slices bacon, fried until just beginning to crisp, then drained on paper towel (optional)

Spread the mayonnaise on one side of each slice of bread. Place one slice, mayo-side down on a clean work surface and arrange the tomato slices on it. Top with the cheese and bacon, if using, pressing down so that the cheese (if shredded) stays in place. Lay the second slice of bread, mayo-side up, on top of the sandwich.

Heat a dry nonstick skillet over medium heat; place the sandwich in the center. Cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until golden brown on the bottom (this will depend on how hot your burner is and the type of skillet you use; start checking after 2 minutes). Turn over the sandwich and press lightly with a spatula. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottom is golden brown and the cheese has melted.

Transfer to a plate and cut in half. Serve hot.

Per serving: 495 calories, 22 g protein, 50 g carbohydrates, 23 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 758 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar

Grilled Gouda and Smoked Ham Sandwich With Cornichons
Makes 1 sandwich

2 slices pumpernickel or Black Russian bread
1 tablespoon salted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons coarse-ground or smooth Dijon-style mustard
2 ounces thinly sliced or shredded aged Gouda or Leyden (Dutch cheese seasoned with cumin and caraway seeds)
1 ounce thinly sliced smoked ham
2 cornichons, cut in half lengthwise (small gherkin pickles)

Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread. Set one slice, buttered side down, on a clean work surface and spread the mustard on the unbuttered sides of each slice of bread. Layer the cheese, ham and cornichons, in that order. Top with the second slice of bread, buttered side up.

Heat a dry nonstick skillet over medium heat; place the sandwich in the center. Cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until golden brown on the bottom (this will depend on how hot your burner is and the type of skillet you use; start checking after 2 minutes). Turn over the sandwich and press lightly with a spatula. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottom is golden brown and the cheese has melted.

Transfer to a plate and cut in half. Serve hot.

Per serving: 479 calories, 23 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 108 mg cholesterol, 1730 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Grilled Mozzarella and Prosciutto Sandwich
Makes 1 sandwich

2 slices Italian country bread
1 tablespoon salted butter, at room temperature
2 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into thin slices
1 ounce thinly sliced imported prosciutto di Parma
Handful of arugula leaves, washed and dried (optional)

Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread. Set one slice, buttered side down, on a work surface and arrange the mozzarella slices on it. Top with the prosciutto and arugula. Lay the second slice of bread, buttered side up, on top of the sandwich.

Heat a dry nonstick skillet over medium heat; place the sandwich in the center. Cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until golden brown on the bottom (this will depend on how hot your burner is and the type of skillet you use; start checking after 2 minutes). Turn over the sandwich and press lightly with a spatula. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottom is golden brown and the cheese has melted.

Transfer to a plate and cut in half. Serve hot.

Per serving: 430 calories, 22 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 30 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 86 mg cholesterol, 1115 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Grilled Pepper Jack and Avocado Sandwich
Makes 1 sandwich

2 slices oat or whole-grain bread
1 tablespoon salted butter, at room temperature
1/4 ripe avocado, cut into thin slices
2 ounces thinly sliced or shredded habanero or pepper jack cheese
2 slices bacon, fried until just beginning to crisp then drained on paper towel

Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread. Place one slice, buttered side down, on a clean work surface and arrange the avocado slices on it. Top with the cheese and bacon, pressing down so the cheese (if shredded) stays in place. Lay the second slice of bread, buttered side up, on top of the sandwich.

Heat a dry nonstick skillet over medium heat; place the sandwich in the center. Cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until golden brown on the bottom (this will depend on how hot your burner is and the type of skillet you use; start checking after 2 minutes). Turn over the sandwich and press lightly with a spatula. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottom is golden brown and the cheese has melted.

Transfer to a plate and cut in half. Serve hot.

Per serving: 582 calories, 23 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 42 g fat, 22 g saturated fat, 91 mg cholesterol, 856 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  September 22, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, recipes  
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Comments

What an elitist attitude about a grilled cheese sandwich. Wegman's white sanwich bread, Kraft singles, Hormel peperoni. Assemble sandwiches. Melt unsalted buttter in the pan and if you need a non stick pan for this you need remedial cooking lessons.
You can also leave off the Hormel. Serve with your favorite Campbell's soup Chicken Noodle or Tomato and a cold glass of whole milk. No 2% or skim please.

No if you want to go elitist you slice some freshly baked bread, slice some fresh sheep's milk cheese you just put up for aging and then slice very thin the ham you got from some friends in trade for cheese and lamb chops. Real VA ham. Serve with the a glass of non pasteurized and homogenized whole milk you got from same friends or fresh apple cider also not pasteurized or homogenized with just a little bit of carbonation.

Posted by: vaherder | September 22, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

Just a thought for vaherher...
The Kraft "cheese" is full of vegetable oil replacing much of the dairy content of the cheese and all the nutrition you get there. That Hormel pepperoni, while containing emulsifiers and preservatives, is made from factory farmed pork that contributed mightily to our runnoff pollution problems, and the Campbell's tomato soup is probably made from Tomatoes picked by farm labor doing back breaking work at a pittance of a wage.

One does not need to go to any extremes to use a good bread with a real mouthfeel and chew, Niman Ranch and many other pork producers do not use lagoons for their pig waste which then wind up fouling our waterways and now at peak of season you can make a quick soup from veggies grown locally and cooked with a little herbs, olive oil, onion & garlic and then pureed. You can buy canned tomatoes that contain no chemical additives or just citric acid at most for a tomato soup. I use chemical free Escalon products personally, but I don't know if they are available at retail but there are good, real tasting tomato products at stores. Bionatura is a great brand from Italy that are not overly expensive.

If that milk is from Organic Valley you are supporting small family farms that practice responsible farming and animal husbandry, not a huge factory farm.

Real food tastes better and making a connection to what goes into our bodies would be a good idea for all. Nothing elitist about that. In fact, thinking that the only answer is factory and industrial foods which are implicated in many of the chronic health problems afflicting us today and driving our health costs so high winds up costing far more in the long run.

Posted by: restaurantowner | September 22, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Not that anybody would risk their heart for it these days, but as a kid I bought my grilled cheese from a snack bar that buttered both sides of the bread (plain white, with Kraft singles in-between) and that got stuck in my mind as the "right" way to do it. Lots to be said for classier updates, but I've still got a lot of fondness for what's basically a stick of butter disguised as a sandwich.

Just wondering if anybody else ever made them that way.

Posted by: marksabbatini | September 22, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

These are nice renditions of a grilled cheese, but it sort of seems like you jsut took Panini recipes and called them grilled cheese. I prefer the grill marks of a panini over a grilled cheese, even though they are made essentially the same way. But yeah, these are just panini recipes, still a nice thought.

Posted by: mattgitlin | September 22, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

My favorite grilled cheese was made by my grandmother growing up, mayonaisse and muenster INSIDE the sandwich.

Posted by: mattgitlin | September 22, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Mattgitlin, thanks for mentioning muenster, another classic grilling cheese. Just to clarify, a panino is nothing more than the Italian term for sandwich (panino being singular, panini plural). It may or may not contain cheese (tho it usually does) and is not necessarily grilled. I think the only combo of the above recipes that you would find in Italy is the one with prosciutto and mozzarella--tho I could be wrong here. On my most recent trip there I saw a selection of bagel panini at one cafe!

Posted by: Domenica1 | September 22, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

My favorite "fancy" grilled cheese has cheddar, black forest ham, and thinly sliced apple on sourdough. I use a heated cast-iron skillet to press it a little as it cooks, which seems to help it hang together better and gives nice crispiness to the outside. (I've had decent results on this one with a good lowfat cheddar, too.)

Otherwise, just a simple medium cheddar (sharp gets too grainy and clumpy) on whole wheat with tomato soup. I melt the butter in the pan, rather than go to all the fuss of softening it.

My husband is partial to the Kraft singles of his childhood, which I refer to as "cheese with a 'z' "--not properly cheese at all, but merely a cheese-like substance. You know, like Cheez Whiz.

Posted by: JCR7 | September 22, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

To add to what Dominica posted in her comment, certain types of panini in Italy are called "toast". These are the ones I most often think of as being the Italian version of grilled cheese, though they are frequently made in a press. Usually (always?) they are made with sliced bread "pane in scatola" (bread made in a box), which is roughly the same as typical American sliced bread. I think this is common around Italy, but it's possible it's just northern as I spend most of my time in Milan with trips to the mountains or near Venice.

As an amusing aside, when I was a young child and at my Aunt's house in Italy she had this toaster with a little cage that you could insert a sandwich and then put in the toaster. The effect was similar to that of a press. Of course, the sandwich was vertical so while it toasted the bread and warmed the sandwich, you had to pull out the sandwich before any cheese melted. For some reason (probably us nephews/nieces visiting from America) she used individually wrapped slices of cheese. She forgot to take the plastic off of mine and on my first bite the bread and other ingredients were successfully eaten but my teeth slid straight off of the plastic wrap! Maybe it was my age, but I thought it was very funny! :)

Me, I almost always make my grilled cheese with a little homemade horserasdish beer mustard on the inside (really, just a little bit) and with cheddar, smoked gouda, or my favorite, fontina cheese. It's perfect in the fall, served with a sliced tart apple on the side and a Marzen (Oktoberfest style) beer.

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | September 22, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I think vaherder needs to get off his high, errm, horse. Judging from the number of brand names, I wonder if that post had sponsors.

Take some good bread, I'm a fan of 7 grain (or however many in your multi). For me, the cheese should be cheddar and the bread with a smear of coarse mustard. A little spray of oil in the pain to get some browning to the bread and... lunch!

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | September 22, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Why all the pork? Oy vay.

Posted by: formerdatelabber | September 23, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Formerdatelabber, great observation! I hadn't even looked at it that way. I think for most of these sandwiches you could get rid of the meat--especially the pepper jack and avocado sandwich and the baby swiss and tomato sandwich. You could also sub sliced tomato for prosciutto in the prosciutto, mozzarella and arugula sandwich.

Posted by: Domenica1 | September 24, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for pointing out those facts, restaurantowner. I see nothing elitest about caring what's really in your food, where it came from, and who may have been mistreated in the process. Corporations certainly want us to think otherwise, but hopefully people are wising up.

Posted by: Sam888 | September 24, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

The best grilled cheese sandwich is made with Havarti, tomato slices, and mustard on sliced rustic bread.

Posted by: rickoshea1 | September 24, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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