This is a very cheesy story about the resurgence of a favorite grilled sandwich.
Most of us have fond memories of the classic mom used to make — a slice of American cheese melted between two slices of white bread. Margarine, not butter, was the grease of choice for a crisp exterior.
The results, always so warm and comforting, might as well be imprinted on our DNA.
Wait. You need a recipe? Truth is, I felt a bit silly searching for recipes. I mean, who on Earth — OK, this country at least — doesn’t know how to make grilled cheese?
Then I found a recipe for Bachelor Grilled Cheese: pop two pieces of white bread into a toaster, brown; insert two slices of cheese, wrap sandwich in a paper towel and microwave for 15 or 20 seconds until cheese is melted.
It’s not that hard to butter bread and cook it in a pan on the stove. Really. Still, 90 fans of allrecipes.com rated the Bachelor recipe with 4 and three-quarters stars out of a possible 5.
We can’t all eat grilled cheese in the comfort of our own homes if we’re ever going to get this economy pumping again, so some clever chefs are trying to lure us out the door with, you guessed it, lots of melted cheese.
Enter the grilled cheese restaurant.
The trendiest is The Melt, with locations expected in major cities, an automated grilled cheese restaurant chain started by the guy who invented the Flip video camera. Word is customers order using a smartphone app. The sandwich is cooked in less than a minute by an appliance that melts the cheese while simultaneously searing the bread.
That’s a technique familiar to chef Marshall Roth, who just added a few new melts to the menu at Dog Nuvo, a gourmet frank restaurant in Kansas City, Mo. When he expanded beyond hot dogs, Roth knew he wanted to speed the grilled cheese process.
He puts the bread in a steamer to start the cheese oozing, then he flips the sandwich over to the flat-top griddle. He uses clarified butter, salted please, to create a crisp crust. The process cuts customer wait time down to a manageable 3 or 4 minutes, no app required.
From the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco to Cheeseboy in Boston and the in-between Feelgood in Austin, Texas, grilled cheese restaurants are hot.
But just because we don’t have a restaurant devoted to the gooey stuff doesn’t mean Kansas City is missing out. Heck, we already have plenty of our own delicious, primordial ooze on a plate.
Some local grilled cheese enthusiasts might remember the now-defunct Cheesehead, a restaurant on Grand Boulevard in downtown. It didn’t last long, but I’m thinking maybe the idea was just ahead of its time. Meanwhile, plenty of multifood restaurants can boast about their great grilled cheese sandwiches, including Genessee Royale, Westside Local, Urban Table, Succotash, Dog Nuvo and Eden Alley, to name but a few.
Roth’s menu includes the Melt Nuvo, a “straight up” three-cheese (Jack, Cheddar and Swiss) affair on Farm to Market sourdough bread. The sandwich is vaguely gussied up but still wholly recognizable.
If you’re dying to go gourmet, try the Tomato Three-Way: sundried tomato-garlic bread with mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and a tomato-basil jam.
“For me, it’s very nostalgic,” Roth said. “When the economy is bad, everyone goes back to the basics. That’s why grilled cheese, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese are popular right now. It brings us back to a happier time.”
And, Roth admits, grilled cheese is practically a no-brainer for a chef. “How can you screw anything up that’s cooked in butter?”
Even better, his cheese melts come with a recession-friendly price tag: $2.99 and $3.49.
Todd Schulte has had a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu since he opened Genessee Royale Bistro in Kansas City’s West Bottoms neighborhood earlier this year. And despite a recent change of chefs, Schulte said, the grilled cheese already has proved itself a popular item that is here to stay.
“Obviously it’s something that everyone recognizes in one form or another,” he said. “On days that we happen to run our simple tomato soup on the menu, people want it served with the grilled cheese sandwich instead of as a first course. I would have to imagine there’s a serious dunk-fest going on in the dining room.”
Still, just because you recognize it doesn’t mean the sandwich isn’t a tad bit gourmet, boasting a combination of aged Vermont white Cheddar and Gruyere — “for meltability” — co-mingled between Farm to Market semolina, a sturdy, crunchy bread with “great toastability.”
Instead of pickle chips, Schulte adds an accompaniment of shaved green apples and grainy mustard. “It would be easy to put the mustard on the bread along with the shaved apples, and press together, but I don’t know if I agree with the addition of other ingredients in the sandwich,” he said. “They have their place, but as an accoutrement, not inside.”
Any way you slice it, heavenly and certainly not a bad deal for $7.
But why would chefs feel compelled to put their stamp on the Simple Simon of sandwiches?
Uncomplicated foods can illicit some of the greatest debate, according to Laura Werlin, a cheese expert and author of “Grilled Cheese, Please!” Should you use cheese slices or grated cheese? Thick or thin bread? Butter or margarine, mustard or mayo, olive oil or vegetable oil? Salt or no salt? An additional filling or just a combination of cheeses?
Thanks to a steady supply of artisanal breads and farmstead cheeses, Americans are clearly ripe for more websites, cookbooks and restaurants on the subject.
As Werlin puts it: “Grilled cheese, the movement, has arrived.”
Awesome Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
In grilled cheese circles, there is plenty of debate about the proper tools for making a great sandwich. Nonstick pan? A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet? A panini press or sandwich maker? One recipe for Bachelor Grilled Cheese even calls for a combo toasting-microwaving method. This recipe uses the oven to take the chore out of making multiple sandwiches.
Makes 9 sandwiches
18 slices bread
4 tablespoons butter
9 slices cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Butter one side of 9 slices of bread, and place butter-side down on a baking sheet. Arrange cheese on each slice of bread. Spread butter on 9 remaining slices of bread, and place them buttered-side up on top of the cheese. Bake in preheated oven for 6-8 minutes. Flip the sandwiches and bake an additional 6-8 minutes, or until golden brown.
Per sandwich: 293 calories (50 percent from fat), 16 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 44 milligrams cholesterol, 25 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 497 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Pesto Grilled Cheese
A mixture of cheeses is usually advised, but should the cheese be sliced or shredded? This grilled cheese recipe opts for slices and sneaks a little bit of pesto and a slice of tomato into the melt.
Makes 1 sandwich
2 slices Italian bread
1 tablespoon softened butter, divided
1 tablespoon prepared pesto sauce, divided
1 slice provolone cheese
2 slices tomato
1 slice American cheese
Spread one side of a slice of bread with butter, and place it, buttered side down, into a nonstick skillet over medium heat.
Spread the top of the bread slice in the skillet with half the pesto sauce, and place a slice of provolone cheese, the tomato slices and the slice of American cheese onto the pesto.
Spread remaining pesto on one side of the second slice of bread, and place the bread slice, pesto side down, onto the sandwich. Butter the top of the sandwich.
Gently fry the sandwich, flipping once, until both sides of the bread are golden brown and the cheese has melted, about 5 minutes per side.
Per sandwich: 517 calories (64 percent from fat), 37 grams total fat (20 grams saturated), 82 milligrams cholesterol, 27 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein, 1,143 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Mozzarella with Crispy Prosciutto and Broccoli Rabe
This one is gourmet all the way.
Makes 4 sandwiches
8 thin slices prosciutto (about 4 ounces)
¼ cup olive oil
12 ounces broccoli rabe (about 1 bunch), tough stems removed and coarsely chopped (or use Swiss chard or Tuscan kale)
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
⅛ teaspoon salt
8 sandwich-size slices Italian bread (or use sourdough)
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, drained and sliced if water-packed, otherwise coarsely grated
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and line a plate with paper towels. Add the prosciutto slices to the skillet (you may need to do this in batches) and cook until browned and crisp, about 2 minutes on each side.
Transfer to the paper towels to drain. The prosciutto will become crisper as it cools.
Add enough oil to make 2 tablespoons fat in the pan. Heat over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the broccoli rabe. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, tender and bright green yet caramelized around a few of the edges, 5-7 minutes. (Add water to the pan if it seems dry.) Add the lemon juice, red pepper flakes and salt and toss to coat. Transfer the broccoli rabe to a plate. Wipe out the skillet but don’t wash it.
To assemble: Brush the remaining oil on one side of each slice of bread. Place 4 slices of bread, oil side down, on your work surface. Distribute the broccoli rabe and follow with the prosciutto. Pile the cheese on top, compressing it with your hand if necessary, and top with the remaining bread slices, oil side up.
For stovetop method: Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat for 2 minutes. Put the sandwiches into the pan, cover and cook for 3-4 minutes until the undersides are golden brown. Turn the sandwiches, pressing each one firmly with a spatula to flatten slightly.
Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the undersides are well browned.
Remove the cover, turn the sandwiches once more and again press firmly with the spatula. Cook for 1 minute, or until the cheese has melted completely.
Remove from the pan and let cool for 5 minutes. Cut in half and serve.
For sandwich maker method: Preheat the sandwich maker. Follow directions for assembly above. Cook according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Per sandwich: 507 calories (56 percent from fat), 32 grams total fat (12 grams saturated), 71 milligrams cholesterol, 30 grams carbohydrates, 26 grams protein, 1,384 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Source: “Grilled Cheese Please!” by Laura Werlin (Andrews McMeel)
Guidelines to a great grilled cheese
• Grate the cheese (it melts better “by virtue of its wispiness”).
• Thick cheese and thin bread is the best ratio.
• Spread butter on the bread, not the pan.
• Stick with nonstick pans, mostly.
• Flatten slightly with a spatula while grilling.
• Cool it, then eat it. It’s a simple step that avoids molten cheese burns to the mouth and it allows the flavor to develop.
Source: “Grilled Cheese, Please!” by Laura Werlin