08 Oct Grilled Cheese Sandwich

When Jill and I get too busy to cook – as we have lately — we grill cheese sandwiches for our evening meal. You can have a sandwich in the pan within minutes, then browned and steaming on your plate within ten. It’s so quick and easy, it hardly qualifies as cooking. But it’s a homey, filling, thoroughly satisfying meal (I like it with a salad on the side).

As a child, the only grilled cheese sandwich I knew was American processed cheese food on white bread lightly browned in a skillet, usually with margarine. My mother always added mayonnaise to the cheese. Mayo gives it a kick and I still use it to this day. In college, I tried grilled Swiss cheese sandwiches, then cheddar, and then it seemed there was no limit to the variations. What cheese wouldn’t taste good between two slices of grilled bread slathered with mayonnaise?

Nowadays Jill and I mix our cheeses. A heavenly combination is parmesan with imported provolone (repeat: imported -– it is sharp and wondrous and tastes nothing like the domestic provolone you’re thinking of). Also try parmesan with extra-sharp cheddar. Goat and feta. Feta and smoked mozzarella. Give it an added kick with a sprinkling of fresh oregano or rosemary. Or lay a few fresh basil leaves in there. And keep the mayonnaise.

Other variations: mix in a little Dijon mustard with the mayonnaise. Or make garlic mayonnaise (crush a clove of garlic in a cup of mayonnaise, then whip with a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice – oh my!). Yeah, I know, now we’re starting to get elaborate. But consider this: grill a sandwich with extra sharp cheese, then – hot out of the pan – open up the sandwich and slice on some ripe avocado. The creamy, nut-flavored avocado complements the tangy cheese.

Sometimes we go Italian and grill a sandwich with buffalo (i.e., fresh) mozzarella and feta or parmesan and a dollop of tomato sauce with a few fresh basil leaves and maybe a scatter of kalamata olives.

The grilled cheese sandwich that we know got its start, probably, in the 1920s, after the spread of two innovations: sliced bread and cheap eateries (most commonly called “diners”). Apparently, they were served open-faced, having been broiled. As a child, I loved a broiled cheese sandwich. The bubbly, browning cheese always seemed extra good. It’s hard to say when cooks started putting the top on the sandwich to make the treat we know so well today, but it seems to have been common by the 1950s. Nowadays I prefer the grilled cheese to the open-faced broiled cheese sandwich.

Technique is important for the best results. Like so: preheat your skillet, add a generous slice of butter (one fat slice per sandwich), then stir in a tablespoon of olive oil for extra flavor. I use thick-crust “rustic” Italian bread. For an extra crunchy sandwich, cook it over low heat. Cover the pan to make the cheese melt faster. I put on less cheese rather than more because I use really sharp cheese (imported provolone, fontinella, regiano, extra-sharp cheddar). Take your time. A good cheese sandwich doesn’t take long, but it can’t be rushed either. Above all, watch that heat.