Regarding this Week’s Kitchen Challenge on Open Salon:
Grilled cheese sandwiches? Geez. Whiz. Is this a test? Do you really want to get started on the possibilities here? Last week’s Kitchen Challenge sent me delving into my cupboards for chicken stock, slit peas, lentils, and bay leaves. This week we’re plummeting the depth of my soul to see just how far I’ll stoop for a 15-minute window on Open Salon, writing in earnest about the virtues of two slices of Wonder bread, a slab of Velveeta and a pat of butter in a pan.
Okay: I’m in.
Stooping. Melting in my resolve.
Grilled cheese? You got me. Happens to be a favorite of mine, my go-to lunch, whenever in doubt at on the road, and the quickest fix-for-dinner when dining alone at home.
Of course, there’s no way you can mess up a grilled cheese sandwich at home. Even burnt around the edges, toast and cheese has its own greasy, gooey goodness and reassuring kind of charm, that is if you’re not counting calories and cholesterol.
So who’s counting?
Thinking back, and admittedly, a long way back to the Pre-Brie Era of childhood and the innocence of peanut butter and jelly, walking to school and hot lunches at home - I recall that we never, ever, ever had Wonder bread on our table. (Can you hear my mother’s natural distaste for the product in those fighting words?) No need for Wonder bread "building bodies 12 ways," with the marvels of a Jewish bakery just around the corner. We were strictly rye, pumpernickel kind of people. We ate bagels, bialys, cinnamon raisin toast, and challah.
Given our breads of choice, (including unleavened) toasted cheese was always an eclectic mix of flavor and texture, never a white bread, cut-off-the-crust, please pass the mayo deal. A sandwich prepared in my mother’s kitchen was a sandwich of substance; it was meaty or cheesy. So forgive me if I bypass memories of iconic grilled cheese and the mysterious fondness so many seem to have for the skinny plastic wrapped processed Kraft in a slice pack. No way am I going there. No way.
Okay, so where to?
Let’s take it up a notch, (and loosen our belts) shall we?
You want a cheese sandwich experience? Let me take you there: I have the good fortune to live within the gravitational pull of Zingerman’s.
A deli beyond deli in Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s is rated one of 25 of the World’s Best Food Markets ( Food and Wine Magazine). Just 15 minutes from my door, (a healthy bike hike on a summer’s day) Zingerman’s is home to mountains of handmade cheeses from around the world, fresh bakehouse breads of every grain and seed, and a culinary staff that knows no bounds for inventive combo sandwiches.
On the menu board of more than a hundred delectable sammiches, my all-time favorite has got to be “Leo’s Friendly Lion,” a perfect balance of melt and heat with Wisconsin muenster cheese, fresh avocado spread, fire-roasted New Mexico green chiles & tomato on a crusty grilled farm bread. Add a whole dill pickle and you’re set for the day.
Cross town, closer to the heart of Detroit, in Royal Oak there’s Café Muse, an arty little bistro, that serves a grilled cheese sandwich that’s received national attention, voted one of 10 “Best Sandwiches in America” (Esquire Magazine in March of 2008 and featured on Oprah.)This triple cheese affair is a combination of harvarti, fontina and fresh mozzarella, all sourced locally. Fresh basil, tomatoes and organic bread, plus a taste of honey, all work together to give this grilled cheese its special appeal.
Back to the kitchen, back to challenge at hand -- I’ve got my own invention for you today. Based on the best of the best of my travels and thoughts on grilled cheese, I offer you:
Grilled Double Cheese with Chili Peppers
Swiss Gruyere with Southern Pimento Cheddar Spread,
and Red Pepper & Chili Marmalade
on Zingerman’s Brewhouse Bread
The nutty flavor of gruyere, sweet carmelized peppers with a hint of ginger and a bit of hot chilis, all melts together with the crunch of a good crusty bread. Don’t mind if I do boast: this delicious sandwich serves well with a beer on a Sunday afternoon, especially if you’re planning a brisk walk in the snow with the dog before dark.
For the marmalade, I refer you to The New Basics Cookbook (Rosso an Lukins, authors of the Silver Palate.) Generally, I save this recipe for the holidays, but for today, just for you, I pulled out all the stops for grilled cheese. The marmalade is easy enough, especially when you already have it on hand - red peppers simmered with garlic, fresh ginger, brown sugar and orange juice -- I add a jalapeno for a little heat. The stuff is a great condiment that goes with everything.
- 12 medium to large red peppers (about 3 pounds)
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup coarsely grated fresh ginger
- Grated zest of three oranges
- 3/4 cup fresh orange juice
- 3 tables spoons sugar (I use brown sugar)
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 or 3 jalapeno peppers seeded (optional)
- Core and seed peppers, cut into 1/4-wide strips
- Heat butter and oil in a heavy casserole. Add garlic and ginger and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Add the peppers, stir well to coat.
- Mix in the orange zest, juice, sugar, ground pepper, cover and cook over low heat until peppers are wilted (about 20 minutes)
- Remove the cover and continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated, about 2 hours.
- Serve hot or at room temperature.
About Pimento Cheese:
Just in case you’re assuming that pimento cheese is like the pimento loaf stuff that they sell in the deli cases of mass-market grocery stores, it’s not at all like that. It’s bigger than barbeque in Southern low-country cuisine, and ubiquitous on restaurant tables in Charleston, S.C. Pimento cheese, (as I have come to appreciate) is as culturally complex and iconic as Mom and apple pie, so here you go ... The basic recipe:
- ½ pound sharp cheddar, coarsely grated (we use the two-year-old raw milk cheddar from Grafton Village)
- 1 cup mayonnaise (I prefer Hellman’s up here: out West the same mayo is sold under the brand name Best Foods )
- 2 ounces by weight roasted red peppers, diced (about ¼ cup)
- ¾ teaspoon juice from the roasted peppers (if you’re using jarred roasted peppers)
- ¼ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- Scant ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
- Pinch coarse sea salt
And last thoughts about. . .Cheez Whiz.
Ever wonder what it is?
Cheez Whiz, that icon of the snack world, is actually considered a "processed cheese sauce" by its creator, Kraft Foods. Kraft Foods introduced Cheez Whiz® in 1952, although its popular predecessor, a thicker processed cheese food called Velveeta®, had been on store shelves since the 1920s.
While processed foods in general have been criticized for years, the makers of Cheez Whiz® and similar dairy-based products have recently come under fire for using an illegal, or at least unapproved, additive called Milk Protein Concentrate, or MPC. In the case of Cheez Whiz®, MPC is used primarily to eliminate some of the inherent problems of cheese solids.
... and there you have it, from my kitchen to yours, mountains out of mole hills, Cheeez! Toasted. Enjoy.
And thanks for dropping by.