Grilled cheese recipes grow tastier with age

The Oklahoman's Food Dude Dave Cathey shares ideas for perfecting the grilled cheese sandwich.
by Dave Cathey Modified: April 25, 2012 at 11:36 am •  Published: April 25, 2012
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Most of the foods from our formative years fade into memory, but not the grilled cheese.

Trips down the cereal aisle lose their magic. Peanut butter and jelly becomes an occasional sentimental snack; cinnamon toast becomes the catalyst for a trip down memory lane; and food that touches each other on the plate is no longer expelled from consideration for breach of contract.

The grilled cheese sandwich, however, has possibilities most of those childhood foods do not. Like us, the grilled cheese has the potential to grow and mature, adjusting to our ever-evolving palate.

The humble grilled cheese, which came into the vogue in this country in the 1920s as a staple of the neighborhood diner, is so popular that April has been designated National Grilled Cheese Month.

So, I went to work a couple weeks ago fielding responses to my request for favorite grilled cheese combinations.

The take-away from my informal polling was everyone has a favorite combination for a grown-up grilled cheese, and everyone thinks his or her combination is the best.

Folks had ideas for both favorite cheese and all kinds of additions such as fresh fruit, light meats, vegetables, spreads and even nuts. And everyone had a favorite. But I really wanted to highlight the flavors of the cheese.

Chef Marc Dunham, of the KSBI-52 show “Oklahoma Cooks” and the Francis Tuttle Culinary School, suggested tomato soup. Perfect. Any flavor variations could go into the soup.

While I love a little bacon, prosciutto, sun-dried tomato, turkey or sauteed mushrooms on a grilled cheese, I opted to go without adding a protein. Again, cheese is the star. But before rifling through the many melting cheeses, I needed to stage the dish properly. That means bread.

The Country White Loaf from Prairie Thunder Baking Co. was the first kind that came to mind, and after one test, no other bread was considered. The transformation this bread makes when coated in melted butter and lightly fried is a bit of mouth-magic only experience can express.

Then it was time to choose the cheeses. American cheese is the first love of most preschoolers and kindergartners, but there's a reason we retire the Kraft single from our palate by puberty. No judgment, just recognition that richer cheeses await those willing to break from habit. Photo Editor Doug Hoke told me he made it through his early adulthood on a grilled cheese made of raisin bread and American cheese, a reminder that part of the allure of the aforementioned processed cheese encapsulated in a plastic sleeve is price. For the sake of Grilled Cheese Month, I thought it fitting that we break the bank a bit in this celebration.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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Grown-up grilled cheese and heat-optional creamy tomato soup

For the grilled cheese

½ pound Emmenthaler or Jarlsberg

½ pound Havarti

½ pound Taleggio

1 loaf Country White bread, preferably from Prairie Thunder Co.

1 stick butter

Flaky salt such as fleur de sel or black salt

Caramelized onions and peppers

1 sweet onion, sliced

2 to 4 sliced serrano peppers, optional

½ teaspoons sugar

Pinch of salt

½ tablespoon butter

For the Tomato Soup

1 (14.5-ounce) can chopped tomatoes or 6 to 8 fresh well-ripened tomatoes, peeled and chopped, juices reserved

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 stalk celery, sliced

1 small carrot, grated

1 yellow onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, smashed

4 chiles de arbol or dried cayenne peppers, stemmed

1 cup chicken broth or stock

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons butter

¼ cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Strain the chopped canned tomatoes, reserving the juices, and spread onto a baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with ¼ cup of the olive oil and roast until caramelized, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, heat remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add chiles if using, and cook until chiles begin to darken, about 1 minute. Lower heat to medium low and add celery, carrot, onion and garlic. Simmer mixture until onions have softened, about 10 minutes. Add roasted tomatoes, reserved tomato juices, chicken broth, bay leaf and butter.

Simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes.

Caramelize the onions: Melt butter at medium low heat in a small pot and add onions and peppers, if using, for 10 minutes. Add sugar and salt and cook at low heat until ready to use.

Make the sandwiches: Slice bread into 1-inch slices, top with equal parts of the three cheeses and two heaping spoonfuls of the caramelized onions and peppers, if using.

Heat a large nonstick skillet to medium heat and add two tablespoons of butter. Melt butter and spread around the skillet. Add three two or three sandwiches to the skillet, depending on how many it can hold without crowding. Flip after about 30 seconds to make sure both sides of the sandwich are coated in butter. Cover the skillet loosely and fry at medium heat about six minutes, flip and repeat until golden brown on both sides.

Cover a platter with flaky salt and set aside.

Finish the soup: Using an immersion blender, puree ingredients until smooth. You may also transfer ingredients into a blender to puree then return them to the pan. Stir in cream, and keep at low heat until ready to serve.

Press both sides of the finished sandwiches into the salted platter, serve with hot soup and a bottle of Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc.

Source: Dave Cathey

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