Grilled Cheese

NY Times
October 3, 2007
No Glamour, but Sandwich Is a Star


IS there any pain quite as sweet as the one caused by a steaming drip
of cheese oozing from between slices of just-grilled bread and onto
your lower lip?

Buttery, salty and enduringly simple, the grilled cheese sandwich
stands unrivaled in the universe of simple gastro-pleasures. It is the
gateway sandwich to the land of hot sustenance, the first stovetop
food many children learn to prepare by themselves.

But in Los Angeles, the grilled cheese is less a starting place than a
destination, an object of outright mania, not just at workaday coffee
shops but also at any number of well-regarded restaurants, where it’s
slathered with short ribs, decorated with piquillo peppers or topped
gently with a quail egg.

Thursday is grilled cheese night at Campanile, a standard-bearer of
Italian dining in Los Angeles, and the restaurant’s busiest night,
when the tables bustle with families, hot daters, girls-night-out
revelers downing prosecco, and divorced dads hoping to buy good will
from their estranged children.

The Melt Down, a restaurant in Culver City devoted to the gooey
sandwich, has lines out the door at lunch. Every April is grilled
cheese month at Clementine, a lunch spot near Century City, with an
elaborate new theme each time.

For the past four years, this city has also been home to the Grilled
Cheese Invitational
. Roughly 600 people show up at an unpublicized
address, armed with frying pans and camping stoves, and are given 20
minutes to demonstrate their grilled cheese prowess. (One year, a
contestant constructed an eight-foot grilled sandwich rendition of
“The Gates” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.)

Whether created with fresh-baked sourdough and enhanced with tangy
green garlic, or slapped together with Wonder Bread and Kraft Singles,
the grilled cheese sandwich is nothing less than consolatory after
you’ve spent a long day sitting in traffic on the 405 freeway.

Buck Down, one of the organizers of the Grilled Cheese Invitational,
sees its appeal this way: “It may very well be the ultimate comfort
food, and one thing Los Angeles is about is insecurity. If you have to
live here for your job, your entire career is predicated on
insecurity, because you’re either going to be replaced, fired or
exposed as a fraud. What better way to get comfort than grilled

Of course, Los Angeles is more than the entertainment industry, and
the grilled cheese sandwich appeals well beyond its corridors, as
three months of happy trekking through diners from Hollywood to Culver
City showed.

The classic Los Angeles grilled cheese, like the $5.95 version served
at the 101 Coffee Shop in Hollywood, begins with perfectly buttered
sourdough bread, topped with cheddar and perhaps a nice tomato,
grilled to tawny perfection, its contents stretching appropriately
with each bite. It is perfectly paired with a Coke (not diet, thanks).

But high-end grilled cheese owes a debt to Nancy Silverton, who began
grilled cheese night a decade ago when she was working behind the bar
at Campanile, which she formerly owned. She wanted something to
increase business on a slow night. “But more importantly, I love
grilled cheese sandwiches,” said Ms. Silverton, who now runs Pizzeria
Mozza and Osteria Mozza here.

“That goes back to the junior high school cafeteria in Tarzana, where
I was addicted to the super-greasy ones. I have upgraded my cheese
preference, but that is where my love of grilled cheese went back to.”

It wasn’t long before grilled cheese night became the hottest day of
the week at Campanile, and it remains so, says its current chef and
owner, Mark Peel, Ms. Silverton’s ex-husband.

On a recent Thursday night, my 4-year-old and her friend worked
through a classic, a Gruyère (no mustard) perfectly pressed, while the
two adults shared a version with chickpeas and tomatoes, more salad
than grilled cheese, really, and a Gorgonzola number with spiced
walnuts and honey (not for beginners).

Many other chefs have their own exalted version of the sandwich. At
the Foundry on Melrose, Eric Greenspan has a grilled cheese that weds
taleggio cheese with short ribs, arugula and apricot caper purée on
raisin bread.

Mr. Greenspan served raisin bread with his cheese courses and thought
it would translate well in grilled cheese sandwiches. He added the
meat because, he explained, a chef with ribs on the menu tends to have
short rib scraps lying around anyway. (I have provided a recipe that
does not call for ribs, presuming that like me, you have a lack of
short rib scraps in your kitchen.)

I ate one in near silence in his kitchen over a white linen napkin,
unable to turn my attention from this slightly spicy (arugula),
decidedly messy (cheese and short ribs) and pleasantly salty amalgam.

“Grilled cheese is basically fat on fat on fat,” Mr. Greenspan said cheerfully.

Just because a 9-year-old with mildly permissive parents can find
grilled cheese nirvana on her first time at the stove, that does not
mean there are no secrets to the perfect sandwich.

Chefs agree: butter, room temperature and lots of it, must be spread
all the way to the crust, to prevent the bread from taking on a soggy
center with dried edges. This is not toast!

Further, the sandwich must be minded so that it does not scorch, a
common transgression. “Bread quality matters,” Mr. Greenspan said,
“but butter quality matters more.”

Quinn Hatfield, the chef at Hatfield’s, prepares most of his
restaurant’s signature croque-madame, made with raw hamachi and
prosciutto on toasted brioche with beurre blanc and topped with a
quail egg.

“I end up throwing away 30 percent of the sandwiches that other people
make,” he said. “It’s really a tricky maneuver because you’ve got to
fry the bread in a lot of butter but not let it get too hard.”

Plenty of home cooks have taken grilled cheese to a superlative form,
as well. The grilled cheese invitational here started as something of
a joke among friends, said Mr. Down, an organizer. By year three, he
said, the event had become so competitive, the organizers had to stop
publicizing it. And yet, it grew.

Grilled cheese artisans compete in three categories: missionary
(bread, butter and cheese), kama sutra (sandwiches with meats or other
ingredients and fancier bread) and honey pot (dessert sandwiches). On
50 feet of tables, contestants fry the sandwiches and then divide them
into quarters. They are placed on paper plates with ballots stapled to
them, which runners bring to the judging table.

Sandwiches are graded on presentation, taste, Wessonality (“What makes
this sandwich special,” Mr. Down explained) and style. One recent
winner featured polenta fried two times with Brie, prosciutto and

But really, let’s not get too carried away. I prefer to belly up to
the counter at the 101 for a basic grilled cheese, pondering as I eat
the whereabouts of my high school friend Joe Puleo, who whipped me up
government-issue cheddar versions after my cocktail waitress shift at
Cheek to Cheek in Kalamazoo, Mich. Because really, for any native-born
American, the first thing grilled cheese tastes of is home. In that
lies its true appeal.

April 11, 2007
A Good Appetite
Taking Back a Childhood Favorite

OF all the reasons to visit my friends with small children, grilled
cheese sandwiches may be the best.

Sure, I treasure the toddler rituals of dumping everything out of
Aunty Melissa’s purse, watching out the window for passing trucks
(“Look! Elliot! Garbage truck!”), and playing dress up and
hide-and-go-seek. But just as much, I love lunchtime, when almost
every mother I know asks, “Who wants grilled cheese?” The loudest
voice in the yes chorus is unfailingly mine.

Most childless grown-ups I know don’t bother making grilled cheese at
home. They tend not to have the requisite ingredients (American
singles, white bread) in the fridge. And isn’t grilled cheese, along
with tuna melts, turkey clubs and breakfast specials, why they
invented diners?

But after a fun-filled but grilled-cheese-less visit to a friend’s
house, during which her exceptional twin 2 1/2-year-olds happily
consumed garlic-sautéed broccoli, I realized I felt deprived — even
after my big-girl’s bowl of ice cream with rainbow sprinkles.

It occurred to me that I don’t necessarily have to procreate or make
play dates as an excuse to eat grilled cheese. Why not just make it at
home for myself? Since the only finicky palate to appease is my own, I
wouldn’t be tied to yellow cheese and white bread. And really,
wouldn’t grilled cheese be just as good or even better when made with
slightly more sophisticated, grown-up ingredients, like stinky cheese
and grainy bread?

So I started experimenting, keeping the basic technique of frying the
sandwich in copious quantities of butter so that the exterior surface
of the bread gets crisp and lacy and brittle, while inside the cheese
melts into lava, gluing the two slices.

I dug out the very best cheese I had, a nutty and intense aged raw
milk Comté from the Essex Street Cheese Company. It was certainly
flavorful enough to use on its own between slices of whole-wheat
bread. But since I was aiming for something super-grown-up, I decided
to add pungent condiments. Before frying, I painted the bread with a
light smear of a mustard-cornichon dressing. It was enough to cut the
richness of the butter, but not obscure the earthy nuances of the

The result — crunchy, buttery, tangy and tantalizingly complex —
immediately made up for that broccoli-laden lunch.

When the grilled cheese craving struck a week later, I was passing by
my local bagel shop. I thought of a bagel and cream cheese and
wondered if I could fry it like grilled cheese. But no, cream cheese
doesn’t have the gooeyness factor of aged cheese, and would simply
ooze out in the pan. Bagels and cream cheese made me think about lox,
and lox brought to mind Barney Greengrass, a store on Amsterdam Avenue
that has the most amazing horseradish Cheddar spread. How would that
be on a toasted bagel?

The bagel shop didn’t have the spread, but it did have actual
horseradish Cheddar. So I bought some with my poppy seed bagel.

Waiting for the bagel to toast I noshed on salami from the fridge, and
remembered an old friend who would fry her salami before making it
into a sandwich. And why not? I fried a few slices and added them to
my cheesy bagel along with rounds of red onion for cool crunch. Spicy,
rich and fatty with a meaty edge from the salami, it was definitely as
good as regular grilled cheese and nearly as good as bagels and lox.

The next time I thought about grilled cheese, it was again because of
a visit with friends and their children. But this time, they were
coming over and I was cooking. Was there a grilled cheese variation
that would not only please both the children and adults, but also pair
well with cocktails?

The answer was quesadillas. These soft tortillas filled with mild
cheese, then broiled until crisp and molten-centered, were gobbled up
by the younger guests. On the side, I served a bracing papaya and
avocado salsa for grown-up dunking. Everyone was delighted.

And now there’s a grilled cheese sandwich that gives children a reason
to want to visit me.

Recipe: Comté Grilled Cheese With Cornichon Spread

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Published: April 11, 2007

2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
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2 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons finely chopped cornichons or other pickles

4 slices whole-grain bread

1/4 pound Comté cheese, sliced

2 tablespoons unsalted butter.

1. Whisk together mustard, mayonnaise and cornichons. Spread on 4
slices of bread and divide cheese among bread slices, to make 2

2. Melt butter in a medium skillet over moderate heat. Cook sandwiches
until golden on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes a side, pressing down on
sandwiches with spatula. Reduce heat to low and cover; cook until
cheese melts completely, about 2 minutes more. Serve hot.

Yield: 2 servings.

Recipe: Salami and Horseradish Cheddar Bagel Sandwich

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Published: April 11, 2007

2 bagels, halved

3 ounces horseradish Cheddar cheese, sliced (or substitute horseradish
Cheddar spread)

1/4 pound salami, thinly sliced

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced.

1. In a toaster oven or in an oven preheated to 500 degrees, toast
bagel halves until pale golden. Top each with some cheese and continue
toasting until cheese begins to melt.

2. Meanwhile, fry salami slices in a skillet over moderate heat until
golden, about 3 minutes. Place salami and red onion on bottom bagel
halves. Cover with bagel tops and serve.

Yield: 2 servings.

Recipe: Queso Fresco Quesadillas With Papaya-Avocado Salsa

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Published: April 11, 2007


1 cup cubed fresh peeled papaya

1/2 avocado, peeled and cubed

1/4 cup cubed, seeded cucumber

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon honey, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper


4 6-inch corn tortillas

1/4 pound queso fresco, available in Hispanic markets.

1. Preheat broiler and place broiler rack 4 inches from heat. In a
bowl, stir together salsa ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning, if

2. Place 2 tortillas on a baking sheet. Crumble cheese over tortillas.
Top with remaining tortillas. Broil, flipping once halfway through,
until cheese is melted and tortillas are golden, 1 to 2 minutes a

3. Quarter quesadillas and top each section with 1 tablespoon salsa.
Serve immediately.

Yield: 2 servings.


3 responses to “Grilled Cheese

  1. Pingback: The Grilled Cheese has become HUGE. « LUNCH ENCOUNTER

  2. Pingback: Grilled Cheese « LUNCH ENCOUNTER

  3. This short-rib grilled cheese from an LA chef sounds amazing, if complicated.

    Modern Times Cafe in NW DC has three great simple Italian panini, plus interesting grilled cheese. It’s a coffee shop in the basement of Politics and Prose bookstore. Associated with Buck’s Fishing and Camping down the block.

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