You might think that grilled cheese needs to be two slices of white bread and a slice of American cheddar, buttered on both sides and fried in your frying pan, served with your favorite warm soup, but in reality, grilled cheese can be so much more. I grew up with the standard cheddar on white bread and fried grilled cheese served with tomato soup for dipping, but as I got older I began to realize there is a whole new way to make grilled cheese.
Let’s start with the cheese. Any cheese that melts into a nice gooey, stringy mess is my favorite: mozzarella, cheddar, American cheese and Swiss are my go-to cheeses, but if you want a truly unique experience, Havarti, Muenster, provolone, goat and pepper jack lend themselves nicely to the grilled cheese world. If you’re a brave soul, consider combining your cheeses. If you want a truly unique flavor, consider combining provolone or mozzarella with a feta or blue cheese. Blue cheese and feta tend to be drier, crumblier cheeses and don’t melt into a nice gooey sandwich, but if combined with mozzarella, Muenster or provolone, they add additional flavor and texture to your sandwich.
Once you have your cheese picked, it’s time to move onto your bread, or your bread option. With gluten being on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, and in some instances an almost bad word, there are more vegetarian/vegan friendly options to try as well. French loaf, rye, white, whole wheat, pumpernickel, sourdough, flavored breads, and breads with fruits in them — depending on your palate and what you are feeling, these all make good options. Basically, you’re looking for a bread that can stand up to a frying pan and get crispy on the outside. I like something with a hard crust; however, you might enjoy a softer crust as an option. If you prefer a vegetarian or vegan option, consider a zucchini, cauliflower or potato “bread.” You probably just re-read that last sentence wondering what I’m talking about, but I will add a couple of recipes for the vegetarian/vegan option.
The Fun Part:
Now that we have the basics down, let’s talk about the gourmet fillings! Grilled cheese can be made into so much more than two slices of bread and cheese. Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with just a good classic grilled cheese, but think about adding bacon, sautéed onion, spinach, beef, ham, turkey, chicken, jams, jellies, fruits and vegetables. Try combinations of fillings with cheeses. The more you experiment, the wider your palate gets, and the more options you have for a quick meal or a new comfort food. Cheese is a very versatile item. iIt pairs well with fruits, nuts, meats and vegetables. Try different combinations to find your perfect sandwich.
Consider a grilled cheese combination of mozzarella and blue cheese, a nice thinly cut grilled sirloin steak and some sautéed onions sandwiched between thickly sliced sourdough loaf, grilled to perfection using an herb-infused butter. Not only have you got a decent sandwich, if you pair it with a nice cup of soup or a salad, you have a healthy and hearty meal that was quick and easy to make after a long day.
If your palate would prefer something a little sweeter, why not pair a nutty Muenster with a blackberry jam, some spinach, tomato and a little feta, all tucked together on a nice dense bread with a nut or sesame topping. This is a little lighter, but served with a nice chardonnay, or a deep, dark, nutty ale, it would make a great patio luncheon sandwich.
Get your little ones helping out in the kitchen! Cut out shapes in your bread using cookie cutters and let them choose the cheese they want, along with the additional toppings or additions. My nieces love their grilled cheese sandwiches with bacon and dill pickle, with a sharp cheddar cheese of all things, toasted between two slices of rye bread.
Now let’s talk about a truly vegan/vegetarian option. The first thing to do is create your “bread.” This can be done by creating a potato pancake, zucchini pancake or cauliflower pancake, and then layering in a soy-based vegetarian cheese and your vegetables of choice. One of my favorites is a potato pancake crust, served with a cheddar-flavored vegan cheese, a layer of jalapenos, some salsa, spinach and onion. Grill it up either in a frying pan or in the oven and you’ve got a “Nacho Grilled Cheese.”
Text and photos by Lila Roth. Lila is a trained chef and is currently working for FirstService Residential in Alberta.