Grilled Cheese Comfort

Chances are if you ask a dozen people what their favorite comfort food is you might get 12 different answers. I know my answer could be different, depending on my tastes on that particular day.

But one that surely rates high on my list is the grilled cheese sandwich. Some of my fondest childhood memories are those cold winter days when my mom would serve up grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch. Of course, the sandwiches made perfect dunking fare for a hot bowl of soup.

There are probably as many variations of the tasty sandwich as there are varieties of cheese. I discovered another today while watching Claire Robinson’s “Five Ingredient Fix”  on the Food Network. One of the recipes Robinson featured was for Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwich. She did something that I’d never seen before. Both sides of her sandwiches were slathered with mayonnaise before they were grilled.

That was news too me, but apparently, not so much for everyone else. My friend, Bob Sullivan, who enjoys talking food with me while we exercise, said he and his wife, Shirley, always coat their grilled cheese sandwiches with mayo. I’ve coated grilled salmon with mayo to keep the fish from drying out but never have done so with grilled cheese. But it’s something that I’ll likely give a try.

Here’s the recipe, along with several others. Take you pick. You may have a new favorite when all is said and done.

Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwich
1½ cups shredded best-quality sharp Cheddar
½ cup real mayonnaise, plus more for grilling
1 4-ounce jar chopped pimentos, drained
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
12 slices brioche bread, lightly toasted
Pulse the cheese, mayo, pimentos and cayenne in the food processor until just combined. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill for at least 3 hours.
Spread some additional mayo on 1 side of each slice of toasted bread. Arrange 6 slices, mayo-side down, on a clean work surface. Place 2 heaping tablespoons pimento cheese evenly on the 6 slices of bread and top with the remaining 6 slices of bread, mayo-side facing up.
In a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat, cook 3 sandwiches until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is starting to melt, about 3 minutes. Turn the sandwiches over and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes more. Wipe the pan clean and repeat with the remaining 3 sandwiches.
Yield: Serves 6.
What To Toss In: If you like your pimento really spicy, you can always add some chipotle in adobe sauce to give it a smoky flavor. This also can be used as an entertaining dip. Just arrange some baby carrots and cut up some celery sticks around the cheese.

The Blue Tomato
1 cup (about 4 ounces) Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
½ stick butter, room temperature (divided)
8 slices crusty seeded Italian bread (or other hearty bread such as sourdough)
2 large ripe tomatoes (about 12 ounces) cut into 8 slices
½ large bunch of basil, leaves only
In small bowl, place cheese and 2 tablespoons butter. Mix well. Butter one side of bread slices with remaining butter. Place 4 bread slices on work surface, buttered side down. Divide cheese mixture evenly over bread slices. Top with tomato and basil. Top with other 4 slices of bread, buttered side up.
Heat nonstick skillet over medium heat 2 minutes. Place sandwiches in skillet (in batches if necessary), cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown and cheese has begun to soften. Uncover and turn sandwiches with spatula, pressing firmly. Cook 2 to 3 minutes longer, or until bread is golden brown and cheese is softened and heated through. Turn once more and cook 30 seconds. Remove from skillet and let cool 3 to 5 minutes. Cut in half and serve.
Yield: 4 sandwiches.

The Caribbean Grill
½ mango, cut into ¼-inch dice
2 tablespoons red onion, diced)
¼ red bell pepper, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Pinch of sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon curry powder
8 slices fresh Italian bread
8 slices (1 ounce each) Swiss cheese
¼ cup honey mustard
In small bowl, prepare salsa: mix together mango, red onion, bell pepper, lime juice, sugar, salt and pepper. Set aside. (This can be made one day ahead and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before using.) Makes about 1 ½ cups.
In small bowl, mix butter and curry. Spread 2 tablespoons butter mixture on one side of each slice of bread. Place 4 slices of bread on your work surface, buttered side down. Spread mustard on bread. Place about 2 tablespoons mango salsa on bread, followed by the cheese. (You may need to fold cheese slices to fit bread.) Place remaining 4 bread slices on top, buttered side up.
Add remaining curry butter to nonstick skillet and heat over medium heat 2 minutes. Put sandwiches in skillet (in batches if necessary), cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown and cheese has begun to melt. Uncover and turn sandwiches with spatula, pressing very firmly. Cook 2 to 3 minutes longer, or until bread is golden brown and cheese has melted. Turn once more, press with spatula and cook 30 seconds. Remove from pan and let cool 3 to 5 minutes. Cut diagonally and serve with extra salsa on the side.
Yield: 4 sandwiches.

Smoky Southwestern Grill
2 pasilla or Anaheim chilies (or use canned chilies)
8 slices bacon, coarsely chopped
4 ciabatta rolls, cut in half (or 1 loaf ciabatta cut into 3-inch-wide sections, or use any type Italian bread)
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces mozzarella, coarsely grated (if watery, drain slightly and cut into thin slices rather than grate it)
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled or pinched into pea-size pieces
4 large slices tomato, ¼-inch thick
Roast peppers by preheating broiler, or turning on one burner of gas stove. Place chilies under the broiler, or hold one chili with tongs over gas burner flame. Cook, turning frequently, until skin is charred all over. Repeat with remaining chili.
Place chilies in resealable plastic bag and set aside 20 minutes. Using small sharp knife, scrape off charred skin, cut off stems, then cut chilies into ½-inch-wide strips. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in large nonstick skillet, cook bacon over medium-high heat until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Wipe skillet with a paper towel, but do not wash it.
To assemble, pull out some of the center of each roll to create a well. Brush the outside of each roll with the oil. Place bottom 4 pieces on work surface, oiled side down. Distribute mozzarella evenly over these pieces, followed by bacon, chilies, tomatoes and goat cheese. Place remaining 4 pieces of rolls on top, oiled side up.
Using same skillet as before, heat skillet over medium heat 2 minutes. Place sandwiches in skillet (in batches if necessary) and press firmly with spatula to flatten them slightly. Cover and cook 3 to 4 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown in places and mozzarella has begun to melt. Uncover, and turn sandwiches with spatula, pressing very firmly. Cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown in places (the shape of the roll prevents uniform browning). Turn sandwiches again, press with spatula, and cook 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until mozzarella has melted completely.
Yield: 4 sandwiches.

Two-Cheese Mediterranean
2 ounces feta cheese
½ cup pitted kalamata olives, rinsed and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon capers, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
8 slices sourdough bread (¼-inch thick)
4 ounces Gruyere cheese, coarsely grated (or use Emmentaler or Monterey jack)
4 whole roasted red peppers (from a jar), drained and cut in half
½ cup baby spinach leaves
In small bowl, mix together feta, olives, capers, lemon peel and pepper to taste. Set aside.
To assemble, butter one side of each slice of bread. Place 4 slices on work surface, buttered side down. Spread feta mixture evenly over 4 slices. Press Gruyere into feta mixture and top each slice with 2 pepper halves and spinach. Press again to compress filling. Place remaining 4 bread slices on top, buttered side up.
Heat large nonstick skillet over medium heat 2 minutes. Place sandwiches in skillet (in batches if necessary), cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown and cheese has begun to melt. Uncover, and turn sandwiches with spatula, pressing very firmly to flatten slightly. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown and spinach has wilted. Turn sandwiches again, press with spatula, and cook 30 seconds, or until Gruyere has melted completely.
Yield: 4 sandwiches.

Grilled Tomato, Basil and Goat Cheese Sandwiches
1 French-bread baguette (16 ounces)
2/3 cup olive oil
8 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped mixed fresh herbs (such as tarragon, thyme, and rosemary)
¾ cup soft fresh goat cheese (plain, peppered, or herbed)
4 large plum tomatoes, thinly sliced into rounds
2 cups coarsely chopped pitted Mediterranean olives
Prepare grill (medium heat). Cut baguette crosswise in half. Cut each half lengthwise in half to form 4 pieces total.
In small bowl, combine oil, garlic and herbs. Brush all cut sides of bread with half of oil mixture.
Grill bread, cut sides down, until lightly toasted, about 1 minute. Remove from grill. Quickly spread cut sides of toast with goat cheese. Top with tomatoes and olives, dividing equally. Drizzle remaining oil mixture on top.
Return open-face sandwiches to grill. Cook until bottom sides are toasted, cheese melts, and tomatoes begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Cut each sandwich diagonally in half and serve.
Yield: Makes 4 sandwiches.

Quiche with a Kick

You’ve probably heard the saying "real men don’t eat quiche." It’s been my experience that ‘s a bunch of hooey. I’ve known plenty of "real men" who just love quiche.

Quiche is a baked dish that is based on a custard made from eggs and milk or cream in a pastry crust. Usually, other ingredients such as meat, vegetables and cheese are added after the pastry shell has been baked, and then it is baked again. Traditionally, quiche has been a breakfast food, but it has become acceptable to eat for lunch or dinner.

I don’t remember my last encounter with quiche, but after looking at a recipe that came via e-mail today from Cacique, the next time could be sooner rather than later. Cacique is a company that specializes in natural and traditional Hispanic fresh cheeses. It also markets  creams, chorizos and beverages that are deeply rooted in Mexican history and tradition. (The products are available at WalMart.)

The reason the quiche looks especially appealing is because of the addition of jalapeno peppers. I love food with a little kick. And it’s also vegetarian, boon for those who are abstaining from meat during Lent.

Quiche with a Kick
1 cup Cacique Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 eggs
¼ cup milk
½ cup red bell pepper, diced
½ cup red onion, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1 jalapeno pepper, diced
1¼ cup liquid egg substitute
Nonstick cooking spray
1 frozen whole wheat pie crust (see note)
2 teaspoons chili powder
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a medium-sized skillet with nonstick cooking spray. Saute peppers, onions and diced jalapeno over medium heat until softened, about 8 minutes. Scrape sauteed vegetables into prepared pie crust. Reserve.
Whisk egg substitute, eggs and milk until frothy. Stir in salt, chili powder, pepper and cheese. Pour egg mixture over vegetables in pie crust.
Bake until top is lightly browned and set, about 50 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, top with chopped cilantro and serve.
Note: Whole wheat pie crusts are available in the freezer section at natural food stores and some large grocery stores
Yield: Serves 12.

The Breakfast Brunch

It’s been a while since I’ve fixed a big breakfast or brunch for houseguests. But at the end of March, my granddaughter, Naomi, and her boyfriend, Brandon, are coming for a visit on their spring break, and they’re staying with us.

I plan on doing a bunch of cooking while they’re here, and one thing on my mind is a nice breakfast or brunch.

What got me thinking about that was this morning Dennis Horner of Grand Forks (many readers may remember that he was a coach at Midway High School near Inkster, N.D., for many years) gave me two cookbooks that were printed by the Herald in the 1980s and featured readers’ recipes. One is titled "Come for Brunch." In it are many dishes that look quite mouth-watering.

After perusing it a bit, I went online and searched one of many favorite sources for brunch recipes and came across the following one for a breakfast casserole. The nice thing about the Ham and Cheese Strata recipe is that it can be tweaked to include several different ingredients, including sauteed mushrooms, Gruyere cheese, bacon and roasted green chilies.

It looks like a winner, and I bet the kids would love it.

Ham and Cheese Strata
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or as needed for baking dish
1 pound (12 to 14 slices) Italian bread or baguette, cut into ½-inch slices, preferably day-old (can be lightly toasted if fresh)
1 cup diced Serrano or Virginia ham
1 cup grated sharp white Cheddar
1 cup grated Manchego or Fontina cheese
2 tablespoons minced chives or finely chopped green onion
4 roma tomatoes cut in ¼-inch slices
8 large eggs
4 cups milk or half-and-half
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard or 1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Butter bottom and sides of baking dish. Arrange half of bread slices in tight rows to cover bottom of dish. Sprinkle with half of ham, cheeses, and chives or green onion. Add another layer of bread and cover with remaining ham, cheese, chives or green onions. Arrange tomatoes in pattern over the top.
Whisk eggs with milk, mustard, salt and pepper in a large bowl until well combined. Pour over bread mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Let strata sit on counter 20 to 25 minutes, then unwrap and bake for approximately 1 hour, until top is golden and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
Note: You also makes this with sauteed mushrooms, Gruyere cheese, bacon and roasted green chilies and in warmer weather with asparagus and slightly aged Gouda cheese.
Yield: Serves 12.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 339 calories, 25 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein, 18 grams fat, 46 percent of calories from fat, 190 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram fiber, 1,090 milligrams sodium.

Great Grilled Cheese

Sometimes, the simplest of food brings the most pleasure.

My favorite comfort food these days is a simple cheese sandwich. I just love to take a couple of slices of cheese, put in on some crusty bread, season it will a little pepper and add a dab of Dijon mustard. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but when you have an appetite for cheese like mine, that’s all it takes.

I recall as a child having often having grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Maybe that’s where my fondness for cheese came.

A cheese sandwich or a variation of such is popular around our house. Therese and our grandson, Rakeem, love ‘em grilled in one of our many cast-iron frying pan.

I’ve recently come across another variation that looks like its worth trying. It’s one for apple, ham and Cheddar on sourdough bread. I can just imagine how good it would be with some of the sourdough from the Dakota Harvest Bakers in Grand Forks.

Apple, Ham and Cheddar on Sourdough
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
8 (½-inch-thick) slices sourdough bread
¼ pound smoky ham, such as Virginia country ham, cut into 4 slices (or buy presliced ham)
small green apple (about 5 ounces), such as Granny Smith, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
6 ounces medium or sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
Butter 1 side of each slice of bread. Place 4 slices on work surface, buttered side down. Place slice of ham on each bread slice, folding to fit if necessary. Top with 4 to 5 apple slices per sandwich, followed by cheese. Place remaining 4 bread slices on top, buttered-side up. If sandwich seems quite thick, press it down to compress ingredients slightly.
To cook using sandwich maker, preheat sandwich maker and cook according to manufacturer’s instructions. To cook using stovetop method, heat large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes. Put sandwiches in skillet (in batches if necessary), cover and cook 2 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown and cheese has begun to melt. Uncover and turn with spatula, pressing firmly to flatten slightly. Cook 1 minute or until undersides are golden brown. Turn sandwiches again, press with spatula and cook 30 seconds, or until cheese melts completely. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4 sandwiches.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 730 calories, 42 percent from fat), 34 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 36.1 grams protein, 74.2 grams carbohydrates, 2.3 grams fiber, 125 milligrams cholesterol, 1,200 milligrams sodium.

Two-Cheese Mediterranean
2 ounces crumbled feta cheese
½ cup pitted kalamata olives, rinsed, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon drained capers, rinsed
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel (zest), colored part only
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
8 (½-inch-thick) slices pain au levain or sourdough bread (see note)
4 ounces Gruyere cheese, or Emmentaler or Monterey Jack, coarsely grated
4 whole roasted red bell peppers (from jar or roasted at home), peeled, seeded, drained, cut in half
½ cup fresh baby spinach leaves
In small bowl, combine feta, olives, capers, lemon peel and pepper; set aside.
Butter 1 side of each slice of bread. Place 4 slices on work surface, buttered-side down. Spread feta mixture evenly over 4 slices. For each sandwich, press Gruyere into feta mixture and top with bell pepper half; top that with spinach. Press again. Top each with bread, buttered-side up.
To cook using sandwich maker, preheat sandwich maker and cook according to manufacturer’s instructions. To cook using stovetop method, heat large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes. Put sandwiches in skillet (in batches if necessary), cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown and cheese has begun to melt. Uncover and turn with spatula, pressing very firmly to flatten slightly. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until undersides are golden brown and spinach wilts. Turn sandwiches again, press with spatula, and cook 30 seconds, or until cheese melts completely. Serve immediately.
Note: Pain au levain is made with a sourdough starter. It is tangy and slightly more dense than conventional sourdough.
Yield: 4 sandwiches.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 480 calories, 55 percent from fat, 29.3 grams fat (6.7 grams saturated), 14.7 grams protein, 40.2 grams carbohydrates, 1.9 grams fiber, 110 milligrams cholesterol, 1,100 milligrams sodium.

Say Cheese

It’s not very often that you can’t find some sort of cheese in our refrigerator. And since I’m sort of a cheese nut, you never know what kind you might discover. Among the not-so-common cheeses we’ve tried are gouda, asiago, feta, havarti and gorgonzola. And then, there are the more well-known ones such as colby, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, Swiss and Parmesan. to name a few.

But usually, it’s some sort of sharp Cheddar, which both Therese and I like, although it’s very seldom she gets her fair share. That’s because I’m kind of a cheese hog.

I don’t exactly recall when this love affair started, but it’s definitely blossomed over the years. It doesn’t matter if it’s just plain cheese, if it’s on pizza, in a soup or on a sandwich or a burger.

Speaking of soup, I used to love the beer cheese variety served at the Grainery in West Acres.

We’re not alone when it comes to having cheese on hand. According to a 2007 Progressive Grocer survey, cheese is the second most common food item in our refrigerators. Information Resources Inc. research, based on supermarket data, notes that Cheddar is the most popular cheese by volume, followed by mozzarella, ricotta, Monterey Jack, Parmesan, Swiss, Hispanic styles, colby and provolone.

All this talk about cheese makes me want to have a slice or two or three.

 Maybe I’ll settle by trying one of the following recipes.

Cheddar-Ale Soup
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 12-ounce bottle beer, preferably mild ale
2 18-ounce bags precooked diced, peeled potatoes
2 14-ounce cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 cup water (optional)
2½ cups low-fat or nonfat milk
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1 small red bell pepper, thinly sliced or finely chopped
Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion; cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add beer; heat to a boil. Cook 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, broth and water, if needed. Cover; heat to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer; cook until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat; mash the potatoes with a potato masher to the desired consistency.
Whisk milk and flour together in a small bowl; add to the soup. Heat to a simmer over medium-high heat; cook, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in 1½ cups of the Cheddar until melted, 2 minutes. Ladle the soup into bowls; garnish with the remaining ½ cup cheese and bell pepper.
Yield: Serve: 8.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 257 calories, 39 percent of calories from fat, 11 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 31 milligrams cholesterol, 24 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams protein, 454 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber.

Asparagus and Parmesan Frittata
3 tablespoons olive oil
1½ pounds of asparagus
½ teaspoon salt
16 eggs
12 scallions, minced
1 bunch parsley or chives, minced
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups (about ¾ pound crumbled feta cheese)
2 cups halved, sweet cherry tomatoes
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees, with a pizza stone on the oven floor. Brush a 9-by-13-inch Pyrex dish with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Set aside.
Snap off and discard ends of asparagus spears and cut spears into ¼-inch-thin rounds, leaving the tips whole. Add ½ tablespoon of olive oil to a hot saute pan and saute rounds for 30 seconds. Transfer to a large bowl. Add remaining ½ tablespoon of olive oil to the same pan and saute tips for 30 seconds. Transfer to a small bowl.
Break the eggs into the large bowl with asparagus rounds and beat well with a whisk. Add the scallions, parsley or chives, black pepper and feta cheese.
When the oven reaches 450 degrees, switch oven to broil. Transfer egg mixture to Pyrex dish and place on pizza stone on bottom of the oven. Let cook about 10 minutes or until slightly set. Remove from oven, sprinkle with asparagus tips, halved cherry tomatoes and parmesan. Return to pizza stone and finish broiling until eggs are set and frittata is lightly browned on top. Let cool a bit before slicing.
Yield: Serves 10.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 300 calories, 20 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 22 grams fat, 63 percent of calories from fat, 425 milligrams cholesterol, 680 milligrams sodium, 2 grams fiber.