Everywhere we are gussying up our grilled-cheese sandwiches. In fancy restaurants and home kitchens and delicatessens and those insufferable quasi-fast-food joints with the accented, ambiguously Euro names and the friggin' Ray LaMontagne music on the PA and the cutesy, bottled alterna-soda in the cooler—everywhere, the grilled cheese sandwich is the subject of gussying. Rosetta bread and taleggio cheese and rosemary-truffle aioli and goddamn organic heirloom heritage tomatoes and so on, until you're not quite certain whether you're eating a grilled-cheese sandwich or the script of a fucking Nancy Meyers movie.
The impulse to dress the humble grilled-cheese sandwich in the fanciest of pants is an understandable one—both as a show of appreciation, not unlike treating your haggard, threadbare old mom to a deluxe day at the spa for Mother's Day (You deserve to be treated like royalty!), and as an attempt to drag a foodstuff heretofore almost exclusively associated with childhood into some semblance of adult respectability. And, truthfully, this up-gussying yields some very tasty sandwiches, which, hey, that's great.
But hang on right there. Who the hell says the reliable old cheese-slices-between-sandwich-bread-slices grilled-cheese sandwich needs adult respectability? It's a sandwich for eating, not a friggin' hairdo. The grilled-cheese sandwich will not be going on your curriculum vitae, unless you are an insane person, in which case you probably weren't going to get the job anyway. And, more to the point, if respectability as a foodstuff for grownups is an important thing for a foodstuff to have, and if the humble, familiar old junk-cheese-between-slices-of-cheap-bread grilled-cheese sandwich—creamy and melty and crispy and rich, pleasingly simple and endlessly satisfying—does not have it, might this not indicate a problem with our definition of adult respectability, rather than with the grilled-cheese sandwich?
The answer to these questions, as to so many others, is: Make a grilled-cheese sandwich. A simple, un-fancy, cheap-shit grilled-cheese sandwich like the kind you used to hoover down when you were a shitty kid. See for yourself. Maybe you will find your concept of adult respectability broadened enough to accommodate the grilled-cheese sandwich. Maybe you will feel like a silly child and find that this is a pretty OK thing to feel like. In any case, you will have a tasty and satisfying sandwich to eat.
Let's get started.
The first thing to do is heat up some cheap-shit canned tomato soup in a small saucepot over medium heat. That's right, goddammit: Don't slow-simmer some puréed heirloom tomatoes with herbs and aromatics and heavy cream to make some kind of homemade tomato bisque shit. Crank open a can of tomato soup and warm it up in a small pot. Later, you will incorporate this into the rest of the dish as the "soup."
Now, assemble your sandwich. For this you will need cheese and bread. Go with whatever you liked when you were too young to care about whether your sandwich would draw sneers from Williams-Sonoma-catalog-humping, ingredient-fetishizing epicurean asswipes; for the ideal combination of total disrepute and face-rearranging wonderfulness, stick a couple of flaps of sleazy, sketchy, probably carcinogenic individually wrapped American "cheese"-food between two pieces of cheap-ass store-brand sliced bread. White bread is OK; wheat is sweeter and better-tasting, but you should defer to your own nostalgia, here.
So you've got your cheese and your bread; with any luck, the former is between two slices of the latter. To this, add nothing at all. You are not making a grilled mushroom-and-onion-and-cheese sandwich, nor a grilled bacon-and-cheese-and-signature-Habanero-garlic-mayo sandwich. You are not making a panino, or a Reuben, or a tuna melt. You are making a grilled-cheese sandwich. You can add friggin' prosciutto and melon to the next goddamn thing you eat, OK?
Now, spread room-temperature butter over both outer faces of the sandwich, to prepare it for cooking. This should be salted butter, unless you used reeeeally salty cheese (or if you completely ignored the previous paragraph and stuck some salty sliced ham in there, you jerk), in which case the unsalted stuff is fine. And, really, be generous, here. This butter is what will facilitate golden-brown crispiness when you cook your sandwich, and also it will make your sandwich taste like it has a bunch of melted butter on and in it, because it will have a bunch of melted butter on and in it, because that is a good thing for a sandwich to have.
(A note, here. Some people slather the outside of their grilled-cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise, rather than butter, before cooking them. Now, look. Mayonnaise is a lovely and noble condiment, a fabulous base for potato salad dressing, and an all-around swell member of the foodstuff family. It can borrow money from me anytime. On the other hand, generally speaking, people do not, say, sauté things in hot mayonnaise, for the very good reason that that would be a gross thing to do. Slather butter on your grilled-cheese sandwich. It's the better thing to do.)
Your sandwich is now assembled and slathered with butter. It's time to cook your sandwich. You will not actually be grilling your grilled-cheese sandwich, despite its name. You will also not be panini-pressing it, or waffle-ironing it, or toasting it, or broiling it, or attacking it with a blowtorch. What you will be doing is pan-frying it. Get a skillet warmed up over medium heat on your stove, then slap that sandwich down in there.
The butter you slathered all over the down-facing side of the sandwich will melt when it touches the pan, and cook the bread, and be absorbed by the bread, and make the bread taste like butter. Oh man, that is great news. Cook the sandwich on one side for, oh, maybe three or four or five minutes?—until, when you tilt it up with a spatula and inspect its underside, you see that it is a nice deep brown color all over, and crispy, but not burned. Slide that spatula the rest of the way under there, flip your sandwich, and cook its other side for a few more minutes, until that side is also a nice crispy brown.
By now the cheese will have melted inside your sandwich. It is cooked. Get it out of there. Cut it into triangles—yes, damn you, triangles!—and serve it with a big mug or small bowl of that cheap-shit canned tomato soup you heated up back at the beginning. Time to eat.
Serve your cheap, disreputable, low-grade, glorious grilled-cheese sandwich with a tall glass of cold milk. Dip a corner of the sandwich into that lousy canned soup, and then insert that corner into your head. Mmmmmmmm. Gooey and buttery and warm and crispy and creamy and rich, and familiar, and satisfying to a degree bordering on indecency. Does it flatter your gourmet foodie self-image? Does it make you feel like an overgrown kid retreating from the fun challenge of grownup tastes? No! No to both. What it makes you feel like is a happy person too busy eating delicious food to grant even a moment's consideration to What It Says About You. That's quite a feat, for two bucks' worth of F-grade crud, and for the sandwich it just made for itself.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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