Sunday, January 15, 2017

Grilled Cheese Manifesto


Happy New Year!  I hope that you all had a wonderful festive season, full of family and friends and much deliciousness.  Charming Suitor and I certainly did.  We wined and dined and napped and binge-watched and cooked in and ate out and spent a lot of quality time with quality people.  Despite the current political climate, we worked hard on focusing on the positive and celebrating our blessings.  We had a terrific NYE party, for which this was the menu:


The Chateau de Pamplemousse is back under construction full-force on Phase 3, which means that coming up shortly you will be getting a lot of information on the progress of the Master Bedroom Suite, which is awfully exciting.  At the moment the entire third floor has been demo-ed, and frankly, I think you are all probably fairly sick of seeing pictures of framing and insulation at this point, so I'll focus more on the design elements of the spaces as they come together, as well as some really major decisions regarding bathrooms!  Oh, and an elevator.  You know, like you do.

Winter has settled in full-force, polar vortex and all, which always turns my fancy to soups.  And since, for me, soup is nearly always mostly an excuse to have a grilled cheese sandwich, I was very excited to get invited to the Second Annual Grilled Cheese Takedown hosted by TimeOut Chicago.

Those of you who know me, know that I am something of a grilled cheese obsessive.  I adore them.  One of my fondest memories of overnight camp involves the rare treat of "grilled cheese day", where endless platters of perfectly cut triangles of plotchy golden buttery crunchy white bread oozing brilliant orange american cheese came out of the kitchen as fast as we could eat them.  And we could eat as much as we wanted, which for me, was probably eleventy million triangles.

A good grilled cheese is a thing of beauty.  It is simple, three ingredients, bread, butter, cheese.  It is elemental. Salty, savory, buttery, crunchy, gooey.  It is delightful on its own, but the perfect vehicle for a soup dunking.  When CS and I go to visit our pals in Maine, and he begins his personal quest for eating his weight daily in lobster, I go full tilt boogie into grilled cheese, because the only thing those lobster roll shacks make that is as good as their lobster rolls is grilled cheese.  I think  in part it is because they know the value of a perfectly toasted buttered piece of bread.  I order them for lunch in endless delis and diners wherever I roam, and it is the first thing I check for on a room service menu.

I make them at home when I'm in need of comfort, or feeling poorly.  And I have rules.  White bread only.  Don't care if it is my homemade sourdough or Japanese pullman loaf, Texas Toast or even Pepperidge Farm Extra Thin, white it must be.  Good salted butter, this is not the place for blandness. Butter the bread itself, don't just melt it in the pan, that way you get the butter over every speck of the bread for optimal golden goodness.  I know a lot of people swear by mayo instead of butter,  but I find mayo adds a slight sweetness that I don't love, I stick with the original.  Bread goes butter side down in a cold nonstick pan, and good quality American cheese slices go on top of the bread, and then the heat goes on low.  One slice of cheese per piece of bread of thin or regular size, an extra slice of cheese if you are working with Texas Toast or other thick-cut breads, balance and ratio are key.  By the time the bread heats up enough to get golden and crispy at the low temp, the cheese on top should be melted, if the bread is thicker, I will use a lid to help the melting along.  Low and slow, you want really crispy and golden brown on the outside and fully melted within.  Once everything is nice and melty I flip the top of the sandwich over onto the bottom and give the whole sandwich a flip or two just to ensure all the browning is the way I want it.  NO PRESSING!  This is not a panini.  Remove from the pan to a wire rack, very important, since you worked hard to get it crispy, and don't want the bottom to steam and get soggy.  Rest it for three minutes, like you would rest a piece of meat before carving, just to let the cheese tighten up the tiniest bit, otherwise it will run all out when you cut the sandwich in half.  On the diagonal, because we are not heathens, and the pointy bits are the best for soup dunking.  You're welcome.

Grilled cheese, done well, with some thought and the simplest ingredients is a perfect food.

Here is my personal takeaway from the Grilled Cheese Takedown.

These people make amazing sandwiches.

Truly, some of them were insanely delicious.   Gayle's Best Ever Grilled Cheese, one of my staples from the Logan Square Farmers Market, makes a terrific grilled cheese with Wisconsin Butterk√§se that I adore.  Her offering today, her Italian version tasted like delicious pizza bread with pepperoni and subtle garlic spread.  Dusek's blew us away with a three-cheese truffle bomb with frisee jam, that was an amazing mouthful of richness.  South Water kitchen had a killer sandwich full of bacon and chicken tenders, Cheesie's Pub and Grub introduced us to duck bacon, of which we approve whole heartedly.  Wyler Road took an interesting turn down mashup lane with their PB&J Grilled Cheese, which was sadly marred by the decision to use brie as the cheese.  Brie is never good in a 'melted on a sandwich' application.  You lose the nuance of the cheese, and amp up the off-taste and texture of the rind, bad combo.  Same Day Caf√© had a killer tomato soup, and was on their way to grilled cheese perfection, but the volume of rosemary in the sandwich took it to a Pine Sol place that was disappointing.  Michael Jordan's Steak House was doing short rib grilled cheese with a caramelized onion jus, but the short rib was sort of randomly placed, some bites had none, some were all short rib, the cheese had no flavor at all, and the bread was thick and very dry.  The dunk in the jus helped the dryness, but was such a salt bomb that it didn't save anything.  Jerry's we had saved for last, due in no small part to their "kitchen sink" approach, which included bacon, cashew butter, mango chipotle jam, arugula, and god knows what else.  It was freaking delicious.  Shockingly so.  The perfect last bite to a pretty overall yummy experience.  Rekorderling's Premium Cider was pouring both their pear and passionfruit ciders, I preferred the passionfruit, CS preferred the pear, but weirdly, we both preferred the sips where we blended the two half and half!  And we were very glad we went, a fun Sunday lunch adventure, so thanks to TimeOut for the invite.

But here is the thing.  It wasn't grilled cheese. In fact, NONE of the sandwiches in the grilled cheese takedown, were, in my opinion, grilled cheese, with the exception of Same Day Cafe.  They were, almost all of them, really good sandwiches.  Sandwiches I would absolutely recommend to others as sandwiches, or even order myself.  As long as I wasn't craving grilled cheese.  Because the essential thing about the grilled cheese sandwich?  IS THE CHEESE.  Cheese takes the lead, it isn't a garnish or an add on or the support staff.  Cheese is supposed to be the star.  And today, we had a lot of yummy flavors, but almost none of them were cheese.  We tasted bacon and jam and chicken and truffles and cashews and blueberries and garlic and pepperoni and tomato and delicious breads, but I couldn't tell you one cheese we really tasted, except for the ill-conceived brie for not fun or delicious reasons.  And the one sandwich that technically was grilled cheese, the rosemary was all we tasted, we couldn't taste the cheese at all, which was sad, because they had the rest of it just right, the crispy buttery bread, the ooey gooey temp, nice and hot.  Sigh.

There is a reason that chefs, when testing other chefs for possible employment, will ask them to make a plain omelette or roast a chicken.  Because in those dishes, there is nowhere to hide.  Simple ingredients require perfect technique and only a good palate for seasoning to make them sing.  The minute you start tarting them up with a zillion other ingredients, you start masking the essential elements of what they are.  Which can be absolutely delicious, but not pure.  I am usually a more is more girl, just ask CS.  If one is good, a dozen is better.  If you are bored with your usual tablescape, try adding glass bowls with live betta fish in them.  (yes, I actually did this for NYE, and yes it was awesomely cool, and yes, it is possible that I might have worked the PetSmart 14 day return policy on live fish to my advantage, and no, I am not ashamed).

I think in a competition like this, you should be going for the platonic ideal.  Chili competitions, BBQ competitions, no one is making shocking changes to the basics, they have their own spice blends or rubs, the length of the cook or the wood they use to smoke things over, but the essentials are the same, and then the question is whose technique and details make them the best when compared side by side. Charming Suitor asked me on the walk to the hall from the car what my criteria were.  I said this:  crispy golden browned bread that is not dry, well-melted flavorful cheese that is not greasy, cheese the star of the show.  Well seasoned, not too salty, not too bland.  Should be delicious all on its own, but you should be able to imagine it tasting great when dunked in a variety of soups.  Simple.

I loved many of the sandwiches I ate today.  But I didn't vote for my favorite grilled cheese because I felt like I hadn't eaten any.  So I announce that my personal winner for the Chicago Grilled Cheese Takedown was a sandwich that wasn't competing.  The Four Moon Tavern, in my humble opinion, makes the best grilled cheese I have ever eaten, and that includes my own, to which I am fairly partial.  They use a great large Italian style sliced white loaf, good butter, good American cheese, it gets great crunch on the outside, good chew on the crust, and awesome gooeyness in the middle and they make a spectacular homemade tomato soup for serious dunking.  It is a really good size, filling and substantial.  I crave them fortnightly.  Gayle's Best Ever Grilled Cheese gets honorable mention, not for the yummy pizza bread bite of today, but for their traditional grilled cheese which I have eaten many a warm summer Sunday and find deeply satisfying, and if you spot her truck at a farmer's market near you, get in line for sure.

If you want a great sandwich, I can say that Jerry's, Duseks, and South Water Kitchen would be well worth checking out, they had my favorite bites of the day.  But for grilled cheese?  Head to Four Moon on the corner of Roscoe and Wolcott for a bit of gooey heaven.  Tell them I sent you.

In the meantime, to all the hardworking chefs and great dining establishments who knocked it out today, congrats.  It was a lot of fun and a lot of yummy.  Even if it wasn't grilled cheese.

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath