Grilled Cheese Savories
Α ωησε μαν ωίλλ γρίλλ ής οων χεεσε σαvορίες αnδ βε ωαρύ οφ οθερ'ς λεαβινγς. — Peripos Bromicostomas
In any land where milk is milked from an animal for the purpose of human nutrition, some form of milk-based products have been developed in the culinary tradition. It is common to ascribe the creation of such preserved products as cheeses, yougurts, junkets and the like to the need for some means of prolonging the viability of a substance so prone to spoiling as raw milk. There is a certain amount of truth in this, but I suspect that it is by no means the entire story.
Several facts argue against conservation as the sole or even the main driving force behind the development of the myriad soft and hard, fresh and mature, sweet and pungent, countlessly varied assortment of cheeses that various civilizations have created. The theory of conservation does not convincingly address many arguments: after all, most of the year round a milk producing animal will produce milk at least twice a day, at morning and evening milkings. Conversely, in the present era, milk may be kept for considerable time under refrigeration, and virtually for unlimited periods in condensed, dehydrated or UHT sterilized form.
No—I really don't buy in to the facile theory that cheese was born merely as a means of conserving milk. The gastronomic qualities of cheese are enough of an argument to the contrary: cheese is darned good! Cheese is so darned good, in fact, that it is the mainstay of much fast food produced by large corporations that invest countless billions annually in marketing and product research. No—cheese is made and avidly consumed because it seduces our senses, that is the real reason.
Most civilizations and cultures have some form of dish or culinary concoction that involves cheese, a bread-like substrate and heat from a grill, toaster or oven. The following dish is just a personal variant on the old perennial theme of the grilled cheese savory.
Let us begin by despoofing certain myths. Most recipes, I find, base themselves too much on some list of ingredients, with quantities sometimes expressed down to decimal fractions. Cooking, in my book, is not about numbers: it is entirely about techniques and the appreciation of aromas and flavours. It is about such rarely talked about concepts as achieving the necessary balance of acidity to bring out the desired flavour profiles, for example. So, I will not dwelve overmuch in quantities nor will I dogmatically insist on the exact choice of an ingredient—and in the rare cases where such is, in my opinion, an essential of the recipe, I will attempt to explain why and what it contributes that a substitute will not. What I will try to do is encourage you to experiment, while providing certain guidelines and explaining certain mechanisms. You can cook: play and learn. That is after all how we have learnt all other essential skills.
I firmly believe that the very best cooking, in many ways, is the result of that approach which derives from opening one's larder or refrigerator and composing with what is available. I like to use ingredients that are in season where one lives, and firmly eschew produce that has been transported from afar for a number of reasons, as many of you will. I never use industrial products, with very rare exceptions in the case of certain condiments; none of which I rely on on a daily basis and would consequently never miss if they were to be denied to me for whatever reason.
I do use certain staple conveniences such as tomato paste, dry pasta, the odd bouillon cube when in a hurry, and similar things: these have been and still can be found produced in artisan fashion and I do choose those sources of supply wherever possible. It certainly consistently seems to me that the higher up an ingredient or foodstuff is in the scale of autheticity and natural artisanal production, the greater will its taste satisfaction be and the less one needs to eat to feel satisfied.
I sometimes wonder if the current obesity pandemic is not at root driven by the fact that industrially produced foods, quite apart from any nutritional considerations, tend to leave the eater in some subtle way unsatisfied, and thus eager to seek satisfaction in the consumption of yet more and more such "food".
Enough of the yarn and more of the hands-on, some are probably thinking... and I'd not quarrel with that, so let us prepare our grilled cheese savories.
When cheese is grilled, it magically transforms and concentrates its aromas into something close to what the angels must feed on. A few added touches, and a crispy crunchy base, and there you have the cheese savory defined! It is rapidly prepared, economical and an entirely delightful snack or light meal. There is nothing very critical about its preparation and even the beginner cook will manage something decent as a result of his or her efforts, but as technique and proficiency improve your results will noticeably progress. So good is it, that in more opulent times—but of course in times when people were also a lot more physically active—the noble chheese savory was served at the end of large and varied feasts! There is a method to this madness, in that the concentrated tastes and aromas of the savory seem to sum up the entire meal and recall it vividly to the sated senses. I like to make a small amount of béchamel sauce to act as a base for my savories. This seems to encapsulate the flavours, retain the aromas and give a good unctuous but non-greasy texture. For the thriftier among you, you will note that it spins out the cheese component while actually exhalting it's flavor rather than diluting it.
So for the béchamel, assuming you are producing savories for two fairly rapacious souls, melt a blob of good butter the size of a hen's egg in a heavy-bottomed small saucepan—tinned copper is ideal, just use the best you've got.
When the butter is melted and foaming nicely stir in a couple of cloves of garlic which you will have bashed and left in their skins, also a couple of leaves of bay leaf, a spoonful of peppercorns, some mace and a number of parsley stalks. When the garlic and other aromatics have released their flavors to the butter, remove them all carefully with a slotted spoon and set them aside. If you are the well-doing sort who sees waste as a fly in the ointment of modern life, you may care to place your lifted out aromatics into a small jar which you may store in the refridgerator. They will come in handy to flavour a stewed dish and will indeed be better than the raw spices.
Stir in to the butter a couple of fillets of deboned salted anchovy, or failing that you may use anchovies under oil, although the salted ones are a better aromatic ingredient. Stir and mash your anchovy fillets with the wooden spoon, and they will very soon completely dissolve.
Those who absolutely cannot abide anchovies in any form will be pardoned if they omit them, though I would try and convince them to try them in this recipe, since in these quantities, and diluted with the body and substance of the cheese, they will not be identifiable save for the enrichment they provide to the umami of the concoction.
Add to your butter compost a decent couple of pinches of cayenne pepper, white pepper and either mustard flour if you have it, or a scant half teaspoon of ready-made good mustard. Stir in to the aromatic butter a couple of tablespoons of good plain flour and keep stirring with a wooden spoon untill the flour is well cooked and is just beginning to acquire some color. Do not brown.
Now, off the heat, stir in half a glass of milk until it is thouroghly amalgamated. Back on the very lowest heat stir in and incorporate thouroughly a good glassful or more of quite acid white wine. If the wine you have to hand is scarce in the acidity stakes, you may increase that with the judicious use of a few drops of lemon juice. Do not under any circumstances use vinegar of any type: vinegar has its place but not in my cheese savories.
You should now be stirring away at a sauce of the density of thick cream and with an ivory color and a delghtfully tantalizing and complex aroma. This is the moment for you to stir in a couple of egg yolks and remove the sauce from the heat. Ensure that the egg yolks are uniformly incorporated.
Now the cheese. My personal view is to incorporate three types of cheese. The first is a Fontina, or Gruyère, or Franche-Conté type of cheese which melts stringily, and has a good stinkyness to it; also good are Gouda and Emmenthaler, and a number of similar cheeses.
The second type will be a softer fattier type of cheese for its unctuous and balmy richness: for this I use Cheddar, or Bel Paese, or Cacio Cavallo, or Cantal, or again any of a number of cheeses correpsonding to that characteristic.
The third type of cheese, to my mind, is not only essential but has no substitutes. Fortunately it is available throughout the world: that inimitable cheese and king of the umami stakes is Parmigiano Reggiano—the inimitable parmesan cheese, popular amongst fine and savvy cooks since the middle ages. You may stinge a little on the other cheeses if you really feel you must—but lavish every cent you can spare to obtain the very best and well-matured parmesan: you will not regret it.
On certain occasions some may wish to incorporate some form of blue cheese, and I have myself been tempted to do this: my advice if you want to indulge in this variant is to add the crumbled blue cheese separately at the very end just before grilling, rather than incorporate it into the impasto which I am about to instruct you to prepare. By keeping the blue cheese separate, you will get the occasional explosion of flavor rather than have the entire concoction tainted with a waft of background blueness: it is not at all pleasant done this way, and I would argue against it.
Fine, we are now about to incorporate the three types of grated cheese into the sauce with much stirring and very little heat. You will use between six and eight ounces of cheese (180-250 grams), roughly in the proportions of three ounces of type one, three ounces of type two and two ounces of parmesan.
The impasto you are stirring is now really too thick, and you may thin it down with Gin—failing a decent Gin, you may use Kirsch, Brandy, or any other dry distilled spirit of your liking. The final paste sould be thick but amalgamated and capable of being spread on your bread. This seems a suitable place in which to deal with some people's reluctance to using alcoholic beverages in cooking. There are a number of alternatives which can range from fruit juices to more exotic ingredients, such as pomegranate molasses or syrup. In addition to a complexity of flavor, one of the essential characteristics is tartness, to achieve a good balance of acidity. In this recipe, I would recommend apple juice: the greener livelier stuff, not so much the brown dead overly preserved varieties—a dash of lemon juice may be a necessary addition if the juice is not tart enough. You will develop a feel for acidity as you become more conscious of its effects on taste. Let experiment be your guide.
Let us now talk of the third and last component of the dish. I use thinly sliced country bread of the Italian or French type. You may use any good bread of sound origins and fairly compact crumb: you don't want your cheesy sauce to leak down through the holes and disappear! So chose your bread, and remember that it is better somewhat stale, since bread that is too fresh will not slice well—nor will it form a good even crispy substrate, which is what you are aiming for.
Place your slices of bread in a medium oven and bake until crisp and a golden color. Remove from the oven and allow to cool until you are able to handle them. The crispy bread and the cheese mix may now be stored for later use: this is a convenient preparation for a later meal or snack. Fire up your grill so that it will be hot to give your savories their final browning, if you are planning to eat them immediately.
Now divide up your cheese impasto equally among your crispy golden bread slices and make sure it is spread right to the edge so that the bread is shielded and does not char under the grill. I suggest you aim for a good half-inch thickness of the cheesy mix on each slice if you like them succulent—a little less if you prefer them dryier.
When you are ready to eat, place the rack with your cheese sauce laden crisp bread slices under the grill and watch them with eagle eye: you will need to remove them as soon as they are a nice golden turning to brown color and bubbling away merrily. If your grill is uneven in its warming effect, it may be helpful to remove your tray or rack half way through and replace it having rotated it so that the part which was at the back is now at the front.
One word of advice: do not serve these savories straight out of the oven, for they will burn your mouth and will not exhibit anything like their true flavour. Instead allow them to rest until they are only warm to the touch. As I take them out of the oven I am unable, at least for those which I will eat, not to splash a decent jigger of Tabasco sauce on each savory, so that while it cools the overly vinegary flavor will mellow to pure hot chili! Serve the savories with very thinly sliced and peeled cucumber which has been purged with salt to draw off the excess water, then dressed simply with good fresh black pepper and a little sour cream: this concoction will refresh your palate and assuage any attacks from the chili sauce! Sprinkle the salad generously with dill or freshly chopped chives. You will discover a new meaning to the word harmony when once you try this combo.
A spicy and aromatic Gewürtztraminer is a lovely wine to accompany these savories as is a good young Viognier with its citrusy and apple aromas. So also are a good fino Sherry, a dry Madeira, a powerful Vernaccia from Sardinia... The choice is yours, but I will try and steer you away from any red wine with the solitary exception of a medium sweet Lambrusco: Red wine will overpower the cheese and in my mind is always a disatrous combination, save with the most powerful of dry sheep cheeses, and even then there are far better combinations. Whoever first floated the barbarous notion of combining red wine with cheese had obviously scorched their palates rather badly before doing so: the inevitably soapy overtones which red wines produce with most cheeses must have been lost on them.
Naturally you need not drink any wine at all, but you may enjoy a suitable cup of tea or even a good coffee better. Apple or unsweetened pineapple juice are also suitable, especially with a good squeeze of lemon juice in them to improve the mouth-cleansing acidity. So much depends on context and circumstance. I leave you, patient reader with a few lines of absurdity, which I hope you will enjoy more for the whimsy and sonority of the words than for any deeper meaning. Bon appétit—for want of an expression in English to express the same wish.
I once came upon an old congealed blob.
It sure was a sight that was very, very odd.
But... to my astonishment, and to my disquiet,
a number of people were attracted to try it.
The blob it was manky, of that there's no doubt,
but the saps that tried it would never say nought.
You gotta hand it to the remnants of cheese,
rankness and cussing will a simple mind please.
A rant and a rave will bamboozle a few,
the rest will succumb to peer pressure—will you?
Rancid cold cheese and crumbs lie in wait,
of all the poor suckers who pick from the plate.
It will toy with their minds, with its rants and its raves,
but ne'er will that sleeze be food for the brave.
So reasoned that mass of expletives, uncouth:
"If I mess with their minds, they'll call it the truth!"
So, many are the folk you can fool once or twice,
But to do it more often, that wouldn't be nice!
I'll leave you to figure the moral of this ditty,
It's clear there's still some who favor the witty.
It is not recommended that you should pick at old random bits of stale remnants from the grill. However, if you do so, you are urged to fight the strangely attractive qualities of stale cheese. Do not feel browbeaten into declaring the rancid morsels good, or even interesting: they are no better than what they seem to be.
Consult Cooking Conversion Table for all your weights and measures queries!