Grilled cheese, please
April is National Grilled Cheese Month. Wow, like we really need a reason to eat cheese and bread, right?
Then again, comfort food means something different to everyone. For some, it is ice cream or a good, greasy hamburger or, possibly, momma’s spaghetti and meatballs or grandpa’s spicy steak chili. For me, it has to be cheese. Oh, and bread.
I take every opportunity possible to indulge in really good cheese, really good bread, or both of them, preferably at the very same time. I can hardly remember a day after school while growing up when I didn’t bang through the front door and rush into the kitchen scouring the kitchen for a snack. Y’all know my mom didn’t stock the cupboards with goodies that a kid would ever want; a handful of raisins or a loaded spoonful of crunchy Peter Pan peanut butter was about all there was. Although, there was always a loaf of healthy whole-wheat sandwich bread and those plastic-wrapped, bright orange slices of American cheese. Those were the fixin’s for what I considered the ideal grilled cheese back then, and still sorta do.
I still believe the very best grilled cheeses keep the fillings to a minimum — just a few scant slices of good melting cheese, and bread that is soft and simple, not too fancy. My most heavenly grilled cheeses, to this day, require a side of something tomato-ey or fruity, something sort of acidic to dip it into; something to brighten up my mouth, to cut into all of that cheese and butter. Back then, good old Heinz ketchup was my go-to dipper, maybe some sour dill pickle spears on the side. Now, I adore a little cup of good tomato soup, spiced tomato or fruit chutney, or just that store-bought ketchup for the sake of nostalgia.
Because Sonoma County just so happens to be home to some of the most beautiful, handcrafted cheeses and stunning loaves of artisan breads, it is no wonder that there are a ridiculous quantity of to-die-for grilled cheeses to be had in and around town. I would love to hear where you like to go to satisfy your craving for the classic, comforting combination of melted cheese and bread. Here are a few of my favorite spots to indulge in my childhood favorite.
the girl and the fig. A simple combination of beautiful ingredients makes the girl and the fig’s ooey gooey, cheesy sandwich one of the most beloved lunch options in the Valley. West County’s St. George cheese from the Matos family softens into a rich, insanely creamy, slightly tangy mess. The tomato confit satisfies my craving for sweet acidity in the most scrumptious way, a total treat, especially with the massive pile of super crispy shoestring fries that arrives alongside.
Fremont Diner. Four Vella cheeses and what I think is a bit of woody herb – sage? – are griddled between soft, white Pullman bread, on the Fremont’s wonderfully greased-up flat top doused luxuriously in sweet butter. Left to toast until the outside is just perfectly on the brink of burnt, this sammy is always presented in a golden state of toasted, cheesy happiness. At times during the year, usually along with the cold, wet rains of winter, a thick mug of rich tomato soup is the thoughtful accompaniment. A tangle of vinegar-soaked, housemade fennel pickles are always happily tucked on the side.
Pearl’s Diner. When in the mood for the truest version of the childhood classic, I head to Pearl’s for their wonderfully un-fancy, utterly delicious version. Soft sourdough sandwich bread cradles simple, not-too-sharp cheddar cheese, warmed to a golden brown and served unceremoniously. The pure, unfussy sandwich is comfort at its best, especially dipped in that good old Heinz tomato ketchup.
The best grilled cheese: a definitive guide
A grilled cheese is a grilled cheese, right? Well, amazingly, something as incredibly simple as warmed cheese and bread can be oh-so-good, but also when not done correctly, it can be downright icky. Too much cheese and it just won’t melt right. If the bread is too thick or too thin, your ratio of cheese to bread will just be all wrong. I have scoured hints from my favorite resources to ensure the most perfect, cheesiest, meltiest grilled cheese ever. Here they are:
A grilled cheese doesn’t work with just any old cheese. You’ve got to have a cheese with just the right melting characteristics. Dry, crumbly, fresh cheeses like goat cheese won’t melt properly. Ditto for overly aged cheeses like a parmesan or hard Pecorino. For the true classic flavor, nothing is better than ultra-gooey, not-too-sharp American cheese. I personally use Kraft Deli Deluxe Singles. Honestly. But, if you want to get fancy, follow the wisdom of my favorite local chefs and seek out St. George from Matos Dairy, Vella Toma, or a favorite of mine, imported Italian Tallegio. When at all possible, it’s best to go with sliced cheese as opposed to grated. It is easier to distribute evenly, is less prone to making odd holes in the interior of your sandwich, and melts better, and anyway, many of the best melting cheeses are too soft to grate effectively.
The number one rule here is that your bread can’t be too hole-y. Your cheese will drip out! It also can’t be sliced too thick, lest your cheese won’t melt. A nice, soft white Pullman — I love Della Fattoria’s version — or a large round sourdough like the one from Basque Boulangerie work best.
Low and slow is the way to go with grilled cheese. Not so slow that the bread dehydrates, but slow enough that you can achieve a thick, even, golden brown crust on each side before the sandwich starts to burn. Use a heavy pan. A non-stick pan is easy, but a cast iron skillet is my favorite for all over golden brown goodness. Make sure to use enough butter so that it really forms a good layer of contact with the bread. Butter does more than add fat and flavor, it provides a medium through which heat is distributed. If you don’t use enough butter, you’ll get spotty browning. Plus, it just won’t be as tasty. One of the most interesting methods I have seen says to grill the bread on both sides in plenty of butter, then flip them over so that the browned sides are facing up, add your cheese, and close your sandwich so that the cheese is sandwiched between the browned surfaces. Not only will this get you better tasting bread infused with more butter, but it’ll also give your cheese a head start on getting extra-melty. Voila. Butter, bread, cheese. Mass quantities of gooey cheesy yumminess.
Kristin’s foodie event pick: National Grilled Cheese Day
Celebrate National Grilled Cheese Day on April 12 with St. Francis Winery and the girl & the fig. St. Francis Winery is launching its Third Annual Gourmet Grilled Cheese Contest on National Grilled Cheese Day, April 12. To help kick off the contest, St. Francis has teamed up with the girl & the fig’s Sondra Bernstein and John Toulze to host a special Grilled Cheese Pop-Up event at St. Francis Winery and Vineyards from 2-3 p.m. on Saturday, April 12. Visitors will enjoy grilled cheese-tomato confit sandwiches paired with St. Francis wines. For more information visitlocalwineevents.com/events/detail/528596/ or call 415.392.2212.