Building A Better Grilled Cheese: Smoky Jalapeño Grilled Cheese with Tomatillos
Pointers (and a recipe) for grilled cheese success
Grilled cheese sandwiches are great any time of the year, but when winter's cruel temperatures and icy winds leave your body craving an extra layer of fat to protect against the chill, they reach a sort of elemental, evolutionary perfection. While the wonders of grilled cheese are hard to resist, the recipe needs some work: the classic blend of Kraft slices and Wonder Bread is transcendent in its own way, but the flavor profile doesn’t quite cut it once your age reaches double digits.
Designing a grown-up grilled cheese is serious business. The first step lies in figuring out a cheese blend that gives you the perfect mix of gooey texture and complicated, layered flavors. However, cheese alone can only get you halfway: flavor-wise, it delivers a little bit of salt and a lot of umami, but it doesn’t have much to offer in terms of sweet or sour. Without these flavors, even the best cheese mix can get a little bland and heavy. This time around, we’re going to look at other options for enhancing the texture and flavor depth of your sandwich – and, in the process, taking your grilled cheese to a whole different level.
Once you’ve got your cheese issues under control, it’s time to branch out to the rest of the market. The idea of adding vegetables to a grilled cheese is nothing new: many a cook has discovered the wonder of a ripe tomato slice tucked in between the traditional American cheese singles. But tomatoes are only the beginning: when it comes to adding texture and a deeper flavor profile to your sandwich, the rest of the produce section beckons.
Pomaceous fruits like apples and pears are a natural place to start. In addition to giving a nice crunch to balance the unctuous texture of cheese, they provide a bit of natural sugar, often paired with a touch of tartness that can cut through the heaviness of your sandwich. For that matter, mangoes, guavas and peaches all add a sweet touch without adding too much liquid. Raspberries, blueberries and pomegranates all add complexity, along with a bit of sugar; on the opposite end of the spectrum, tomatillos can impart a tart tang. In any case, you want to be careful of the amount of liquid that your fruits add, as it can make your bread soggy.
If you’re in the mood for a richer flavor, you might try dried fruits like dates, figs, raisins, prunes or cranberries. Another option is caramelized onions, which are good for texture and a nice, rounded sweetness. They go well with Gruyère or Swiss — as any fan of French onion soup can attest.
If sweet isn’t your thing, you might try fresher onions; for that matter, roasted garlic adds a nutty note, although it won’t do much in terms of perking up the sweetness or sourness of your sandwich. By the same token, sherried mushrooms or lightly roasted asparagus both add texture, richness and umami.
Pickled vegetables also are good in a pinch. Sauerkraut can cut through the heavy taste of cheese, as can pickled jalapeños or pepperoncini peppers. Capers, bread and butter pickles, or pickled green tomatoes can also add complexity and spice.
When it comes to imparting a sweet note without adding texture, most jams and jellies are worth a shot. Apple butter tastes especially great when combined with gjetöst cheese and a touch of smoked gouda. More tart options, like raspberry jam, pair well with milder, gooier cheeses like brie or medium cheddar. Honey can also bring out some interesting flavors, especially when paired with a rich, intense cheese like aged cheddar, asiago or mimolette.
For a sour tang, mustard is a good bet. Or, for something that strikes a rich balance between tart and sweet, Asian options like hoisin sauce, plum sauce or oyster sauce are worth a try. A balsamic vinegar reduction strikes a nice balance between sweet and sour. If you want something fresher-tasting, pomegranate molasses has a similar flavor profile, but a bit fruiter.
If you really want to get some interesting flavor mixes, try enlisting your friends. Few things are simpler to put together than a grilled cheese party. The planning is fairly simple: pick up a couple of your favorite cheeses, add a loaf of bread, raid your refrigerator and invite over a few friends. Tell everyone to bring either a cheese or bread of their choice, then set them loose on your table. Encourage your guests to mix and match flavors by suggesting that everyone eat half their sandwich and share the other half.
In the meantime, here’s a recipe for grilled cheese with jalapeños and tomatillos which highlights some of the ways that you can bring sweet, sour and hot flavors into your sandwich.
- Combine jalapeño, lime juice, cilantro and brown sugar. Mix thoroughly and set aside for at least ten minutes.
- Using the palms of your hands, lightly press the tomatillo slices between two paper towels to draw out the excess liquid. Set aside.
- Sprinkle the cheddar on one of the white bread slices. Drain the jalapenos and cilantro, reserving the lime juice. Sprinkle the jalapeños and cilantro on top of the cheddar cheese. Add the gruyere, followed by the gouda, followed by the tomatillo slices. Put the second slice of bread on top and microwave for twenty seconds to pre-melt the cheese.
- Meanwhile, melt one tablespoon butter in skillet over medium heat. Place the sandwich in the middle of the butter and press on top with a spatula. When the sandwich is flattened, use the spatula (or a butter knife, if you prefer) to spread the remaining butter on top of the sandwich.
- When the bottom half turns a golden color, flip the sandwich. Press down again with the spatula, and fry until the other half is golden brown and the cheese is melted. If necessary, flip the sandwich again to keep it from burning.
- Transfer to a plate and cut in quarters. Brush with the reserved lime juice, or set aside for dipping and serve.
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