Cheats, Lies, and Hucksters (How to Cook a God Damned Grilled Cheese Sandwich)

As a kid, learning to cook a fried egg and bologna sandwich is like teaching me how to load a gun without establishing any safety guidelines. While the combination of griddled bread, egg yolk, mayonnaise, seared bologna, and American cheese is white trash foie gras, perfecting the fried bologna without having made a grilled cheese, well, it is Picasso without a Blue Period, Miles Davis having composed no song book before Bitches Brew. There is no reference and no history, a drifting ship with no anchor. At the time, I didn’t understand the damage done by using the cliff notes without ever reaching for the novel.

But here we are, in that time of year when we think about grilled cheese. It is the age old discussion, as if we forgot the combination to the safe and it needs to be cracked again, of how to cheat a grilled cheese. As if the answers locked away are new kinds of offerings; in a waffle maker, with an iron, use mayonnaise instead of butter, or turn a toaster on its side.

So I am just going to say it, I am tired of hucksters and cheats. It pains me to be over sold or even worse, blatantly lied too. I am not putting myself on a pedestal, far be it from me to cast stones, I am no practicing perfectionist and neither am I an Elmer Gantry. I have my faults and I try to be honest about them. Even so, when I witness an egregious wrong I can’t keep my mouth shut. After all, I can’t have my children wondering around this world thinking they will be able to succeed without ever learning the fundamentals. It happens everywhere and now, of all arenas, the kitchen is under attack.

Why can’t we just learn to cook a god damned grilled cheese? What are we afraid of, actually learning how to cook? There are so many basics to be learned by placing a sauté pan onto the stove to griddle two pieces of bread with cheese stuck in between and yet at all costs we try to avoid it. I don’t care what kind of cheese is put between the slices of bread, I don’t even care what kind of bread you use but I do care that you know how the different kinds of bread are going to react to the heat, that types of bread with more sugars and fats are going to brown faster then lean breads made with nothing more then water, flour, and yeast. Or that certain kinds of cheese are so stringy when you go to take the first bite every bit of the cheese is going to come along with it.

Cheats and shortcuts are wonderful but only after you know how to cook the original dish in the tried and true fashion, only after you have mastered the grilled cheese is it okay to riff on it. If you ignore, or fail to recognize, the subtle nuances of cooking you can follow a recipe to the T and still have it fail. It is because there are so many variables that can lead you down the path to disappointment that it becomes imperative to learn how to cook, which is wildly different from simply following a recipe.

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Grilled Cheese Sandwich (makes 2 sandwiches)

4 slices Pullman bread
1 1/2 cups gruyere cheese, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon green onion, minced
a splash of heavy cream
fresh ground black pepper
unsalted butter, softened

1. Combine the grated gruyere, horseradish, green onions, and a splash cream in a medium sized bowl. Add a grind or two of fresh ground black pepper. Mix everything with a spoon to combine.

2. Place a 12-inch sauté pan over medium heat. Liberally butter one side of each of the pieces of bread making sure to cover the whole surface. Place the bread, buttered side down into the pan. Top each piece with one quarter of the cheese mixture. Turn the heat to medium low.

3. Once the cheese begins to compress and soften check the bottom of the bread. If it is browning to fast turn the heat down. Once the bread is browned and the cheese melted put the sandwiches together. Cut the sandwiches into 4 crusty cheese sticks and serve.

 

A Classic Potato Gratin With No Recipe

 

Have you ever had a friend who knows no strangers? The kind of genuine person to whom everyone in the room gravitates — someone who doesn’t have to work at meeting new people, because somehow it is coded into their DNA for others to like them?

For me a potato gratin is just such a friend. A friend who hangs out with all the cool entrees too: a mustard crusted beef tenderloin  taking a bath in a flavorful sauce or a perfectly roasted chicken with crackly brown skin are its best friends.

But, to its credit, a potato gratin knows enough to complement all the other dishes and, with the exception of a few rules, remains unfussy enough not to need a recipe and somehow is always perfectly put together for any holiday gathering.

How to Make Potato Gratin Without a Recipe

1. Peel your potatoes. For a 10-inch oval gratin pan, I like to use six to eight medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes — about 2 1/2 pounds. (Don’t worry: If you overdo it, you can snack on leftovers after step 6.)

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2. Slice the potatoes an 1/8-inch thick, ideally on a mandoline right into a heavy bottomed pot. Add a few minced cloves of garlic, about a teaspoon of salt, and roughly equal parts of water and milk to cover the potatoes.

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3. Bring it to a gentle boil over medium heat and cook the potatoes till just tender but not falling apart, then drain. By cooking the potatoes most of the way through in flavorful liquid, you don’t have to worry about exact quantities of liquid and seasoning later on.

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4. While the potatoes are cooling, grate approximately 2 1/2 cups of Gruyère or Comté cheese — they are traditional but expensive. Other cheese in the family would be gouda, fontina, or American Gruyère.

Potato Gratin

5. Get out an oval gratin, or any casserole, pie pan or dish you choose. Just take note: with a smaller circumference dish you have more creamy interior and less crunchy top and, obviously, the reverse is true for a larger gratin. Place around half the potatoes into the gratin (they don’t need to look pretty, yet). Season with salt and white pepper. Top with half the cheese and drizzle about 1/2 cup of cream over the top.

Potato Gratin

6. Starting with one slice of potato placed in the middle of the gratin, spiral the potatoes around until you reach the gratin edges. Make it look pretty — it makes a difference.

Potato Gratin

7. Top with the remaining cheese, then drizzle another 1/2 cup or so of cream over the top and around the edges so it gets to the bottom, too.

Potato Gratin

8. Bake at 425˚ F until brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Don’t overcook the gratin so it dries out. You want a little cream to remain on the bottom. Serve.

Potato Gratin