A Meditation on Grilled Cheese

Grilled cheese sandwich–oh my.

My fingers are greasy as they strike the keys. I don’t care.

I’m using a separate keyboard, in order to keep the new computer pristine, but am compelled to write as I encounter this sensuous, salty, absolutely satisfying sandwich.

Such a busy morning I didn’t get to eat!  Just drank sweet creamy tea, three sloppy-full tasty mugs of it, to keep me going, as I cleaned the apartment, answered email, and then shopped at the farmers’ market. There amid the musicians, neighbors shouting hello, and underlying mumbles of conversation, fall produce called:  lacinato kale, arugula, carrots and beets, Asian pears, pea shoots, Chinese cabbage, watermelon-striped radishes, kohlrabi, Candy Crisp apples, all spilling sensually out of bins and bags.  I answered the call.

Next to the greens table grinned Marjorie, of Argyle Cheese Farmers.  Five dollar-bills and two quarters later, a tub of basil garlic cheese curds perched on top of the already over-full grocery sacks.

As I stooped to put the package away in the fridge, a quarter-bag of aging rye bread slipped onto the floor. Then a stick of organic butter revealed itself on the top shelf.  Oh my. The makings for an amazing grilled cheese.

Now when I was a kid it was previously-plastic-wrapped American slices on soft wheat lightly swiped with Parkay; obviously, my tastes have changed dramatically since then. But no matter the formula, grilled cheese is a comfort-food for most people. It is warming to the belly, filling, and has that crisp and gooey mouth feel of fat plus starch.

In my childhood, grilled cheese meant mass-production: big pan, two or three grilled-cheeses at once; first, “margarine” the bread (since we didn’t have butter, too expensive), place on the griddle, unwrap the American cheese (usually just one slice per sandwich, two if the family was feeling flush, never three ‘Cuz that’s piggy we were told), place cheese on bread, “margarine” the other piece of bread and top the yet-to-be-flipped sandwich as the first side grills.  Watch so it doesn’t burn, but don’t let hunger press you to flip before it’s at least caramel-colored. Before the turn, squash the whole thing with a spatula, to squeeze it all together and melt the American faster. Flip, grill, and then more ingredients just the same way into the pan, until a stack appears, enough for everyone.

I like food that brings up the past for people, stories they can tell, parts of themselves to reveal.  For example, grilled cheese engenders discussion about “crust or no crust.” Also, how to cut it: two rectangles or four, or two triangles? And what does that present to you, the diner, the devourer; which styling option makes it seem like you have more crust, if that’s what you like? or more squishy middle, if that is your bailiwick?  Do you alternate bites of each?  Whom did you consume grilled cheese with; did you munch it with soup and if so, did you dunk it (not me!) or alternate chewing with slurping?

I think of other grilled cheeses in my past, and the consequences of bad choices. What happens when you don’t let the muenster melt or give the toast time to color? what about when your attention is divided and the cheese spills out and it burns and the bread blackens in the skillet? Or when you over-apply the butter and it’s slippery to the touch? Or let it sit on the plate too long and then steam sogs the center from underneath?

However, there was none of that with today’s grilled cheese sandwich.  It toasted to golden perfection, and was yieldingly soft inside. When I crunched past the edges, the sour rye flour and nuttiness of the caraway seeds and salty butter contrasted with the slightly-tart curds and mouth-watering pungency of the garlic and sweetness of the basil bits–a concoction exquisitely paired with an ice cold glass of Battenkill Valley Creamery chocolate milk, bottled in glass and sold to me as I exited the market hours before.  Thick and creamy-smooth, not quite a shake, I held the milk in my mouth like a fine wine to absorb the aroma through tongue and nose, and alternated sweet chocolate sips with savory bites of sandwich.

Just imagine it. Yum.

So here’s the feeling, when you’ve eaten something so very good–not stuffed yourself, but slowly and wholeheartedly “tucked into it,”–that when you finish, it’s like having run a race, you’re panting with pleasure, amazed that such delight exists in the world and walked into your house and sat down on your plate, begged to be eaten and enjoyed, and you did just that, just now.

Thank heavens for that feeling. Thank heavens for cheese curds and butter and rye bread with caraway seeds.

Thank heavens for grilled cheese.

Just crumbs left, and an empty chocolate milk glass. So tell me about YOUR grilled cheese….

First harvest in my community garden plot

As someone who cooks a lot, for myself and others, I use fair trade, seasonal and local, and/or organic ingredients, whenever possible.   Call me crazy but I just believe in these defining attributes strongly, try hard to find them, and encourage others to prefer them over imported, old, pesticide-covered & water-polluting, factory-farm, long-distance food.

Having said all this, I don’t flog myself when I can’t find them. (Striving for perfection, not necessarily reaching it, right?)

As a city dweller without yard access, my fresh veggies with those descriptors come from the farmers’ market, the local grocery, and in the summer, my community garden plot. “Community garden” just means I grew it myself, or a friend did, in a local shared garden; in the Albany & Schenectady area, that would be part of Capital District Community Gardens.

So for me the literal ground-work of April and planting of May have now yielded July’s bounty—

Basil. Many poetic words have been waxed about its delicious properties, its pungent, fruity addition to dishes. But look how gosh darned pretty it is, coming out of the dark earth, growing hard in the night and day! I can taste the sun in it, taste other seashores and countries. As long as I pinch off the tops to keep it from bolting (flowering), it will continue to give me pesto and Thai-spiced vegetables and lime & basil vinaigrettes all summer.

And nothing like the morning light streaming through red chard….Yes, it got a bit old and spotted before I got to it, so I picked leaf after leaf, and tossed it all into green bags in the fridge until it could be washed properly; yes, I used the fancy salad spinner, rinsed it again and again to get the grit off, spin-spin-spin, and then finally cooked it all down. Mild and wonderful to float in soup or drop into stir-fry, it’s one of the “top ten vegetables” for nutrition. Go chard, you subtle thing, you.

Can I tell you what happens when you plant radish seeds in the ground, water them and then leave town without thinning them? You get a lot of radishes. I ended up with piles and piles of mildly spicy roots popping up out of the ground, mostly red but many pink, and a few exciting purple ones. You’ll see the basil here in the sink too, and a little parsley:  clean flavors to go into my salads.

Finally, this is a picture of my bush beans, before they were beans, back when they were just beautiful pinky-purple flowers. I watered, weeded some, went out of town (see above), came back, and almost missed the long stems of bean, hanging hidden behind leaves. They would have been spotty themselves and over-ripe the next time I came to my plot, if another gardener hadn’t pointed them out to me while I was frantically weeding the nasturtiums and watermelons. The former-flowers now-beans have been turned into Five Bean Salad, complete with parsley picked the same day.

Marinated Five Bean Salad Adapted from  Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, Ten Speed Press, 1977:

¼ cup raw apple cider vinegar and ¼ cup fair trade olive oil

2 tsp salt and some fresh ground pepper

½ tsp oregano and 1-1 ½ tsp basil

1-2 heaping teaspoons of minced garlic

zest (the yellow part of the peel, taken off with a tool handily called a zester) and juice from half a lemon

1 can each of well-rinsed dark kidneys, black beans, great northern beans, garbanzo beans—or whatever else you’ve got. Mollie recommends freshly cooked beans, but it was just too hot this week!

2 heaping handfuls of fresh community garden bush beans, washed and trimmed

½ bunch of community garden parsley, chopped

1 finely minced red onion; maybe 1 1/2 if you like more onion

Mix all the sauce ingredients together. Cook the green beans in a bit of water (1/2 cup to a cup) until tender (5-10 minutes depending on their age and your definition of “tender”; some people like a crunch to beans; others desire complete abdication).  Mix green beans with canned beans and other ingredients in a big bowl.

This version is much lower fat than the original; I wanted to be able to taste the lemon and the different beans’ nuttiness more than just taste and feel the oil; a cup measures roughly 225 calories. Yummy cold or room temperature.