...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

January 08, 2005

The Comfort Lunch

If today isn't a day for the comfort lunch, i don't know what is. Dark clouds, cold rain, wind, hangovers, and the unspoken subtext of impending grade announcements have quieted our little house of mirth here in the Big Valley. Times like this call for - no require - a grilled cheese and tomato soup lunch.

i still remember the afternoon my grandmother (on the German side, the midwestern side) disclosed to me to the secrets of her famous grilled cheese sandwich. She had a big house in the country, with chickens, ducks and bunnies in the back yard, and a big pyramid-shaped strawberry planter in the front.

(A short aside. My grandmother had a vegetable garden too. Besides the usual carrots, cabbage, potatoes, green onions, tomatoes and broccoli, she grew a thing called kohlrabi. It's a relative of the brussels sprout and cabbage family, with a fine German heritage. i must have been about six or seven when she cooked it for me and my brother during one of our weeklong rustic summer holidays (our parents would drop us off to get us out of their hair). i've never had or seen kohlrabi since, but the memory of it is bound tightly with my memories of Grandma and that garden. Now that's a comfort food.)

She also made the best italian salad dressing. But my grandmother's take on the classic grilled cheese was simple, which is as it should be. i've tinkered with it over the years, but the essentials are still there. Assemble these items:

  • two slices of sharp cheddar or muenster cheese

  • two slices of bread, wheat or white or my favorite: dill rye

  • dash of fresh ground pepper

  • dash of cayenne pepper

  • margarine or butter

  • about four thin slices of ham, or bacon
(In a pinch, mayo can be substituted for margarine or butter. Mrs. Dash or another season salt can be substituted for cayenne, if you like.)

It's not about the ingredients, it's about technique.

First spread a thin coat of margarine over one side of each slice of bread. (Grandma always used real butter, of course.) Make sure to spread the margarine out to the edges of the crust. There should be no bare spots. You want the entire side of the bread covered because this will be the side of the bread that gets grilled.

Next lay the bread out, margarine side down, and cover each piece of bread with enough cheese that you can't see any bread underneath. If you're slicing the cheese, it should be medium thickness. Not too thick, but thick enough so some of it will melt out of the sandwich. the cheese will be doing two things here: enveloping the meat, and occasionally dripping onto the grill to create bits of fried cheesy crusty goodness.

Arrange whatever meat you're using on top of one piece of bread. The proper technique at this step is to create air pockets in the meat (if you're using thin sliced ham) for the cheese to melt into. i bunch up the ham into little flowerets to achieve this purpose. The ham should never be laid flat, because that just makes for a boring sandwich.

Now heat a nonstick pan until little drops of water splashed from your fingertips dance happily for a moment before evaporating. Keep the pan on medium heat. This recipe is not recommended for electric stovetops, because temperature control is the key to a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

You might want to start the soup now. Campbell's tomato soup should be heated to a simmer, but never boiled. i like to add a half can of water only, although the instructions call for a whole can. Sometimes i'll mix in a dash of white pepper, and i garnish it with a sprinkle of dried oregano.

Back to the sandwich: sprinkle fresh ground pepper and cayenne pepper over the slice of bread with cheese on it, then carefully flip that slice over onto the slice with the ham. When the pan is ready, slap the sandwich down onto it making a "thwump" sound. It should immediately start to sizzle. The "thwump" and the sizzle are important; it's part of the whole comfort thing.

Do not leave the stove, while cooking. You need to peek under the sandwich and check its color constantly. A side is done when it's golden brown and speckled, never black. The pan should be hot enough to melt the cheese thoroughly, but not burn the bread. Too low, and you get a soggy sandwich. Too hot and it gets black on the outside before the cheese in the middle melts. Adjust the flame as needed.

Grilling the sandwich right is a slow and loving process. The perfect medium temperature is achieved with practice, when the globs of cheese reach down and begin frying on the pan at the exact moment that the first side is the perfect color, you have mastered the art of the grilled cheese.

After flipping, grill the other side until it's golden color matches the first side. Now for the fun part. Slide that baby onto a plate and, before eating, spread a thin coat of real horseradish (not cream sauce) over one side. Slice diagonally, park yourself on your favorite couch near your favorite coffee table, cuddling in your favorite comfort blanket, flip on the TV tuned to HGTV or some other favorite comfort program, and enjoy with soup.

Update: Here's a switch; i post a recipe, while the multi-talented Candace posts a poem!

Update 2: SWG brings us another grilled comfort food, for Elvis Day.

Posted by annika, Jan. 8, 2005 |
Rubric: Arts



I can't really think of a specific comfort food I pull out for official occasions, but I can think of a specific comfort food instance:

5th grade. Football game on a cold, wet, windy, miserable day. We got beat pretty good, and I got into a fight just after the final whistle(totally wasn't my fault!). The opposing coach ran out and body slammed me away from his kid(who I was fighting), and I rolled onto the wet ground(again, for about the 50th time that day).

As I lay in the mud, I was completely cold, wet, muddied, grass-stained, miserable, defeated, adrenalized from the fight, and generally rattled from being body slammed by a full-grown adult-- to the point where the tears were freely flowing.

First, my Mom charged off the sidelines and gave that Coach the what-for. This was notable, as this was not her usual behavior.

Second, when we got home, by the time I got showered and into some dry clothes, she had cooked me a steak(such a treat!), which I enjoyed at the table in our toasy warm kitchen. That was a COMFORTING meal. She was my hero for that day.

Posted by: gcotharn on Jan. 8, 2005

One more thing-- which is the fun thing about memory:

If you've every paid attention to a football fight, you know its hard for either participant to really hurt the other guy, due to the equipment each is wearing.

As I wrote the above, I thought about the brief fight after that 5th grade game. Whether its true or not, in my memory: I WAS KICKING THAT GUY'S ASS!

Posted by: gcotharn on Jan. 8, 2005

Fuck, that's an entire cooking channel episode. My variations are slight. I love Orowheat's Rosemary and Garlic bread. There are real chunks of garlic in it. And, NOTHING, NOTHING, can be substituted for butter.

Kohlrabi? Visit the vegtable section of almost any grocery store.

Posted by: Casca on Jan. 8, 2005

MAN. I just finished dinner and was feeling completely sated 'till I read this. Now I really want a grilled cheese sandwich. THANKS A LOT!

No, seriously, maybe that'll be lunch tomorrow. This recipe looks really good.

Posted by: lorie on Jan. 8, 2005

Are you competing for best food blog? :)

Posted by: Ontario Emperor on Jan. 8, 2005

That is just perfect!

You've got me salivating for a grilled cheese sandwich and Campbells tomato soup in a big way. :)

I have to try that sometime. That's the fanciest grilled cheese sandwich I've heard of.

Posted by: Desert Cat on Jan. 8, 2005

Oh, even with my cold, I am hungry now...

Posted by: Hugo on Jan. 9, 2005