As the days grow shorter, my cooking leans toward comfort. Be forewarned, I like my comfort food with a bit of flair and plenty of warm cheese.
Freshly shredded, it improves any macaroni and cheese. Vegetable and bean soups come into their own with a garnish of grated hard cheese. Even hot dogs taste better stuffed with cheese wrapped in bacon and grilled. A grilled cheese sandwich, made with hearty bread and sweet butter always satisfies.
A cheesy, Monte Cristo sandwich, relished on my first trip to Manhattan many years ago, proves the culprit for this cheesy penchant. Layered, buttered and battered, then sprinkled with sugar, this was not my mother’s grilled cheese. Later, a Parisian anniversary trip yielded my first croque-monsieur, the griddled French Gruyere cheese and ham snack that started a sandwich revolution.
I’ve been playing around with the combination of bread and cheese ever since, from weekday quesadillas to a friend’s inspired meatless version of the classic Reuben. My favorite rendition of croque-monsieur involves a smear of a cheesy white sauce, aka bechamel, enriched with cream cheese and riddled with fresh herbs. Local soft cheeses, diminutive pretzel loaves and whole grain mustards never fail to inspire sandwiches perfectly suited to casual dinners with friends.
The keys to success prove few: Freshly shredded or sliced cheese, good bread, sweet butter, a heavy nonstick griddle. If you have a panini press, great. Or, flip the waffle iron plates to the smooth side. A hot oven will help keep sandwiches crisp.
Gruyere’s nutty flavor and melting qualities make it the ideal cheese for melting goodness. Likewise French Comte. Among domestic cheeses, fontina or Muenster have mild flavors and textures that turn pleasingly gooey when heated.
For the bread, I prefer to purchase unsliced, whole-grain loaves at my local farmers market or bakery. Then, a serrated knife makes quick work of cutting 1/2-inch thick slices. I also enjoy croque-monsieurs on torpedo-shaped pretzel rolls and soft Mexican teleras. Ciabatta rolls work, too, albeit they are a bit chewy. Sliced brioche bread tastes great and crisps beautifully.
A croque-monsieur includes ham — Black Forest or Westphalian hams have rich, smoky flavor and add a toothsome, meaty texture to any grilled cheese sandwich. Other options include sliced deli ham or ham-off-the-bone. I like Trader Joe’s sliced oven-roasted rosemary ham in combination with this herbaceous white sauce.
Chunks of smoked salmon, turkey or chicken can stand in for the ham. Or, make it a vegetarian treat, and use grilled sliced eggplant (or more cheese!). Sliced tomatoes taste great in the sandwich but tend to make everything more moist and more difficult to cook. If using, slice the tomatoes thinly and pat them dry. FYI, I’d never say no to a fried egg and a shower of fresh herbs on top of any grilled cheese concoction.
Our friends in the U.K. served up their meatless Reuben sandwiches after a day of hilly biking in the countryside. Like a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with fresh sauerkraut, it’s perfect on a cool day. Use a super-dense whole-grain bread or a hearty rye for a crusty, toothsome treat.
Serve hot cheesy sandwiches with sides that counter the richness, such as sharp pickles and/or a green salad tossed with balsamic vinaigrette. Then consider yourself comforted.
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Cheesy white sauce (see note):
- 1-1/2 tablespoons each: butter, flour
- 3/4 cup skim or whole milk
- 1/4 cup reduced-fat cream cheese, softened
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh chives or green onion tops
- 1/8 teaspoon each, finely chopped or dried: rosemary, thyme
- 1/8 teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground pepper
- 12 ounces Gruyere, Comte, fontina or Muenster cheese (rind removed)
- 8 slices, each about 1/2-inch thick, hearty whole grain bread
- 12 ounces thinly sliced, ham
- 3 tablespoons butter, melted
- Whole grain mustard
- Small or sliced pickles
Note: The white sauce can be made a day or two in advance.
For the white sauce, put butter and flour into a small saucepan. Set over medium heat; stir until smooth and melted. Gradually whisk in milk until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cream cheese, chives, herbs, salt and pepper. Let cool.
For the sandwiches, use the large holes on a 4-sided box grater to shred the cheese. Lay the 8 slices of bread out on a work surface. Spread one side of each with about 1 tablespoon of the sauce. Top 4 of the slices each with a quarter of the shredded cheese. Top each with a quarter of the ham slices. Place a dressed slice of bread on top to make a sandwich. Smear the tops of the sandwiches with a little melted butter. Flip the whole sandwich and spread with more melted butter. Sandwiches can be assembled an hour or so in advance; cover tightly with plastic wrap.
Heat the oven to 200 degrees F, and place a baking sheet in the oven. Heat a panini press or a large nonstick griddle over medium heat until hot. If not using a panini press, also heat a cast-iron skillet over medium until hot. (You’ll use the hot bottom to press the sandwich.)
Spray the hot cooking surface, and add the sandwiches, working in batches as needed to accommodate your equipment. If using the griddle, set the heated skillet on top of the sandwiches to compact them a bit. Cook until cheese is melty and bread is nicely golden and crisp, 5 to 6 minutes. Turn sandwiches so they cook evenly; if not using a panini press, flip them to crisp the other side. Transfer the sandwiches to the baking sheet in the hot oven until ready to serve.
To serve, cut the sandwiches in half. Put onto heated serving plates. Accompany with a small dish of whole grain mustard and the pickles.
Makes 4 servings.
Serve these tangy, cheesy sandwiches with “crisps,” aka potato chips.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 6 minutes
- 8 ounces fresh sauerkraut, preferably refrigerated, not canned
- 3 tablespoons softened butter
- 4 slices hearty rye bread
- 4 slices Swiss cheese
- 3 tablespoons Thousand Island dressing
- Nonstick cooking spray for high heat
- Dill pickles
Put sauerkraut into a strainer and rinse under cool water for a few minutes. Drain well; pat with paper towels to remove excess moisture.
Spread about 2 teaspoons butter on each of 2 slices of bread. Top each buttered slice with half of the drained sauerkraut. Top each with half of the cheese. Spread the dressing evenly on the other two slices of the bread. Place on top of the cheese to make a sandwich.
Heat a nonstick griddle or skillet over medium heat until hot. Spray the griddle, and then add the remaining butter. As soon as it melts, add the sandwiches. Reduce heat, if needed, to cook the sandwiches until the bread is golden and crisp, about 3 minutes. Press down on the sandwiches while they grill to compact them a bit. Use a spatula to gently flip the sandwiches; toast the other side. Cook until cheese is hot and melty, 2 to 3 minutes more. Add a little more spray or butter if the pan seems dry.
Transfer sandwiches to a cutting board; cut in half on the diagonal. Serve hot with dill pickles.
Makes 2 servings.
Dinner at Home is a Tribune News Service column from JeanMarie Brownson, a former Tribune test kitchen director and current culinary director for Frontera Foods and Frontera Media Productions. She has co-authored three cookbooks with Rick Bayless, including “Mexico -- One Plate at a Time,” winner of the James Beard Foundation’s International Cookbook Award.