Saturday, March 30, 2013

Remy's Ratatouille

Check out this recipe on my new and improved website:

As I watched the Pixar movie Ratatouille to do some "research" for this week's recipe, I couldn't help but get teary eyed. I'm a sucker for a good underdog story, and Remy, the rat who wants to be a chef, is most definitely an underdog. The poor little guy has such a gift and has to battle prejudices to simply do what he loves. While the rat/cooking metaphor might not work for everyone, can't we all sympathize with someone who is told they can't do something because of something they can't change? Sex, race, physical ability... this is only the start of a cumbersome list of ways that people are held down. Ratatouille serves as a reminder that when given a chance, people (and rodents) can do extraordinary things. To honor this message, I made Remy's Ratatouille this week.

About Ratatouille
Ratatouille is a French dish from Nice, and it is considered a "peasant food," basically meaning that it is simple to find the ingredients and inexpensive to make. With only four main ingredients-- eggplant, tomato, squash/zucchini, and bell pepper-- and a touch of olive oil, this dish comes from the French word touiller, which means to toss. Ratatouille is typically sautéed and served as a side dish or stew. Over time, people have added and omitted things based on their preference, just like with all classic dishes.

That brings us to the movie version, which maintains the integrity of the ingredients while changing up the "touille" part. For those of you who have not seen Ratatouille (SPOILER ALERT), the protagonist rat Remy reimagines the peasant dish, making it elegant and refined, and ultimately beating the odds to realize his dreams and win over a haughty food critic. Chef Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Per Se) was consulted during the creation of the film in order to guide the crew through the dynamics of a professional kitchen and how food is prepped, cooked, plated, and served. He also provided the revamped Raratouille recipe, actually called Confit Byaldi. If you are familiar with Keller and his recipes, you will first notice the relative simplicity of this dish. This video has some words from Keller about his role in the movie.

Regardless of the chosen method of preparation or supplementary ingredients, the key to Ratatouille is to have wonderfully fresh ingredients. Like in a well-balanced orchestra, where neither flutes nor tubas should dominate, the vegetables in a good Ratatouille should work harmoniously.

Choosing the Recipe
My parents were in town this week (woooo hooooo!), and both of them have been diligent with their Weight Watchers Points Plus program. I don't know a ton about the new Points Plus system, but I do know that keeping food relatively low in fat, low in carbs, high in protein, and high in fiber is their guide to sensible eating. I decided to browse my Master Plan List for a recipe that would compliment those dietary choices... there weren't many! However, Ratatouille was on the list and I knew I could work with an all-veggie dish, add a baked piece of fish, and I would be in the WW happy zone.

Ratatouille, in modern days, brings the Pixar movie to most of our minds, and I was no exception. After crying my way through the film (Remy's big, innocent mouse eyes made me gush), I knew I had to make Remy's version of the dish. As I mentioned before, it is actually called Confit Byaldi (there is not touiller involved whatsoever), but I will just call it Remy's Ratatouille (it sounds way cuter).

A little rat with big dreams
Memorizing the Recipe
I knew from the get-go that my version of Remy's Ratatouille would be a little more like the cartoon and a little less like Thomas Keller's Confit Byaldi. With hosting my parents, I didn't want to pick anything overly complex or onerous. They didn't travel across the country to see me stressing out because my home-cooked meal is not of French Laundry caliber. Nevertheless, there are three main components to the dish that I wanted to include: a piperade (pepper and tomato sauce) that goes in the bottom of the pan, the thin-sliced vegetables, and the vinaigrette for the top. All three of them needed to be present for the dish to come together.

The Verdict
Although Remy's Ratatouille was labor intensive (amazing that a rat could pull it off!), it was well worth the effort to produce this fresh, healthy, beautiful side dish. While the thin-sliced vegetables made the bulk of the dish pretty mild in flavor, the coming together of the balsamic, oil, and piperade at the bottom of the pan created an explosion of flavors that I could have eaten by itself or put on top of pasta. It had acidity, a little fat, and a warm, slow-cooked meltiness to it that I can't imagine acquiring any other way than by baking it low and slow. Served with some flounder and a Brussels sprout salad, the meal was a lovely, simple delight. And if you are looking for a healthy party piece, the fanned vegetables are a beauty to behold.

The Recipe
Remy's Ratatouille (aka Confit Byaldi)
adapted from The New York Times, courtesy of Thomas Keller
Yield: 8 side servings

Piperade Ingredients:

  • 1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
  • 1/2 orange bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
  • 3 Roma (plum) tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely diced
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 sprig flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 bay leaf

Vegetable Ingredients:

  • 2 Japanese eggplants
  • 2 yellow squash
  • 2 zucchini
  • 4 Roma (plum) tomatoes
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Vinaigrette Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • chopped fresh herbs (I used parsley and dill)
  • salt and pepper


  • Preheat oven to 450°F.
  • Line a baking sheet with foil. Place bell pepper halves cut-side down on the foil and bake for 15-20 minutes, until skin begins to blister and separate from the pepper flesh. Remove from heat and let cool. Lower the oven to 250°F. Once the peppers are cool, scrape the skin off and discard. Chop the pepper flesh into a fine dice.
  • Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut an X shape into the top of three tomatoes (about 1/4 inch deep). Once the water is boiling, place the three tomatoes in the boiling water, one at a time, for 20 seconds each. Remove carefully and place into a bowl of cold water. Once the tomatoes have cooled, remove the skin with your fingers and discard. Cut the peeled tomatoes in half, squeeze their juices into a bowl, and set juice aside. Chop the tomatoes as fine as possible.
  • While the peppers are roasting and the water for tomatoes is coming to a boil, slice the zucchini and squash using a mandoline (or making the slices ridiculously thin with a knife). Slice the eggplant and the remaining four tomatoes as thin as possible with your chef's knife. About 1/16 inch is ideal. If you have a mandoline that can slice an eggplant and tomatoes, feel free to use it! Mine did not work for them because of the skin. Toss all the slices with 2 tbsp olive oil and some salt and pepper.
  • Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, and herbs and cook until soft, about four minutes.
  • Add the bell pepper, tomato, tomato juice, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium-low heat until most of the liquid is gone from the pan, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the herbs.
  • Spread the piperade (pepper and tomato mixture) into the bottom of an oven-safe serving pan. You may use a casserole, an 8" stainless steel skillet, or any other dish you have that works for you. Just don't make it too large-- the surface area should be about 50 square inches (in round dishes, A=πr^2 and in rectangular dishes A=l*w).
  • Arrange your sliced vegetables on top of the piperade, alternating vegetables in a pattern (I used eggplant, yellow squash, tomato, then zucchini) and keeping them upright like dominoes. Once you work your way around the edge of the dish, fill in the middle with another round (if there is space) or arrange them like a star. Take a look at my picture, or see this video clip for animated details (don't watch it if you don't want the movie ending given away!)

  • Place foil over the top of your cooking dish and seal by crumpling the foil around the edge. Place in the low-heat oven (250°F) for 1.5-2 hours.
  • Combine vinaigrette ingredients and beat together with a fork until emulsified (oil and vinegar united as one).
  • Remove the foil and place the pan under the broiler until lightly browned.
  • Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve hot.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Clams in Spicy Coconut-Lime Sauce

Check out this recipe on my new and improved website:

My favorite thing about clams is that they wear so many hats.
No-- not that kind of hat. But they do relate to so many parts of life! For some, clams evoke memories of spending summer days by the ocean. For others, clams serve as a reminder of what they learned about in biology about the evolution of living organism (something that I have completely forgotten). For yet another group, they conjure up thoughts about an amazing dinner (pasta alle vognole, anyone?). No matter what comes to mind when you think of clams, it's hard to deny that they make a lovely meal. This week I cooked fresh clams for the first time, using Asian flavors like ginger and coconut milk as a broth.

About Clams
Clams are shellfish (hence the shell), and in the US seafood industry they are usually classified based on size and region.

The first main division is between soft-shell and hard-shell clams. Soft-shell clams look quite similar to a hard-shell clam, but the shell is significantly more fragile. Not to be confused with soft-shell crabs, the shells of these molluscs should not be eaten.

Hard-shell clams are more common because there are so many more types. Reluctant Gourmet has a fantastic summary of clam varieties: size, coast, and methods of preparation.

A big thing to consider when cooking clams is that you need a reputable source for them. Please-- please don't get them from a grungy market because they are on sale. Clams are called filter feeders, meaning they hang out on the bottom of the ocean floor and filter in and out all the stuff that comes their way. Without scaring anyone away from trying clams, just be sure that "stuff" doesn't get into your meal. I'll explain the cleaning process along with the recipe.

Scrub before you soak, rinse after you soak.
This eliminates all the grit. Read on for more.

Choosing the Recipe
Since my priority with this recipe was to memorize how to cook clams rather than memorize a specific recipe, I had a lot of flexibility. My first instinct was to do a clam pizza or pasta alle vognole, but I couldn't help but want to branch out. I knew that I wanted to serve the dish with the clams still in their shell but accompanied by something hearty (carbs, basically), and I wanted some strong flavors to go with it. I flipped through my cookbooks and searched online and eventually found a recipe on Epicurious that made me smile: Clams in Spicy Coconut-Lime Sauce. Perfect! I could leave the clams in their shells, serve it on some wonderfully sticky rice, and rest on the strong and complimentary ingredients such as coconut, lime, jalapeño, and ginger.

Memorizing the Recipe
I never knew that preparing clams would be so simple! Since this week's recipe emerged from a desire to have an idea of what to do with fresh clams, the memorized part was almost too easy. Clean, tap, put over heat with some liquid, cover, and seven minutes later you have a lovely seafood dish. I didn't mess with shucking this time around. If the clams were going to be kind enough to open right up for me, I'd take the favor.

As for the actual recipe, I completely botched the shopping list and forgot jalapeño and fresh ginger. Oops. I made a few substitutions (listed in the recipe with the ingredients) and found that cayenne pepper and powdered ginger did the trick to add some spice and zest. Next time I think I'll use the original ingredients.

Step 1: Cook shallots & spices
Step 2: Add liquid
Step 3: Add clams, cover, and boil 7 minutes
Step 4: Keep opened clams & add blanched veggies

The Verdict
This was definitely the first time I have ever cooked a living creature. I'm not usually one to mess with others' lives, but I may have found my exception (further exceptions, like mussels, will probably be coming). It is just too simple. The cleaning process, even though I had to shorten the soaking time a little bit, was a success; I only encountered one gritty clam, and none of my roommates did. The clams were delicious with the slightly sweet, slightly spicy, warm broth (it was more brothy than saucy, in my opinion), and adding snowpeas to the pot made the meal nice and balanced. The dish had protein, carbs, and veggies, we had fruit for dessert, and my dairy came from the excess of cheese that I ate throughout the week. It made my roommate's top five recipes list, though he is biased due to his Bostonian origins. Including soaking time and prep, the meal took 40 minutes to prepare. With a couple of large pots, it would be easy to double or triple the recipe too.

4 simple liquids for the sauce

The Recipe
Clams in Spicy Coconut-Lime Sauce
adapted from Epicurious, with cleaning instructions adapted from The Kitchn
Yield: 4 servings

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3 large shallots, chopped
  • 1 tbsp chopped peeled fresh ginger or 1 tsp powdered ginger
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 2 lbs littleneck clams
  • 1 1/2 cups bottled clam juice
  • 1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 cup diced canned tomatoes with juices
  • 1 jalapeño chile, seeded and chopped, or 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp lime zest
  • 3 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 lb snow peas
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeds removed and julienned
  • 2/3 cup salt (for cleaning)
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal (for cleaning)
  • Scrub clams shells with a stiff brush under cool running water.
  • If any shells are open, tap them against a hard surface. If they don't close shut, discard them.
  • Examine each shell, discarding any extra beard hairs and any cracked or damaged shells.
  • Place in a bowl of cool water so the water is about 1 inch higher than the clams.
  • Add 2/3 cup of salt and 1/2 cup cornmeal for every 8 cups of water and mix around.
  • Let sit for about 1 hour. 
  • Remove clams with a slotted spoon, tongs, or your hand, and place in a colander. Give them a final rinse with cool water.
  • After your final rinse, the clams are ready to cook.
  • Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the snow peas, blanch for one minute, drain, and immediately place in extremely cold water. Let sit for two minutes, drain, and set to the side.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.
  • Add chopped shallots and saute for about three minutes, until tender.
  • Add ginger and turmeric and stir for one minute.
  • Add clams, clam juice, coconut milk, tomatoes with their juices, jalapeño or cayenne pepper, and lime zest and bring to a boil.
  • Cover and cook until clams open, about 7 minutes. Discard any clams that don't open.
  • Stir in lime juice, snow peas, and bell pepper and sprinkle with green onions. Serve over sticky white rice.
I recommend having tongs and a large spoon available for serving
so guests can take out the clams they want and get the flavorful broth

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Swordipán" - Grilled Swordfish Sandwich with Argentinean Chimichurri

Check out this recipe on my new and improved website:

Chimichurri has always eluded me a bit... it's green, it's fresh and tangy, it's from South America (Argentina/Uruguay), and it's a... marinade? A sauce? A condiment? This week I set out to find some of the most traditional recipes and uses for Chimichurri. I did so successfully and proceeded to twist tradition to fit my own dietary preferences. In the end, I took an Argentinean Choripán (a street sandwich made with chorizo and a touch of Chimichurri as a condiment) and replaced the chorizo with grilled swordfish to make a "Swordipán" (my favorite invented word so far in my blogging adventure). My memorized recipe was a traditional Chimichurri from a dear Argentinean friend's family, and it's one that I can see plenty of use for in the future.

About Chimichurri & the Original Choripán
Any information source you encounter will give you a similar confession: Nobody truly knows the origin of the word chimichurriPlaneta Joy (a thoroughly entertaining Spanish-language website for those of you who speak it) described the most common legend behind the name of this condiment (which is, indeed, a condiment and neither a marinade nor a cooking sauce). As the story goes, Jimmy Curry, an Englishman living in Argentina, prepared the sauce out of admiration of the Argentinean barbecue (asado). After he left the country, people kept referring to his sauce as the chimi (not Jimmy) churri (not Curry) sauce and continued making it to go with their asado.

As for the Choripán, this is a typical street sandwich from Argentina. Its preparation is straightforward, with only three key ingredients. As they say on Asado Argentina, "Chorizo + bread + chimichurri = Simplicity at its best." Argentinean chorizo (sausage) is made with red wine, garlic, paprika, and something spicy for a little kick (additional variations include the addition of cloves, cumin, or nutmeg), so this flavor can be transferred to other proteins to allude to the original meat's flavor profile.

Choosing the Recipe
Since I decided to make swordfish taste like Argentinean chorizo, I had to pull from a few different recipes to ultimately create my Swordipán. I was inspired by the seasonings in the chorizo recipe from OChef and extremely grateful for my friend's family Chimichurri recipe. To get my vegetable fix, I turned to the Hairy Bikers, a hilarious BBC cooking duo, who prepared some salads to go with a meal of empanadas that they made. The grapefruit and avocado salad had the perfect natural combination of oil and acid to lighten up the meal. As the Bikers say, "It's a brave man that makes a salad for a gaucho," because Argentinean cuisine is so meat happy. One normally doesn't hear "light" or "vegetarian" when discussing this cuisine. For me, though, that ship sailed the second I replaced sausage with fish!

Speaking of fish, I debated between two types of fish for this sandwich-- halibut and swordfish.  Both have a fairly mild flavor on their own (unlike salmon or trout) and they are both pretty firm and therefore resilient to all the treatment I would give them. They also both fall on the good end of the spectrum in terms of seafood sustainability. I try to consult the Seafood Watch guide when I cook fish to ensure that my choices are not going to have a harmful impact on the ocean ecosystem or my own body. By choosing your geographical region, the Monterey Bay Aquarium will give you a straightforward glance at the fish that can be caught or farmed sustainably and those that can't (or aren't). Ultimately I decided on swordfish for its steakier texture. I knew that it would hold up well to the strong spices that mimic chorizo, and it would shine despite the bread surrounding it.

Memorizing the Recipe
Since so much of this recipe was invented, it was easy to get it right (or at least not get it wrong). The Chimichurri is the standard dish that I knew I needed to memorize for future occasions, so I put most of my energy into that. Even so, it wasn't too tricky. Parsley is obvious, garlic is essential, mustard is the memorable, (not-so) secret ingredient, a few spices gave a kick, and there were two liquids, with twice as much oil as vinegar. Simple and lovely, and fantastically available in most people's kitchens.

The Verdict
I completely agree with "Simplicity at its best." This is one of the most relaxed meals I have in my Walking Cookbook repertoire. The Swordipán was completely balanced once we added a salad, and using fish made a street food-inspired dish quite healthy. The fish tasted nothing like chorizo, which was okay. The red wine and spice rub did, however, gave an earthy and smokey flavor to the fish. I was worried about the sandwich being too dry, which is why I put out the mayo. However, the swordfish was perfectly done after 10 1/2 minutes on the grill. It had a beautiful char on the outside and a tender, juicy inside texture. The Chimichurri had tang and freshness that was essential in such a hearty dish. The mustard in the Chimichurri gave some bite and a lot of seasoning to the sauce.

If I owned a burger joint, I would absolutely include this sandwich in my menu. It's filling, good for you, and has a mix of warm and cool and dark and bright, all coming together to make you sit back and say, "That was great!" No tricks necessary-- simple food never lets you down.

The Recipes

"Swordipán" Street Sandwiches with Chimichurri
from The Walking Cookbook
Yield: 8 sandwiches

  • 8 rolls (pan de agua, Kaiser, or any roll that is not too thick or dense)
  • 8 pieces Chorizo-Spiced Swordfish (see recipe below)
  • Olive oil for brushing the rolls
  • Mayonnaise (optional)
  • 3/4 cup of Euge's Chimichurri (see recipe below)


  • Split the rolls down the middle to make a top and bottom bun. Brush some olive oil on the cut side of each roll and place cut-side down on the grill pan. Press down on the roll pieces (or weigh them down with a grill weight) for 30 seconds and remove to a separate plate.
  • Serve in a "make your own" fashion or assemble the sandwiches by spreading 1-2 tbsp chimichurri on the roll, putting a thin layer of mayo on the bottom roll (optional, but gives good moisture), and placing a piece of swordfish in the middle. That's it!

If you set out all the ingredients, dinner guests can choose
how much Chimichurri they want or what size piece of fish they prefer

Euge's Chimichurri
adapted from the Sincovich Family Recipe
Yield: 3/4 cup

  • 3/4 cup parsley, stems included
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 8 tbsp vegetable oil (not EVOO because it´s too scented)
  • 4 tbsp vinegar (I used red wine vinegar)
  • 1 tsp non-grainy mustard or grainy mustard made into a paste (As my friend says, "THIS IS THE FAMILY SECRET!!!!")
  • salt and pepper to taste (the mustard adds salt also)
  • 1 tsp Paprika, depending on whether you want to make it spicy or not, you can add more of this.


  • Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until thoroughly incorporated.

Tossing all the ingredients into the food processor
makes this a 30 second condiment
You can process the Chimichurri a little less if you want it
to have more texture, but be sure it all gets emulsified.

Chorizo-Spiced Swordfish
from the Walking Cookbook, with inspiration from OChef
Yield: 8 servings

  • 2 lb Swordfish steaks, skin removed and cut into fairly equal pieces
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 heaping tbsp nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper


  • Bring wine, crushed garlic, and cloves to a boil in a saucepan. Remove from heat and filter through a cloth or fine mesh strainer.
  • Let cool, transfer to a wide, shallow dish, and place swordfish steaks in the marinade. Coat on both sides, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1-2 hours (you can leave it for up to 12 hours).
  • Meanwhile, prepare a spice rub by combining the nutmeg, paprika, salt, and pepper in a bowl.
  • Remove the fish from the marinade, blot with a towel, and drizzle on the oil. Add the spice rub and really massage it into the fish, coating both sides. Place on a dry plate.
  • Heat a cast iron grill pan until it barely starts to smoke. Place the pieces of swordfish on the grill, cover with a large sheet of foil, and let cook over medium heat for 6 1/2 minutes.
  • Using a pair of tongs, flip the fish over, cover again, and let cook for 4 minutes.
  • Remove the fish from the heat and place on a separate dish.
Be sure to get any leftover skin off of the swordfish.
See that little layer that's still there?
    Although the gross white stuff that oozes out of the fish in its first grilling stages is completely unappealing, it's completely edible and will not even be noticeable once you flip the fish and keep cooking. No need to worry.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Classic and Fancy Grilled Cheeses and Sarabeth's Cream of Tomato Soup

Check out this recipe on my new and improved website:

Counter-clockwise from top:
Classic, French Onion, Cranberry Brie, and Butternut Squash 

Growing up, the bane of my existence was soup and grilled cheese sandwich night. I'll never forget my parents, bless their hearts, calling my brother and me to the kitchen around dinner time and letting us know what we were having. I can't completely remember if my misery was held in or if I wailed about it (feel free to chime in here, Mom and Dad), but I do know that my world came crashing down every time I heard the announcement. I clearly lived a very difficult life.

Time passed, and for some reason or another my former dinner nemesis became my dinner acquaintance and eventually my dinner friend. Now that I am on the East Coast and I have the joy of a winter season, Grilled Cheese with Soup has become a dinner savior. Despite the fact that Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, it is still cold in New York at the beginning of March, so I made this nostalgia-inspiring (for better or for worse) dinner combo this week to keep us cruising towards our early spring.

The dill offers a unique flavor to the soup,
and quartered sandwiches allow a large group
to sample all the different types of sandwiches

About Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup
There is not much to say about this classic except a brief explanation of how it got so classic. According to Grilled Cheesery, people began to melt processed cheese on inexpensive bread beginning in the 1920s, when these products became affordable. It lasted through the Great Depression and (obviously) into modern day. The sandwiches began open-faced, but in a likely effort to make them more filling without being much more expensive, a second piece of bread was added. What explains the Tomato Soup? The Food Timeline claims that tomato soup was considered a substantial dose of Vitamin C when this meal first came about, and the tradition seems to have stuck.

Anyone who has purchased cheese knows that it is not cheap. However, American Cheese as we know it (Kraft Singles) is actually considered a pasteurized process cheese product, making it far less expensive. What is the difference between cheese and cheese product? Here is a summary of what I read in Chemical and Engineering News and the FDA Code of Federal Regulations (Note: It is actually someone's job to make rules about cheese. That makes me chuckle, but someone's gotta do it!): 
  • Pasteurized Process Cheese: Food prepared by mixing one or more cheeses of the same or different variety (with a few exceptions). The process involves heat, an emulsifying agent, and one or more optional ingredient. The milkfat content must not be lower than 47% and the moisture content must not be more than 43%.
  • Pasteurized Process American Cheese: A pasteurized process cheese resulting from a mixture of cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, colby cheese, granular cheese, or two or more of these.
  • American Cheese: A pasteurized process cheese resulting from a mixture of cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, colby cheese, granular cheese, or two or more of these as well as an additional variety of cheese.
  • Pasteurized Process Cheese Food: Food prepared by mixing a dairy ingredient (milk, dried cream, buttermilk, whey, etc.) with a cheese ingredient (basically, cheese) into a "homogeneous plastic mass." The process involves heat and one or more optional ingredients. The milkfat content must not be lower than 23% and the moisture content must not be more than 44%.
  • Pasteurized Process Cheese Product: Something similar to the above products, but the milkfat and moisture content regulations are not met.
I'm not going to deal with pasteurized process cheese spread here, but that has its own definition. As you can see, our beloved(?) Singles do not qualify as cheese, process cheese, or even process cheese food. So why do we use them for these melty cheesy treats? The moisture, of course! They melt so much better than cheese with less moisture. If you are thoroughly disgusted by this concept, however, read on to see how I cheated to get less-processed and non-processed cheeses to melt into a great sandwich.

Choosing the Recipes
As I sat on my couch on Sunday doing research for this week's recipe, I thought to myself:
What kind of mess have I gotten myself into? Grilled cheese should be so easy, but everywhere I turn there is a new and different and "better" sandwich! American cheese seems so classic. But has classic become boring? The number of cheeses and breads in this world confounds me (Wikipedia contributors have assembled a list of over 500 cheeses and 150 breads), so multiplied out and without ANY condiments or extra ingredients, I already have over 75 THOUSAND grilled cheese options! 75 THOUSAND! Let's add on top of that veggies (arugula, grilled onions, caramelized onions, corn, mushrooms, peppers), fruit (apricot, pear, apple, fig, quince, cranberry), meat (prosciutto, mortadella, bacon, lardons), and sauces (aioli, chutney, marmalade, mustard)... what is a girl to do who just wants to make a mean grilled cheese sandwich with some soup to go along with it?

I decided to go with a few different sandwiches from the myriad websites listing the "Best Grilled Cheese in NYC" or the "Best Grilled Cheese Recipes." I also searched the menu at Little Meunster, whose grilled cheese I tried last summer at The Great Googa Mooga, a music and food festival in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. On that legendary day I bought five sandwiches (to share) at $10 a pop after waiting 82 minutes in line in the heat, and I will never regret my decision. 

At the end of the day, I had to accept that I would never make the "perfect" grilled cheese because everyone likes it a little different, but that I could focus on the technique that would make every sandwich turn out beautifully. So I picked four sandwiches and rolled with them:
  • Asiago, Parmesan, Muenster, and Butternut Squash Grilled Cheese with Sage Brown Butter from Little Muenster
  • Classic American Grilled Cheese, adapted from Food Network
  • French Onion Soup Grilled Cheese, from Tasty Kitchen
  • Cranberry Brie Grilled Cheese from Joy the Baker
As for the soup recipe, I have always felt that tomato soup is too acidic. However, I had brunch this week at Sarabeth's, where my brother ordered the Velvety Cream of Tomato Soup. I snagged a bite of it to see if I would try to make it with dinner this week, and my life was changed. Something about it-- the luscious, creamy thickness paired with some hard-to-identify herbs-- gave me such pleasure that I couldn't wait to memorize it as my go-to tomato soup. Fortunately, Sarabeth herself is a blogger, and the Goddess of Bakedom was generous enough to share her Tomato Soup recipe with us. I had no reason to search for a better recipe, because I just don't believe that one exists.

Memorizing the Recipes
Memorizing the sandwiches was easy enough-- bread, a cheese or blend of cheeses, something to make it exciting, and butter for the outside. The soup was a bit trickier, since the timing had to be spot on in order for the hot milk and cream to not curdle. I was happy to see that all of the base ingredients were alliums, making it very easy to remember. I used a 1-2-3-4 onion-shallot-garlic-scallion ratio in the base then proceeded to add the tomatoes and dairy, make a roux, incorporate the roux, and simmer away. Pretty simple as long as everything is done with a level of awareness. I almost forgot to add the roux, and I was panicking about the soup being so thin! Fortunately I remembered that the thickening agent had not yet been added. Overall, it was a simple memorization process this week.

1-2-3-4 ratio of these cancer-fighting bulb veggies
is tasty and simple to remember
Remember to only use the top of the four scallions

The Verdict
Making four types of grilled cheese for a large group takes either lots of space or lots time, and I had more space this week than time. With that in mind, I laid out all of the sandwiches on my table and assembled them all before grilling up a storm on the stovetop.

I covered my kitchen table with cut apart paper grocery bags,
making an easy-to-clean work surface that was both
recycled and recyclable.
I used big binder clips to secure the paper to the table.
HUGE time saver.

I was disappointed to see that in the first round of grilled cheese, the cheese was just not melting (it must have been real cheese rather than cheese product!). I followed all of the advice that I learned from Food & Wine's How to Ruin a Grilled Cheese, and The Kitchn's more positive spin, How Not to Ruin a Grilled Cheese, but somehow the bread just got too dark before the cheese melted sufficiently. Here's what they recommended:
  • use enough cheese and not too much bread
  • grate the cheese; don't use slices
  • put butter on the outside of the bread, not in the pan
  • use a nonstick pan
  • add unique condiments
  • use a lid
  • use interesting cheese
  • transfer it to a rack or serve immediately to avoid steam making them soggy
  • get creative with bread
At the eleventh hour, even with these techniques in place, I was not seeing the melty results I wanted and had to make a decision. One of my friends suggested microwaving them before placing them on the stove, and it seemed like the fastest option for a hungry crowd. For all the sandwiches except the Cranberry Brie, this was the essential step that helped start the melting process. Maybe it's cheating, or maybe it is just strategic cooking. After all, cooking is just preparing food with the use of heat. Thirty seconds did the trick for a plate of three sandwiches, and the outside of the bread got just as crispy as the non-microwaved sandwiches.

The Tomato Soup recipe instructed me to use a double boiler, which I don't have but I created using a large pot, a steaming rack with the center pressed down, and the inside of my rice cooker. The entire recipe didn't fit inside the rice cooker bowl, however, so I actually had to transfer half of the soup into a smaller pot and put it over direct heat. I'm happy to say that there wasn't a very big difference. I turned the heat down significantly in the direct-heat pot, and I stirred much more frequently, but aside from that the results were pretty darn similar. Next time I'll just skip the hassle.

I always wonder if chefs put a slightly modified version of their best recipes out in public so we try to make it but always fall a little bit short of the original, driving us to come back to the restaurant for more. However, Sarabeth's recipe was true to the soup that I remember tasting at the restaurant. It was absolutely delicious.

The favorite sandwiches of the night were definitely the Cranberry Brie and the French Onion. Read on for all four sandwich recipes and the soup recipe as well.

The Recipes
Asiago, Parmesan, Meunster, and Butternut Squash Grilled Cheese with Sage Brown Butter
from The Walking Cookbook, inspired by Little Muenster
Yield: 4 sandwiches


  • 1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup shredded asiago cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated muenster cheese
  • 1 cup butternut squash, cubed
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 tsp. dried sage powder
  • 8 slices hearty wheat bread
  • salt and pepper 
  • Prep squash: Bring water to a boil in a large pot and add the butternut squash. Cook on medium high for 15 minutes or until the squash is very soft. Drain and mash the squash into a puree (use a potato masher, pastry blender, or fork). Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  • Prep brown butter: In a stainless steel frying pan, melt the butter. Wait until the edges of the butter turn brown, then stir gently with a rubber spatula. Allow the butter to continue browning, adding sage a few minutes into the process. Continue stirring until you can smell a toasty butter smell and the entirety of the butter is brown. Transfer the butter to a glass or ceramic dish and place in the freezer for ten minutes or until a spreadable texture.
  • Prep cheese: Mix the cheeses together in a bowl.
  • Butter the bread: Spread the sage brown butter on one side of each slice of bread and place butter-side down.
  • Load the sandwiches: On four of the slices of bread, spread the butternut squash puree in a layer about 1/8 inch thick. On the other four slices, put 1/4 of the cheese mixture. Place the butternut squash slice over the cheese slice and press.
  • Cook: Microwave the sandwiches for about 30 seconds, then place in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and flip once the bottom piece of bread is toasted, about 45 seconds. Cover again and let cook for another 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, cut in half or quarters, and serve immediately or transfer to a rack.
The toasty, fragrant brown butter with sage
just needs a short chilling time to become...
...spreadable butter for the outside of the bread

Classic American Grilled Cheese
adapted from Food Network
Yield: 4 sandwiches

  • 8 slices country white bread
  • salted butter, softened
  • 4 oz. American cheese, grated
  • Butter the bread: Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread, and place butter-side down.
  • Load the sandwiches: Divide the cheese evenly between four slices of bread. Place the empty slice over the cheese slice and press.
  • Cook: Microwave the sandwiches for about 30 seconds, then place in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and flip once the bottom piece of bread is toasted, about 45 seconds. Cover again and let cook for another 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, cut in half or quarters, and serve immediately or transfer to a rack.

French Onion Soup Grilled Cheese
adapted from Tasty Kitchen
Yield: 4 sandwiches

  • 2 yellow onions, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 3 tbsp butter, plus more for buttering bread
  • 1/4 cup beer (I like a nice winter ale)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 oz. grated gruyere cheese
  • 8 slices country white or sourdough bread
  • Prep onions: Place 3 tbsp butter in a saute pan and heat over medium high. Add the sliced onions and soften, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle on the salt and sugar and stir. Lower the heat to medium-low and cooking for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. The onions should begin to caramelize, or get brown all the way around without charring. Add the beer and turn up the heat to medium-high, stirring the onions to get an even coating. Once the liquid has evaporated, remove the onions from the heat.
  • Butter the bread: Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread, and place butter-side down.
  • Load the sandwiches: Divide the cheese evenly between all eight slices of bread. Place 1/4 of the onions on top of the cheese on four slices of bread. These are more difficult to fold together, so work quickly and carefully. Match an onion slice with a cheese slice and place the longest side of the bread close together (for me, this was the bottom edge of the slice). Fold both pieces up like you are closing a book, then squeeze together and place flat on a flat surface.
  • Cook: Microwave the sandwiches for about 30 seconds, then place in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and flip once the bottom piece of bread is toasted, about 45 seconds. Cover again and let cook for another 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, cut in half or quarters, and serve immediately or transfer to a rack.
The onions before the caramelization and beerization took place

Cranberry Brie Grilled Cheese
from Joy the Baker
Yield: 4 sandwiches


  • 8 oz. of brie (about 1/2 large wedge), sliced thin
  • 3/4 cup cranberry sauce (Don't have any? Easy! 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries-- boil, simmer, stir a bunch, and mash)
  • 4 tbsp whole grain mustard
  • 4 tbsp butter, softened
  • 8 slices french bread


  • Prep cranberry sauce: Use leftovers, canned, or make your own! It's ridiculously easy. Bring 1/2 cup water and 1/4 cup sugar to a boil, stirring like crazy. Add 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries and leave it at a low boil, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens and the cranberries pop. Once it is fairly thick, mash it up and remove from the heat.
  • Butter the bread: Spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread, and place butter-side down.
  • Load the sandwiches: Spread 1 tbsp of mustard on four of the slices of bread. Place 2-3 slices of brie on top of the mustard. On the remaining slices of bread, spread the cranberry sauce to coat the entire slice. Place the cranberry slice on top of the brie slice and press.
  • Cook: Place in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and flip once the bottom piece of bread is toasted, about 45 seconds. Cover again and let cook for another 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, cut in half or quarters, and serve immediately or transfer to a rack.
Three simple filling ingredients made this sandwich a group favorite

Velvety Cream of Tomato Soup
adapted from Goddess of Bakedom
Yield: 10-12 servings

  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 scallions (green parts only), chopped
  • 2 28-oz cans of tomato in puree (not juice)
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 4 cups cream
  • 1/3 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup fresh dill, torn into little pieces
  • 1 cup white cheddar cheese
  • Salt and pepper
  • Melt 2 tbsp butter in a saute pan and add the onion, shallots, garlic, and scallions. Cook until softened, about 4 minutes
  • Place the onion mixture in a large pot and add the tomatoes, milk, and cream. Cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a simmer. Use a spoon, knife, or potato masher to break up the tomatoes into pieces and stir gently.
  • Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tbsp butter and whisk in flour to make a roux. Add 1 1/2 cups of the tomato mixture to the roux and stir, then place the roux-tomato blend into the main cooking pot. Stir to mix the roux in throughout the entire pot. The soup will begin to thicken nicely.
  • Simmer for about 35 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Remove from the heat, add some salt and pepper, and mix in the torn dill fronds.
  • Top with white cheddar cheese and serve hot.
For this soup base, we aren't looking for caramelization.
Just soften the alliums (onion, shallot, garlic, and scallion)
enough to simultaneously soften and bring out their flavor
While the makeshift double boiler had less agitation in the soup
throughout the cooking process, the end result was not different enough
for me to use this method in the future when I make this soup.