Every once in a while, something comes along that changes everything: Fossil fuels. The forward pass. Punk rock. And now, mayonnaise-grilled cheese and shaved nuts (no jokes, please).
I've long believed that whatever bourgeois conceit a sandwich maker may have, there is no grilled cheese better than one made with white bread, American cheese and butter. But lately two cheffy ideas have made the art of hot cheese sandwiches come alive in my kitchen, and I fear that my beliefs are being shaken.
The first of these ideas came to me from Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of the brilliant, beautiful and peculiar restaurant Prune, where I had one of the greatest lunches of my life eating chicken hearts, lemony beans and an omelet stuffed with fried oysters and served with powdered sugar and Tabasco sauce. Prune has the magical charm of being just slightly odd, just outside of sense-making, but it feels utterly unaffected and the food is always filled with subtle surprise. One day, while watching Hamilton lead a cooking class for high school students (more on that another day), I looked twice when she had the kids "butter" the outsides of the sandwiches with ... mayonnaise.
But it makes perfect sense when she explains it: unlike butter, the mayo doesn't threaten to burn in the pan before the bread is crisped and the cheese melted. It's thick, so it spreads on evenly, unlike oil. And it imparts a slightly tangy flavor in addition to richness to the bread, so it makes for a more balanced sandwich. (I don't know where she came up with the idea, but she hails, like me, from New Jersey, where we cook our hotdogs in deep fryers and know every emotion but shyness. So I think of this as a move from the Dirty Jerz playbook.)
The other idea is for the inside of the sandwich: You lightly toast walnuts to bring out their creamy flavor, shave them fine as snow on a grater (the Microplane is awesome for this), and pile them on the cheese to add another dimension of richness to the sandwich. I stole this idea from a dish I once had at the restaurant Jean-Georges, back when there was such a thing as editors with expense accounts to take out scribblers like me. The grater does a neat little trick -- stripping crunch from the nuts, turning them into feathery shards of pure flavor, it lets you integrate their fatty goodness into dishes without disturbing the texture. I tried it one day on a sharp cheddar grilled cheese, and loved the way the nuts seemed to bolster the richness of the cheese while otherwise melting away.
In the sandwich below, I've taken these two techniques and brightened them up with a little bit of sauerkraut, for crunch and tartness to liven things up and keep it from seeming heavy. And a handful of greens, because, well, why not?
Super-cheffy grilled cheese
Feel free to change quantities or types of ingredients, of course. It's your sandwich. Makes one sandwich. Duh.
- 4 to 6 walnuts
- 2 slices of good bread
- Mayonnaise, as needed
- 2½ ounces cheese, grated or sliced fairly thin (I like sharp cheddar, or a nutty "Swiss" for this)
- 2 forkfuls of good sauerkraut (or other pickle-type thing)
- 1 small handful baby spinach or other greens
- Toast the walnuts, either in the oven or tossed in a hot pan, until they're just getting fragrant and the surface of the nuts is hot. When cool again, grate them with the Microplane or other fine-toothed grater -- they should come out feathery and light.
- Heat a pan over medium heat. Spread mayonnaise on one side of the slices of bread and lay them mayo-side down in the pan. (How much is up to you -- you don't need very much, basically enough to get an even coat, to do the trick, but of course more is more.)
- Evenly divide the cheese on the two slices, and cook until the bread is toasty brown and the cheese is melted. (If the bread is getting color but the cheese is stubborn, cover the pan for a minute or two.)
- Remove the bread, sprinkle on the nut shavings (no jokes, please), add the sauerkraut and greens. Put the two halves together, and have at it.