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Souped-Up Grilled Cheese

Trail Snacks with Lentine Alexis

There are two kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches: the one that you make in the wee hours after having a little too much to drink, when rules about “what’s good” fly out the window and anything tastes good.  And then, there’s the grilled cheese you want to be making at all the other times: with perfectly golden toasted bread and melty cheese. The kind that makes little kids coo with contentment and adults slink into a state of supreme satisfaction too. 

Below, I share six rules for grilled cheese perfection, as well as my favorite recipe for Souped Up Grilled Cheese with Blistered Garlicky Tomatoes, and help you create the grilled cheese of your campsite dreams. Here we go!

The Rules Of Grilled Cheese

1. Be Patient

Two sad things can happen when you rush the grilled-cheese making process. In scenario one, you literally take the sammie out of the pan before the bread achieves that deep golden-brown goodness. Being hungry, tired, or having screaming children are all good reasons for this…but the truth is it doesn’t take that much time to really get the golden right. In scenario two, you over toast the bread (read: burn) before the cheese melts completely. This happens not because of any screaming children, but because your pan is too hot and your heat too high so before the inside can get gooey, the outside blackens. 

To achieve grilled cheese perfection: Start with a cold pan, bread that’s been pre-slicked (that’s next), keep the heat at medium, crack a beer and be patient. Your screaming children will also thank you.

2. Be Slick

And by this I mean, don’t be afraid to use some fat. You’re going to want to spread a little bit of it on one side of your bread. Not too much, but don’t skimp here. Some grilled cheese aficionados swear by mayo for this – I personally love ghee but softened butter will also work. I love ghee because it has a higher smoke point than butter, which means it won’t start to burn while you’re taking your sammie all the way to a golden brown. (I can’t say the same for vegan butter, unfortunately, so maybe this is a good reason to use vegan mayo!) Whatever you choose it must be spreadable…which brings me to the next rule:

3. Take It To The Edge

If you want the golden-brownness of your sammie to include every corner, you have to spread your ghee/butter/mayo to every edge of the bread. No skimping or shortcutting, and every bite will be as crispy and golden as the next.

4. Keep It Tight

When it comes to the bread, anyway. Make sure that you pick a bread with a tight crumb, like pre-sliced sandwich bread, Pullman loaf, or sourdough – something without big holes. Holes mean that the gooey cheese you’re about to melt within has the propensity to ooze out and while griddled cheese IS delicious, that isn’t quite what we’re going for here.

5. Choose A Melty Cheese

It turns out that the place to be creative isn’t exactly in the “cheese” department of your grilled sammie. Parmesan, manchego, feta are delicious — but those are not melty enough to warrant a great grilled cheese. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices, and that you can’t mix those choices together wildly. Kid-friendly American,  mild mozzarella, punchy cheddar, salty gruyère, funky taleggio, smooth fontina, easy-going provolone, and creamy-sweet raclette are all melty to the max. My favorite combination includes a white cheddar, gruyére, and a slice of organic whole-milk American cheese for a combo that’s creamy, sharp, sweet, salty, and nutty but you can swap out cheeses that make your mouth happy.

For the dairy-free folks in the house, this gets a bit trickier for you, but the best news is that you have lots of vegan cheeze options out there – choose shredded cheeze or cheeze slices for best results.

6. Soup It Up (Smartly)

Let’s say first: a grilled cheese needs nothing, really, so if you feel like leaving great enough alone – I commend you. But, if you do feel like dressing your grilled cheeses up to impress, do so carefully. Stay away from anything watery so that your sandwich doesn’t get soggy. Anything that you wouldn’t want to eat raw on its own (mushrooms, yellow onion, bacon) won’t cook in the sandwich—so you need to cook it ahead of time. Lastly, I like to think about the balance of flavor: the fatty cheese and buttery bread will love something bright and sharp to offset it —like pickled red onions, kimchi, spicy tomato jam, sauerkraut, cilantro chutney. Here are a few campsite friendly combinations I love:

  • A drizzle of honey  with tallegio + gruyére cheese
  • Sautéed apple with cheddar + American cheese
  • Sautéed mushrooms + scallions browned to perfection with gruyére, taleggio and cheddar cheese
  • Fresh chives with American + cheddar cheese
  • Souped Up Grilled Cheese w/Blistered Garlicky Tomatoes (recipe below!)

Souped Up Grilled Cheese With Blistered Garlicky Tomatoes

makes two sandwiches

If the kiddos in your squad don’t love the garlicky tomatoes in their sammies, you can simply cook them up for the adults and omit them for the little ones. The coriander and cumin added to the tomatoes help balance the dish, but if you don’t have them in your camp cooking arsenal you can omit them.

For The Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

  • 4 slices ½”-thick sliced sandwich bread such as Pullman or sourdough 
  • 4 tablespoons ghee, melted or softened butter or mayonnaise for the bread
  • 2 ounces thinly sliced sharp white cheddar
  • 2 oz thinly sliced gruyére cheese 
  • 2 slices whole-milk American cheese
  • A pinch of flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper

For The Blistered Garlicky Tomatoes

  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1 Tbsp ghee 
  • 2 cloves garlic, grated or finely chopped
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp ground cumin or cumin seeds
  • Freshly ground black pepper and flaky salt

Equipment

  • A camp stove with two burners 
  • 10-12” cast-iron skillet or other favorite skillet
  • 8” skillet to blister the tomatoes
  • Spatula
  • Spreading knife
  • Knife and cutting board

Directions

  1. Start your tomatoes: Heat 1 Tbsp. ghee in a 8” skillet over medium-high heat until melted. Swirl the pan to coat. Add your garlic, coriander and cumin to the skillet and sauté until just fragrant, 1 minute, then add your sliced tomatoes to the skillet and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally and pressing/bursting any tomatoes that remain intact, until the tomatoes are completely broken down, jammy and deeply golden, about 8-9 minutes. When the tomatoes are plenty saucy and fragrant, turn off the heat, place a cover on the skillet and set aside until you’re ready to assemble your sandwiches. While the tomatoes cook, you can start to make your sandwiches on another burner…
  2. Start your sandwiches: Arrange 4 ½”-thick slices bread on a cutting board. Spread 1 Tbsp. ghee on one side of each slice making sure to get the ghee all the way to the edges of each slice of bread. Place two of the slices, ghee side down,  in a cool 10-12” skillet and turn the heat on to medium. As the skillet begins to warm and the bread begins to toast, layer with your cheese.
  3. Build your sandwiches in the skillet: Divide the sliced cheddar and gruyére cheeses between the sandwiches in the skillet, making sure to cover every inch of the bread with the cheese and breaking apart slices if necessary! Place 2 Tbsp of the garlicky blistered tomatoes (if using) on each sandwich, sprinkle with a little pinch of salt and pepper and top with a piece of American cheese. Close sandwiches with remaining slices of bread (ghee side up!)
  4. Be patient as your sandwiches gold to perfection: Continue to allow your sandwiches to toast, undisturbed (this is how they achieve that perfect golden brown!!) It will take 5-7 minutes for them to achieve that perfect color and crunch, so crack a beer and just hang. Use a spatula to very carefully lift your sandwich up and check the color – when it’s flecked with gold, you’re ready to carefully flip. If it’s not ready yet, simply place it back in the pan to cook a little longer. When you’re ready to flip, carefully hold your sandwich together and turn them. If anything goes awry or falls apart, no worries – just put it back together and keep going.
  5. Finish it off: Once your sandwiches are flipped, turn the heat to medium-low (since the skillet is already hot and we don’t want to over-char the bread!) Press down on the sandwich gently with a spatula to encourage melting and cheesy cohesion, then continue to cook until the second side is evenly golden brown and the cheese is melty and beginning to ooze, 4-5 minutes longer. Transfer the golden sandwiches to a cutting board, slice in half and enjoy IMMEDIATELY!

Lentine Alexis is a former professional endurance athlete & classically trained chef. The former Culinary Director at Skratch Labs, she uses a real-food philosophy to create recipes for athletes and everyone looking to eat well and adventure better. Find more recipes and info on her upcoming cookbook for athletes at lentinealexis.com, or follow her @lentinealexis.