Monday, January 21, 2013

Say Cheese

Probably like many of you, I resolved to eat healthier and make better food choices in 2013. We're now starting the fourth week of the New Year and also perhaps like many of you I'm already wavering in my resolve. For instance, I hosted a grilled cheese party on Saturday, the menu of which my trainer would probably not approve of. In my defense, yesterday was a very important holiday that seemed like it needed a proper recognizing. I'm not talking about Robert E. Lee's birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday, or Obama's inauguration, which were all compelling occasions observed over the weekend. No, it was National Cheese Lover's Day. And what is a more fitting way to celebrate than with a grilled cheese sandwich?! But I didn't want to have just any grilled cheese sandwich. I wanted it to be kind of over-the-top and super indulgent. I mean if you're going to fall off the healthy eating wagon, you might as well really enjoy the process. 

I love entertaining. I don't know if there's anything better than a house full of friends, family, good food and wine. I do it as often as I can, sometimes with a blow out theme party (like this one) and other times it's just a few of my favorite families coming over for a simple meal. The latter was my vision for Saturday. But to me a good party or meal isn't just putting food on the table, it's about enjoying the preparation as much as the meal itself. As such, I conceived the idea of having a "make your own grilled cheese" party. It seemed perfect for the kids but I fancied it up enough to give it adult appeal. 

I was rifting off the crostini station I did here and put out different types of breads, spreads, meats, extras and of course cheeses. People were invited to take two pieces of bread and create the grilled cheese sandwich of their fantasies. The options were pretty limitless. I honestly wished I had a bigger stomach and could have tried more versions (and unfortunately no one seemed to want to share any of their sandwiches either). Anyway, once you have your open faced sandwich ready to go, you pop it onto a baking sheet and cook for 8-12 minutes. Once the cheese is all melty, you pull them out, "close" the sandwich, and devour it. No one left a bite. 

While people were waiting for their sandwiches to cook, I served up this soup which I thought would be a perfect accompaniment to a grilled cheese (and a nice alternative to the traditional tomato soup). Yes, I did serve bourbon-spiked soup to children under the age of five, but I must say they were delightful guests after dinner and lasted until almost 11 pm before the bedtime fairies arrived to escort them home. You may want to try it sometime. I'm just saying . . . . That soup has a lot more nutritional value than benadryl. 

One of the key success factors for good entertaining is doing as much work as possible ahead of time. So often people end up slaving over dishes in the kitchen that require a lot of attention while everyone else is out in the living room having great conversation and enjoying a nice glass of wine. Not only do you miss out on visiting with your friends but you're exhausted. With this party concept, all the prep can be done ahead of time and your guests can get involved, which I personally think people really enjoy and makes for a fabulous party. 

About 60-90 minutes before the party, start taking out all the accoutrements for the sandwiches. I laid out three meat options on the largest cutting board I have and then added other sandwich "layers" in rows. 

I set out five different spreads (from pesto to jalapeño honey mustard to fig butter), three meats (rosemary ham, pulled pork and bacon), cut up tomatoes, apples and pear, along with some fresh spinach, and then provided three shredded cheese options (cheddar, mozzarella and fontina).

I did label the options to make it more fun and allow me to be more hands off. I am still a tad bit of control freak in the kitchen, so I did provide instructions on how to build your sandwich to reduce the risk of errors (if that's really possible with a grilled cheese sandwich).  

Once that was done, it was time to turn my attention to the most important part of the sandwich: the bread. I selected three different options: wheat, sourdough and cinnamon raisin. 

To create the perfect sandwich, you need to skillet toast the bread slices. This takes a little bit of time but is mindless and can actually be done as you're putting out the sandwich options. 

It was really fun to see how people personalized their grilled cheese sandwich. No two were the same and pretty much everyone felt like theirs was the best. 

This is the perfect party to host (for guests of all ages) and more importantly enjoy!

Grilled Cheese Bar
1. Pick a few sturdy bread options (whole wheat, white, potato, sourdough, walnut, cinnamon raisin, rye, pumpernickel, etc.). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set a wire rack inside each of two foil-lined baking sheet. Butter one side (just one side) of each slice of bread. Melt a tsp of butter in a large skillet that's been heated for at least two minutes over medium heat. Add 3 slices of bread, buttered side down; cook pressing down often with a spatula to ensure even toasted and rotating pan frequently to allow for bread to evenly toast. Don't rush the process but it will take 3-5 minutes probably for each slice. Place the toasted bread in a basket. Repeat process until you've toasted all the bread. 
2. Spread some flavor (whole grain mustard, pesto, roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes, fig butter, raspberry jam, pepper jelly, etc.) on two slices of bread for your sandwich.
3. Add some meat (ham, bacon, pulled pork, proscuitto, salami, smoked salmon, etc.) and any extras (sliced tomatoes, pears, fresh spinach or basil, sauerkraut, caramelized onions, dried apricots, etc.).
4. Sprinkle a small handful of shredded cheese that is meltable (cheddar, mozzarella, gruyère, swiss, fontina, etc.) on each slice of bread. The cheese is the star of the party so get the good stuff. Season with salt and pepper. 
5. Place each slice of bread on a wire rack inside the baking sheets and bake for 8-12 minutes (start checking at 8 min). Working in batches, firmly press two cheese-topped sides of sandwiches together. Let rest for 1 minute and cut in halves or quarters. Serve hot or warm. 

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