What is the core appeal of cheese?
It’s an endless discovery of fascinating textures and varying flavors. From the firmness and crumbly funk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, to the oozy glories of brie, to the sparkle and sharpness of Maytag blue, each kind has a wide range of potential uses.
As meatless dishes continue to gain popularity, cheese has become the ubiquitous sidekick, headlining appetizers or supplementing an entree. More now than ever, flavored sliced cheese accompanies burgers and sandwiches. Cheese offers a way to upsell French fries (melted or crumbled) while vegetables benefit with the “au gratin” treatment of cheese and breadcrumbs. And that ’60s favorite, fondue, is making a comeback and salvaging day-old bread.
Chefs are pushing the envelope with cheese, as well as taking the classic grilled cheese sandwich to new heights. And as farm-to-table concepts continue to thrive, cheese plates are becoming a regular feature, showcasing locally produced varieties with housemade accompaniments.
No matter the type or how it appears on menus, cheese scores high in umami, the wildly popular “fifth flavor,” deemed a savory taste more deeply satisfying than the traditional salty, bitter, sweet or sour.
Innovating with Cheese
If you think flavored butters or stuffed olives are boring, you don’t know about EL Ideas, Executive Chef Phillip Foss’ 24-seat restaurant in Chicago. Like most fine dining restaurants, his experimental tasting menu features a cheese course while others are embellished with cheese. But not in the way you’d think.
Olives are stuffed with blue cheese and dipped in liquid nitrogen for a slushy martini. Foss’ version of a French onion soup reverses the roles of Gruyere cheese and broth, resulting in a thick cheese dip dotted with caramelized onions and crisp brioche croutons.
“Now we’re experimenting with cheese butters,” Foss says. Cheese, such as smoked Wisconsin blue, Tuscan Pecorino and un-aged Spanish goat, soaks in cream for up to two weeks. The cheese is removed and used for family meal, and then the cream is churned into a flavored butter served with housemade bread and served as a course.
At Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro on Seattle’s Mercer Island, Chef Kurt Dammeier soaks a grilled cheese sandwich in vodka, shakes it with tomatoes and basil and then strains the concoction into a glass with a prosciutto-and-balsamic decorated rim.
Ways to get creative with the classic grilled cheese
Once the province of diners and home cooks, the grilled cheese sandwich originated in the 1920s with the invention of sliced bread. Nowadays it’s being revived everywhere, from food trucks to single-concept establishments, with upscale, value-added tweaks.
The Gorilla Grilled Cheese truck in New York offers 10 toasted sandwiches ($6 to $10), including a basic cheddar, Landaff (a Vermont cow’s milk cheese) and others with add-ons like jerk chicken, bratwurst and prosciutto.
Fresh herbs, such as parsley, dill and basil, often accent grilled cheese sandwiches. The Grilled Cheese Truck (Los Angeles, Phoenix and Texas) offers a sandwich with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and spinach on roasted garlic bread ($7).
A favorite at the Grilled Cheese Grill, housed inside an old London double-decker bus in Portland, Ore., features barbecue tofu, pepperjack cheese, pickles, red onions and tomatoes on sourdough bread ($6.75).
New York’s Murray’s Cheese Shop has a sideline in grilled cheese sandwiches, including the discounted Murray’s Melts ($3.99), which combines slower selling cheeses.
Grilled cheese sandwiches made with a mixture of cheeses are especially popular; Chef Randi Feltis of Oscar’s Restaurant and Tavern in Toronto suggests brie, aged Cheddar, Asiago and havarti. Chef Jason Peterson of Phoenix’s Switch pairs provolone, Cheddar and American cheeses on Texas toast.
Fruit conserves such as marmalade, fig paste or membrillo (a Spanish quince paste) add complexity to a grilled cheese tucked between the slices or as dips on the side. Tartine Bakery in San Francisco serves a grilled cheese with Idiazabal and membrillo ($12.50).
Robert Sietsema, a New York-based writer, will take cheese any way he can get it, but especially appreciates complexity and big flavors.