Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bread, cheese, butter (Grilled cheese with prosciutto, pear, and fontina)

Though Aaron and I work the same hours and share the same nightmarish 2-hour commute, I am (unfairly) quite partial to reserving the kitchen as my exclusive domain. As such, I usually end up preparing dinner, so it's a bit of an extra special treat when Aaron volunteers to cook (or when I blithely volunteer him, anyway). He has no shortage of his own specialties and culinary history, but there's a dark side: Aaron spent several years of his formative existence declining to eat anything but Kraft macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. Now fully reformed and rehabilitated, he still carries a torch for the tried and true pairing of cheese and carbs, it's just that he's a little more enterprising when it comes to casting the supporting players. This grilled cheese sandwich starts with the holy trinity of bread, cheese, and butter, but also includes crisp, subtly sweet pear slices, salty prosciutto, and peppery arugula.
Extra crispy 

Adding some flash and bang to tried and true classics is an easy way to sample new ingredients, offer guests comfort food that still carries a unique twist, or act as a reproachment for encouraging more finicky eaters to expand their horizons. With such a simple base template, the possibilities for experimentation are endless. The inspiration from this sandwich actually comes from TV show Modern Family where, in a brief aside, perennial ham Cam requests a "PB&J," only to then assert his florid foodie cred by explaining he means Pear, Brie, and Jamón, not peanut butter and jelly. We were immediately intrigued. 
As our resident sandwich expert, however, Aaron took the lead. Brie is one of our favorite cheeses, with a mild flavor and great melting texture, but it's also so creamy it can be overwhelming. Fontina is a little sharper and more stable, melting into a more solid, cheesy layer than deliciously amorphous goo. Jamón ibérico is a salty cured pork product sourced from the Iberian peninsula: Spain and Portugal. It's also a little harder to find at your everyday market, so Aaron opted for its close Italian cousin: prosciutto. Paired the fontina, this makes for a pleasing Italian theme. The addition of arugula was at my insistence, its small, delicate leaves have a pronounced (yet not belligerent) peppery tang that makes them perfect for adding dimension to rich dishes and spring is the perfect season for fresh and tender greens. Try arugula on a grilled cheese or breakfast sandwich and you'll never look back.
Avengers: assemble!
With your ingredients assembled, preparation is child's play. The aroma of melting butter is like magic on its own, but add fresh bread, creamy cheese, and the porcine aroma of warming prosciutto and you'll be in heaven. The secret for a perfect, crusty-toasted sandwich is all in the heat applied. A heavy, well-seasoned cast iron skillet distributes heat more evenly and retains it longer, guaranteeing a mantle of golden-brown armor. A judicious, evenly slathered amount of fat (butter is best, but you can use mayonnaise in a pinch) also helps to better transfer heat from bread to pan and encourage Maillard browning reactions. I like to keep our cast iron pans seasoned with bacon grease for an extra hint of pork fat goodness. These sandwiches can be great on their own, or try them with a simple arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette or some piquant ginger carrot soup. 
I swear this image is at natural image proportions, but something Dali is going on...
Grilled cheese with prosciutto, pear, and fontina

Have your deli freshly slice the prosciutto, rather than buying the pre-sliced packets. As is true of virtually all food, being pre-cut or ground exposes more surface area to the ravages of light and oxidization, which immediately begin to degrade flavor and texture. Fresh from the deli prosciutto is cheaper, tastier, and less slimy.

1 baguette, sliced diagonally for long, thin slices
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 slices prosciutto
4 slices fontina cheese
1 cup arugula
pear, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Warm a cast iron skillet to medium heat. 

Using a bread knife, slice the baguette at a hard angle, to create oblong slices, 8 in total.
Nice and easy
Next, slice the pear by first cutting it in half, removing the core, and then cutting it into thin sheets.

Just so 
Fontina typically comes in a block, so cut to create slices. Lay out 4 slices of the bread, and apply a layer of Dijon mustard. 
Just the right amount of fiery
Now, layer on the ingredients: cheese slice, prosciutto, cheese slice, pear, arugula. If you are so inclined, apply mustard on the other side of the bread before placing on the top of the sandwich. Apply a few small swipes of butter across the top of the sandwich
Assembly line
Place the buttered side down into the hot pan, and apply a few small pats of butter to the other side. Allow to cook for 3-4 minutes, until golden brown. Flip the sandwich and cook on the other side, another 3-4 minutes.

Remove to a plate and allow to cool for 2-3 minutes before serving.

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