One of the things that terrifies me about trying to write about food is the part where you create your own recipes. I’m moderately good at following recipes. Most of the time, if I mess up a recipe, it’s because of a mathematical error. (I teach English because I’m crappy at doing math.) But mathematical foibles aside, I like following recipes. I especially love complicated ones. The more ingredients and steps, the more I feel myself rising to a challenge. It’s the same feeling I had when I finished reading Gone with the Wind. Somehow, reading 1500 pages of epic fiction just makes you feel a fantastic sense of accomplishment. Likewise, when I make a pasta with a homemade cream sauce and sundried tomatoes, a recipe with lots of steps and ingredients, I just think, Go Dana! Go Dana!
I am a fan of throwing together meals. Obviously, baking is a bit trickier. That’s chemistry. There are reactions that happen between ingredients, especially when you throw in the added element of heat. You can’t just bandy about with a baking recipe because the outcome is usually heartbreaking. But plain old cooking is a bit more of a fast and loose operation. You can throw things in the pot/bowl/pan, whatever you have lying around. You can make sauces, substitute ingredients, and make magic happen.
One rule I’ve learned: when magic happens, write down everything you did. I have yet to be able to create a magical dish I prepraed for my roommates in a fit of inspiration involving my take on a beurre blanc sauce, with sauteed squash, crab meat, and pasta. I should have written it down. I didn’t.
Most of my experimentation in the kitchen involves pasta dishes. I like rooting around in the fridge, pulling out all manner of veggies, meat, and cheese, and sauteeing things in a pan, tossing it with pasta, and possibly adding cheese or a sauce. These hardly seem earth-shattering. It’s a pasta toss. It’s nothing. It’s definitely not worth writing down. Or so I thought (see magical crab dish above).
Because I feel I am not creative or experimental enough, I feel that creating recipes is beyond my abilities. I can modify other people’s stuff, I know. That’s what a lot of cooks do. There are so few truly new recipes, it seems. Look up apple pie or eggs benedict on allrecipes.com and see how many responses you get. Everyone has their own take. We tweak as we see fit. I know this is acceptable, but it’s also a bit daunting. I’m working on fostering fearlessness in the kitchen. It’s a slow process.
But in the midst of my pity party about what a crappy cook I am because I can’t think of brand new ways to make chocolate chip cookies, I had a moment of ingenuity today at lunch.
All month long, I’ve seen a local restaurant posting their signature grilled cheese sandwiches in honor of National Grilled Cheese Sandwich month. I love themed months/days. They make it acceptable to eat pancakes or ice cream or doughnuts in the name of patriotism (or something). So today, after I finished grading a batch of papers, I headed to the kitchen to make myself a grilled cheese sandwich.
This weekend, I made a batch of Amish white bread, a sweet bread that’s easy to make, tastes a bit like Hawaiian bread, and toasts up like a dream. It makes two loaves, so I always toss one in the freezer for later, and my roommates and I quickly gobble up the first. The bread made a perfect foundation for my grilled cheese.
The thing I love about grilled cheese is that it’s exactly like pasta toss. You just look in your fridge and think, hmm, what do I like with cheese? (Answer: everything.) Then you put it on bread and devour.
Take That, Inferiority Complex, Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Two slices of bread (any will do; I used Amish white bread)
Five slices sharp cheddar cheese (sliced from the block, not pre-sliced)
Small handful mozerella cheese (I used part-skim – keeping it healthy, yo)
Two slices tomato
Small handful of spinach, stems removed
Two fresh basil leaves, stems removed, torn
Two slices bacon, fried (I bake mine, actually – in the toaster oven at 350 for about ten minutes)
Spreadable butter (I use Country Crock)
1. Butter one side of each slice of bread with butter spread. Sprinkle lightly with garlic salt. Set aside.
2. Heat a small pan (non-stick or cast-iron) over medium heat. Once it’s hot, lay the butter side of one slice of bread down.
3. Assemble filling. Start with basil, then cheddar, then spinach, then mozerella, then tomato, then bacon, then top piece of bread.
4. Once the bottom of the bread is a little toasty, flip the sandwich and then press down with a spatula. This will flatten the sandwich a little, forcing the filling to press together. Cover the pan and toast for 2-3 minutes.
5. Flip the sandwich one more time to get an evenly toasty brown on each slice of bread. When desired level of toastiness is achieved, remove from heat and set on plate.
6. Allow sandwich to rest for a few minutes. Grilled cheese sandwiches are similar to meat in that they need to rest for a minute or two when they come off the heat. This allows everything to settle so you don’t end up with a soppy mess of a sandwich.
7. Once rested, slice in half and enjoy!
This is a particularly decadent sandwich, so I coupled it with a pickle on the side, as well as a banana. (See, Mom? I’m healthy!) You can really feel free to experiment with whatever you have on hand. The sky’s the limit.
I guess that’s a truth I should get comfortable with about all cooking. The only limit is my own inferiority complex, and I’ve got grilled cheese for days to cure that sorry hang-up.
Happy Grilled Cheese Month!