There's no denying that I've been on a bit of a sodium citrate cheese kick as of late, it's probably my favorite ingredient of the last year, so it was only a matter of time before a grilled cheese sandwich finally made its way onto this site. I've been eating a decent amount of grilled cheeses since I've been experimenting with citrate, but it wasn't really until this last sandwich that I felt like I got something worth mentioning here. Its inspiration wasn't a sandwich at all, but instead a bad experience with broccoli.
A few months ago I had this idea to write a post on how to use one chicken for four different meals throughout the course of the week. In writing that post I got sidetracked on a small tangent of how to break down a chicken, which, as many of my tangents do, grew uncontrollably until it swallowed up the original idea entirely, leading to a whole other post and a good idea (temporarily) abandoned. In testing recipes for that original post, I bought some broccoli to use as a side. My intention was to serve it sautéed and my knee jerk response re: the sautéing of green vegetables was to blanch quickly first, shock in cold water, then throw in a hot skillet. My memory of what I've read and watched of cooking, which happens to be the first thing I consult when I'm in the kitchen, was rife with images of blanching and shocking, so that's what I went with. But the end result was terrible. The myriad little bulbous ends of the broccoli absorbed so much water during the dips in boiling and iced water that it became impossible to dry them out in the sauté pan without also overcooking them. I was left with deceivingly tasty looking, but entirely water-logged broccoli. I hated it. In the days to come I couldn't stop thinking about how delicious broccoli is, and how I messed it all up. I felt bad. Broccoli deserved better, and I was committed to righting my wrong.
Luckily for me, broccoli is in season right now, and I just so happen to bartend at a restaurant that only deals with produce when it's in season (because it tastes better, and tasting better should be a restaurant's raison d'etre). As a result, there's been a lot of broccoli in my life recently. That's a good thing. Another good thing is that the restaurant I work at cooks 99% of its food in one, wood-fired brick oven. There are no stoves. No stoves means no pots of boiling water, which means, no blanching. Thus, all the vegetables are roasted in the oven, which is normally kept at about 700F. And guess what? They're incredibly delicious. Charred exteriors with the cores still a bit al dente, broccoli roasted this way is simply fantastic.
Not having a brick oven of my own, or even an oven that's capable of maintaining a temp over 500 degrees, I looked to my cast iron skillet when trying to recreate this type of broccoli at home. I left the skillet on med-high heat for 5 minutes to get it really hot, added some canola oil, and then dropped in some broccoli which I had cut in a way to maximize surface area. Because only the points of contact with the skillet would char, I sliced the larger florets down the center, and after briefly tossing the broccoli to coat it with the oil, arranged the cut flat stems face down in the pan.
I seasoned with salt and then, and this is the most important part, I did nothing for a minute or two. I didn't shake the pan. I didn't cover it. I just stood there and waited. Moving the pan would move the broccoli around, cooking it more evenly, but the whole point here is to cook unevenly. Because I wanted a really hard char on parts of the vegetable, I had to go against my instincts and just stand there doing nothing. Luckily I still had on tap my in-junior-high-at-a-dance-while-a-fast-song-is-playing instincts, which were perfectly suited for just this type of situation. I utilized those. After a few minutes of awkward non-movement and inexplicable sweating, I flipped the florets to their uncharred sides with tongs, and then transported myself right back to being under 5ft tall and somehow not having any idea what to do even though it was clear that you were to dip when the other person dipped so that you both dipped together. A few minutes later, I tasted a floret. Well charred but not quite cooked enough, I tossed everything around in the pan a bit, then put a lid on it to trap the steam and expedite the cooking. When there was still a bit of bite left in the cores, I cut the heat and dumped the broccoli out.
Wrongs had officially been righted. These were delicious. Especially when tossed with some chili flakes, cracked black pepper, and microplaned lemon zest.
But so then, how to serve the broccoli? Well, what classically goes great with broccoli? Velveeta. Obviously. And it just so happens that my favorite ingredient of last year allows me to make perfectly melty, Veleeta-style cheese out of much higher quality ingredients, namely, real cheese. And, because I apparently have made it my mission to eat all of the trendily neglected gluten out there like I'm rescuing it from some sad, caged, Sarah McLachlan scored world, my brain immediately brought bread into the game. If a grilled cheese with melty cheese is delicious, and charred broccoli with melty cheese is delicious, well then I'll be goddamned if a charred broccoli grilled cheese sandwich wasn't just the perfect set-up for the classic scenario of resultant sums exceeding those predicted by the simple addition of parts!
On its own, a charred broccoli grilled cheese sounded fantastic, but I thought one other element could make it even better. Adding sweetness, more char, acidity, and texture all in one fail swoop, I went with quick caramelized onions finished with mustard, brown sugar, and white wine vinegar. I cut one whole onion in thicker rings because I wanted them to be a substantial textural component of the sandwich, to be easily identifiable rather than melting into the background.
Using my now proven junior high dance technique, I made minimal movements while cooking the onions over high heat for about ten minutes, stirring them only occasionally.
After sufficient caramelization, I stirred in a tablespoon each of whole grain mustard and brown sugar, three tablespoons of white wine vinegar, and a quarter cup white wine.
I stirred vigorously, scraping any bits off the bottom of the pan, until the wine and vinegar had cooked off. Done.
Now onto the main even: Processed Cheese Singles.
Knowing that sodium citrate alone would do a bang-up job making cheese singles, I figured it'd be wise to hop of that horse right in the middle of a metaphorical stream and instead invite some other powders to the party. The much smarter than me folks at Modernist Cuisine recommend adding a couple carrageenans, namely kappa and iota, in addition to the citrate. I don't know much, but I do know that these carrageenans work well gelling dairy. Based on MC's recipe, I went with:
- 90g aged cheddar
- 100g aged gruyere
- 1g kappa carrageenan
- 3g iota carrageenan
- 7g sodium citrate
- 115g water
The powders were dissolved into simmering water, which thickened substantially once the carrageenans hydrated, and then I whisked in the cheese.
The resultant cheese was a bit thicker/sturdier than what I've made with citrate alone, and when spread out onto parchment paper it set up much quicker. From what I've read online, the addition of the carrageenans also allows the processed cheese to be frozen without any harm done to its structure. That said, it's not really necessary. If you have the ingredients already, go for it. If not, stick with sodium citrate. And use this handy calculator on the Modernist Cuisine site to figure out how much liquid and citrate you need for you slices.
As for the gluten component of my meal, I went with some bread from a bakery by my house that has the word artisan in the name. I know, I live in Portland. But it's delicious bread nonetheless and a really short walk from my apartment. Traditionally one isn't supposed to use this type of bread for grilled cheese sandwiches because the large holes in the crumb leak cheese out into the pan. But, I like this bread and crispy pan cheese, as we will see in a little bit, is actually delicious, so as far as I'm concerned, the more leaks the better.
A great trick to making a better grilled cheese sandwich, which I learned first from this Serious Eats post, is to toast the insides of the bread as well. It gets more butter into the final product while increasing the texture, taste, and structural integrity of the sandwich. All good things.
Tear your cheese singles into bits that fit onto the bread. Layer them on both sides. They should start slowly melting right away on the still warm toasted bread.
Onions on the left. Broccoli on the right. Never the twain shall meet.
Except when the twain meet, which is now. Sandwich together and toast on a generously buttered skillet that's been pre-heated over low heat. Cook slowly until you form a nice crust on one side, add more butter, and flip. Repeat.
Perfect. This looks great. But it could look even better...
Grate a shit-ton of Parmigiano-Reggiano all over one side and then return the sandwich to the pan, cheese side down.
Cook until a beautiful cheese crust forms. I know right!
Slice on an angle and take pictures of it.
Maybe have a bite too.