Grilled cheese sandwiches are hot right now--crispy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside hot. Restaurants all over town make gussied up versions, food trucks are slinging them, and the Grilled Cheese Invitational, which celebrates the sandwich in all shapes, flavors and sizes, has quickly become one of the most highly anticipated events of the year.
The beauty of grilled cheese wasn't lost on Clementine chef and owner Annie Miler when she opened her Century City café 10 years ago. She always intended to have a simple cheddar grilled cheese on the menu--there are few things better than the classic--but when she realized April was National Grilled Cheese month, she came up with a slew of new flavor combinations. Now she's celebrating 10 years of her annual grilled cheese bonanaza by offering 10 different grilled cheese sandwiches every day.
"At first we offered one new sandwich a day," says Miler. "It wasn't until the fourth of fifth year that we did the Cheeseball, sort of a tournament-style grilled cheese competition. It was like March Madness for grilled cheese."
And then things got really crazy. Over the years, there's been the Cheesedance, a film-festival themed menu (think: Media Noche in the Garden of Gouda and Edam); in 2008, in honor of the presidential election, it was Melt the Vote with official voting cards, campaign signs ("Cheese We Can Believe In" and "Support Our Soups"), and an entire blog dedicated to the cause.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of cheesiness, Miler brought back all of the winning favorites from the past. The Philly cheesesteak grilled cheese is the number-one all-time favorite, and pulling a quick second is the grilled asparagus with Italian cheeses. "We've done some version of it every year. We can't have Grilled Cheese Month without it," says Miler.
The sandwich is simple, as most are at Clementine: roasted asparagus spears, ricotta cheese, parmesan and mozzarella, with a fresh salsa verde. "But you can just as easily use basil," adds Miler.
You think it's easy, but surprisingly (or not?), there are different schools of thought on how to make a proper grilled cheese. At Clementine, the chef uses a Panini press, but others argue that a griddle or pan is better. And then there's the butter the bread vs. butter the pan debate, and what kind of cheese and bread to use.
"That's all splitting hairs," says Miler. "Basically if you've got good bread, good cheese and good ingredients, it's kind of hard to mess it up. Unless you wait to eat it. If you really want to do it right, just make sure to eat it right away."
Here's the recipe for Clementine's Asparagus Melt:
Clementine Asparagus Melt
Makes 2 sandwiches
6 to 8 thick asparagus spears
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces ricotta cheese
4 ounces grated mozzarella
1 ounce grated parmesan
1 tablespoon finely chopped mint
1 tablespoon finely chopped basil
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped capers
1 clove garlic, minced
Cracked black pepper
Squeeze of lemon
4 slices olive bread
Olive oil or butter for grilling sandwich
1. Preheat oven to 400°. Remove woody part of stem from asparagus spears and discard. Toss asparagus in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 7 to 9 minutes, just until tender. Set aside to cool.
2. In a small bowl, combine cheeses and a pinch of cracked pepper. In another bowl, combine herbs, capers, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, minced garlic, lemon and a pinch of salt.
3. Spread the cheese mixture evenly onto 4 slices of bread. Slice asparagus spears on an angle, into bite-sized pieces. (Note: If asparagus is very thick, you can also cut slices lengthwise.) Divide asparagus slices evenly onto two of the slices of bread, top with herb-garlic mixture and then the other slices of bread containing the cheese to make a sandwich.
4. Brush each side of the sandwiches with olive oil or melted butter, then grill in a non-stick or cast iron pan, or on a panini press until bread is browned and crispy and cheese is melty. Remove from heat and allow sandwich to sit for about a minute before cutting.