Fancy Grilled Cheese

Fancy Grilled Cheese, Mexican-Style

I used to have a general menu plan for the week because I thought it would be easier to impose some sort of boundaries on meals (“Oh, it’s meatloaf night!” so that’s what I make . . . well, not exactly meatloaf around here, but you know what I mean) and make sure I am not making, say, pasta, three nights in a row (which is completely within the realm of possibility).

Sunday: Wild Card (Scott usually cooks Sunday nights)

Monday: Tofu or some other kind of soy

Tuesday: Soup

Wednesday: Salad

Thursday: Eggs

Friday: Pizza or sandwiches

Saturday: Pasta

This, like many of my other Ordnung fueled plans, fell by the wayside except for Fridays. I still typically make pizza or sandwiches (my definition of sandwich is quite broad . . . it includes fajitas, quesadillas and burritos, for example). This particular Friday, I was paging through Everyday Greens, San Francisco chef Annie Somerville’s follow-up to the more complicated Fields of Greens. I have many favorite recipes from Somerville. I don’t let a summer pass without making Spicy Corn and Chick-pea Soup with Chiles, for example. The first time my dear friend Susan invited us over for dinner maybe 15 years ago, she and her husband Tom made the time consuming but delicious Port Wine and Mushroom Lasagna. The fact that I remember it speaks volumes for the recipe and its execution. The recipes are almost always complex, but well worth the effort. I digress with my food nostalgia, however.

The sandwich recipe I landed on this particular Friday was for grilled cheese . . . but not just any grilled cheese . . . a grilled-poblano-and-onion-with-cheddar-and-cilantro-pesto grilled cheese.

Truth be told, I made one plain old sharp white cheddar grilled cheese because I didn’t think Alia would be willing to stray from her beloved standard. Luca almost choked on a poblano that was hotter than I expected so he also ate part of the plain one. Scott and I happily devoured an entire sandwich each.

If you don’t make this particular one, consider making up your own custom fancy grilled cheese. Have a few stray mushrooms kicking around the crisper? Make a carmelized-onion-sauteed-mushroom-cheddar grilled cheese. It’s summertime which means there is copious amounts of zucchini. How about fried shredded zucchini, basil and caramelized onions (again!)? Clean out your vegetable drawer. Substitute vegetables for half the cheese . . . hear applause from your family and nutritionist!

Grilled Mexican Sandwich with Poblano Chilies and Cheddar

adapted from Annie Somerville’s Everyday Greens

makes 4 sandwiches

1/2 large red onion peeled and sliced into 1/2 ” thick rings

1 poblano chile

Garlic oil (Steep two minced cloves of garlic in 1/2 cup olive oil for 30 minutes. Strain out the garlic and reserve for the cilantro pesto. Store remaining oil in a glass jar in the fridge.)

Salt and pepper

8 slices of whole wheat bread (I bought a homemade loaf at our local co-op)

6-8 ounces sharp white cheddar, thinly sliced or grated

Cilantro pesto (Throw about 1/2 the chopped garlic from the garlic oil, a handful of cilantro leaves (about 1/2 cup), a couple glugs of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lime juice in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Taste and season with salt)

Unsalted butter, softened (for grilling the sandwiches)

Heat a gas grill to medium. Brush the onion slices and poblano with garlic oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. If you have a  grill skillet, place the whole poblano and onion slices in the skillet and grill onions until tender (about 3-4 minutes on each side) and poblano until the skin is charred and blistered. Alternately, stick a skewer or two through the onion rings to keep them together and place on the grill. Carefully turn after 3-4 minutes. When the poblano is done, place it in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap or in a paper bag. When cool, peel, cut in half and seed. Put the onions and chile in a bowl and give one more sprinkle of salt and a grind of pepper.

Place 4 slices of bread on a work surface. Layer cheese, poblano and onion on top and drizzle with cilantro pesto. Leave the fancy stuff off 1-2 sandwiches as needed. Place the other 4 slices of bread on top of the sandwiches and spread with butter. Place the sandwiches, buttered side down, in a skillet or on a griddle heated to medium. Then, spread the top side with butter. Place a lid on the frying pan to help the cheese to melt. Cook until golden, 4-5 minutes, then turn and cook the other side. Serve immediately with a romaine, radish and avocado salad with a lime vinaigrette on the side.


Me:     A- (It is STILL grilled cheese, thus the -.)

Scott: B+

Luca: A (“even though it was too spicy for me”)

Alia:   lots of B+s (this is a rating of a plain grilled cheese)


Fabulous Feta Comes to the Rescue

It was one of those days on which dinner ideas were eluding me. My mind was blank. I haven’t made a full scale trip to the grocery since we returned from our little Midwestern jaunt, so there are only odds and ends in the refrigerator as well as some things my mom sent home with us. Does your mom pack up her refrigerator for you to take with you when you visit? Mine does. It makes me feel like I am still in college or something. In the 11th hour, my mind zeroed in on the half a tub of feta in the cheese drawer. Had it gone bad? If not, it must be used immediately . . . but, in what? I could have made a frittata, but I had 7 ounces to use up. The only way I could think to use up that much was in some sort of pasta dish. Then, a favorite came to mind – Marcella Hazan’s goat cheese and chive pasta. I make this at least once or twice every spring when I have a lot of chives on my hands.

I had feta, not goat cheese so a tweak was in order. I thought I would just wing it and experiment with substituting the feta for the goat cheese, but I chickened out and did a search. I found a New York Times recipe from 1997 that looked promising. It still needed some tweaking because – first of all – everyone in this family but me detests olives. (Not long after Alia came home from Kazakhstan, I made a green olive gnocchi with green olive pesto for just the two of us and she gobbled it up. I was hopeful that I found an olive ally, but that was the last time she touched them.) Secondly, I didn’t happen to have some pappardelle lying about. Farfelle, yes, pappardelle, no. Finally, chives aplenty here, not thyme.

This improvisation was mostly a hit. And, thankfully, the feta did not perish, but triumphed in this unusual, but tasty sauce.

Farfelle With Grape Tomatoes and Feta Cheese Sauce

adapted from The New York Times

Yield: 6 servings.

1/2 to 1 Serrano chile, cut in half lengthwise, seeds and membranes removed

1 clove garlic, smashed and skin removed

1/4 pound Greek feta cheese

1/2 cup cottage cheese

3 tablespoons plain yogurt, low-fat is okay

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1/2 a container grape tomatoes, quartered

fresh black pepper to taste

12-16 ounces farfelle or pasta shape of your choice (Next time, I will try linguine)

1/2 cup reserved pasta water

Bring water to boil in a large pot for the pasta.

With food processor running, put chili and garlic through feed tube to chop. Turn off processor; add feta, cottage cheese, yogurt and lemon juice, and process until smooth-ish. Put the cheese mixture in a large bowl (needs to accommodate ~1 pound of pasta) with chopped chives, quartered tomatoes and a grind or two of pepper. Taste for salt. I put a sprinkle in because you know I like salt.

By this time the water should be boiling. Add a tablespoon or more of salt. (Mario Batali says it should taste like the sea whatever that means.) Cook pasta to al dente. Don’t forget to scoop a little water out in case the sauce needs thinning. Drain pasta and toss with cheese mixture, tomatoes and chives. Add water a tablespoon at a time if the sauce is too thick. Taste and adjust seasonings. I added one more grind of pepper and the tiniest bit more salt.

I made some simple roasted broccoli as a side. I broke two heads of broccoli into bite-size florets and tossed to coat with olive oil on a cookie sheet. Then, I seasoned with salt and pepper. The cookie sheet went into a 400 degree oven for 10-15 minutes (tossing once) until tender. When the broccoli was done, I put the zest of half the lemon I used for the sauce on top and tossed.


Me:    A- (The minus is because it was too saucy, but I adjusted the recipe here to take this into account. The flavor of the sauce is great though.)

Scott: A (He had the same issue with the sauciness.)

Luca:  A (“At first a B because the flavor was so surprising, but I got used to it.”)

Alia:    D (I am on a losing streak here. The tomatoes were particularly offensive.)

Welcome to the Melting Pot

Tex-Mex Vegetable Enchiladas

We have friends who just returned from adopting their son in China. Welcoming a child into your family through adoption has its own set of joys and challenges. Instead of watching an ever growing belly, prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) carefully gather and tend sheaves of Apostilled documents from a minion of professionals like social workers as well as government agencies you don’t know exist. This pile of documents – the dossier – can weigh as much as a newborn baby when complete. If adopting internationally, the physical and emotional fatigue of travel rivals hours spent in labor. A family may be in the air or on the road for as long as 24 hours. The resulting jet lag from traveling to some place where it is yesterday can make one feel like they took a hand full of sleeping pills and chased them with a bottle of vodka – that was my experience anyway. This is a time to get to know each other and set up a routine . . . a time when it is helpful to not have to worry about getting food on the table.

With this in mind, a friend has arranged meals for the newly expanded family. I have a few go-to meals for such occasions. They can best be described as comfort foods – lasagna or calzones along with salad and brownies perhaps. This time, I opted for Tex-Mex enchiladas (Everybody Likes Sandwiches is a great site, by the way). I came across this recipe years ago and it became a favorite immediately. I had relied on a tomato-based sauce for enchiladas before this, one from Mollie Katzen of Moosewood Restaurant fame. I experimented with dried chile sauces once or twice, but the results were bitter. I do love this Tex-Mex version, but healthy, it is not – an oil-based roux with spices and broth added. I increase the vegetables to make up for lack of nutritional content in the sauce. I have stuffed the corn tortillas with diced, pan-fried zucchini and mushrooms, chopped onion and grated sharp cheddar . . . even cauliflower florets, onion and cheese. This time I added – you guessed it – kale! I chopped kale, sauteed it with some oil and a pinch of salt until wilted and added it to diced onions and grated sharp cheddar. Any combination works. You just need about 2 cups of filling. A simple slaw rounds out the meal in the winter; corn on the cob in the summer.

In addition to enchiladas, Sean will be introduced to curry and frittata the first week he is home. Welcome to the melting pot, sweet little boy!

P.S. Lori, a dear friend, is making her way to China to adopt her third daughter in just a few days. Check out her blog if you want to follow along.

Tex-Mex Enchiladas

Recipe adapted from Everybody Likes Sandwiches

for the chili gravy
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon garlic pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or epazote
1/8 teaspoon dried chipotle (I have also omitted this – it depends on how spicy you want it.)
2 tablespoons chile powder
2 cups vegetable broth or water (I use water mixed with 1/2 teaspoon Better The Bouillon)

In a medium-sized pot, heat up oil over medium-high heat. Stir in flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the flour mixture browns, about 3-4 minutes. Add in the garlic powder, cumin, oregano, chipotle and chili powder and cook for another minute, all the while stirring like the dickens. Add in broth and turn heat to low, whisking sauce to smooth out any lumps. Let the sauce simmer and thicken. If the sauce gets too thick, add in a bit of water and whisk.

for the enchiladas
8-10 corn tortillas
1 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 small onion, diced (reserve some to sprinkle on top)
about 3/4 cup mix of diced or chopped sauteed vegetables (see above)
2 cups chili gravy

Preheat oven to 400F. Wrap the corn tortillas in a damp towel and microwave for about 1 minute 30 seconds. They should be pliable and bend without cracking. Set aside, keeping them wrapped in the towel while assembling.

Mix together the cheese, most of the onions and sauteed vegetables into a medium-sized bowl. Pour half a cup of the gravy into the bottom of a square baking pan. Assemble the enchiladas by putting a few tablespoons of the cheese-onion-vegetable mixture into the center of the corn tortilla and bringing the edges together so they overlap. Place each rolled tortilla into the baking pan seam-side down. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Pour the gravy over the enchiladas until covered (you may have a little left) and sprinkle more cheese and reserved onions over top. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until sauce is bubbly and cheese has melted. Makes 8-10 enchiladas.

There’s Something About Pizza

Pizza topped with kale, Field Roast Italian Sausage, feta and mozzarella

My brother is a devotee of Barnaby’spizza in South Bend, Indiana. So much so, he has spent some time trying to replicate their flaky crust. More recently, he is on a neo-Neopolitan crust kick. Karen, my friend and college roommate dissects and eats her beloved pizza with surgical precision – toppings first, then crust. She describes it as the perfect food . . . all food groups present and accounted for. And, delicious. What else could you want? People love their pizza.

We are no different. Friday nights are sandwich or pizza nights. When pizza is on the menu, I often make a batch of dough and freeze half – same with the sauce. I have experimented some, but always seem to go back to Deborah Madison’s crust and pizza sauce recipe in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. As for toppings, there is always cheese for Alia. The other one is an improvisation – thinly sliced potato and Maytag blue cheese with a sprinkle of thyme with no sauce; a mix of mushrooms with smoked mozzarella sprinkled with minced flat-leaf Italian parsley and garlic; or caramelized onions and Field Roast Italian Sausage with mozzarella and Parmesan. Never more than three toppings though – preferably only two – because any more than that results in a muddled, confused pizza, in my opinion.

Tonight it was sauteed kale (yes, again!) and Field Roast Italian Sausage with crumbled feta and mozzarella for us. According to Luca, “Sometimes experiments turn out really good.”

Friday Night Pizza Party

Crust (adapted ever so slightly from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

1 1/2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (one packet)
2 tablespoons olive oil (I don’t bother with extra virgin when I baking or pan frying for that matter. I save it for vinaigrettes when you can really taste it)
1  1/2 teaspoons salt (sea salt or kosher)
1/2 to 1 cup whole-wheat flour, to taste (I use 1 cup)
3 to 3 1/2 cups flour (I usually only need about 2 1/2 cups)

Pour 1/2 cup of the water into a mixing bowl, stir in the yeast, and set aside for 10 minutes. Add remaining water, olive oil, and salt, then beat in the whole wheat flour followed by enough white flour to form a shaggy dough. Turn it out onto a lightly floured counter and knead until smooth, adding more flour as needed to keep it from sticking. For a crisp, light crust, pizza dough should be on the moist side, which means it will be slightly tacky.

Put the dough in an oiled bowl, turn it once to coat, then cover with a towel and set aside to rise until doubled in size (about 40-60 mins). I find the top of the refrigerator is a good place for the dough to rise. Turn the dough onto the counter and divide into the number of pizzas you want (I usually find one recipe makes 4 pizza crusts that are a little more than 12″ in diameter). Shape each piece into a ball, set on a lightly floured counter, cover with a towel, and let rise for another 20-30 mins.

While the dough rises the second time, you can make the tomato sauce (below) and prepare the toppings you want. If you are using  a pizza stone, place the stone in the oven and set to 500 degrees. You can also use a large round pizza pan or a large cookie sheet. The idea is to put the crust on a really hot surface so it starts crisping immediately,

Tomato Sauce for Pizza (from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves sliced thinly

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 28 ounce can crushed (preferably fire-roasted) tomatoes (I like Muir Glen brand)

Warm the olive oil over medium heat in a 10 inch skillet (I use cast iron) with garlic and a little black pepper. Add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt and raise the heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the juices are evaporated and the sauce that remains is thick enough to mound on a spoon with no surrounding watery liquid. Taste and add salt and pepper for a flavorful sauce. This is a simple sauce so seasoning is key.

  • Shaping the Dough

Taking one ball at a time, flatten it into a disk, pushing it outward with your palm. Working from the middle, push the dough out with your fingers until it’s flatter. Then, I get out my marble rolling pin and roll it into a rough circle less than 1/4″ thick. The crust can best be described as thin and chewy. Adjust the thickness to your preference.

  • Baking the Pizza Crust

I own a pizza stone and peel. These are helpful if you make pizzas often. A pizza pan or cookie sheet will work, but not as well.

  • Using a Pan?

If using a pan, carefully take it out of the oven. It’s hot! Sprinkle a little cornmeal on the pizza pan to keep the dough from sticking. Place the rolled out crust onto your pizza pan and brush with a little olive oil and prick with the tines of a fork. Put the pan into the oven and let bake for about 5 minutes or until it starts to brown SLIGHTLY. Poke big bubbles that form with a fork.

  • Using a Stone?

Sprinkle a little cornmeal on the peel to keep the dough from sticking. Place the rolled crust onto your peel and brush with a little olive oil and prick with the tines of a fork. Shake the peel slightly to be sure it isn’t sticking. Carefully slide the crust onto the stone. This takes a little practice. Let bake for about 5 minutes or until it starts to brown SLIGHTLY. Poke big bubbles that form with a fork.

  • Topping the Pizza

Take the crust out and add toppings as you like. Tonight, I put on a thin layer of tomato sauce, then chopped, sauteed kale and Field Roast Italian Sausage. I finished it off with crumbled feta and shredded mozzarella. I also made a cheese one – thin layer of tomato sauce and shredded Parmesan and mozzarella with a sprinkling of smoked salt when it came out of the oven. Put the pizza back in the oven for 5-7 minutes until cheese is melted and bubbly. Remove pan from the oven or remove the pizza using the peel.

Let the pizza rest on the pan or peel for 10 more minutes so it is easier to cut. If all goes well, you will have a thin and chewy crust that holds it shape under the tasty toppings. No droopy pizza here!

Is it easier to order out? Yes. Is it as good? No way!


Me:  A (kale pizza)

Scott: A (kale pizza and cheese pizza)

Luca: A (kale pizza) A and half a + (cheese)

Alia: A (cheese pizza)


Kale meets cheese in a corn tortilla

Scott takes Luca to Cub Scouts a few times a month, so Alia and I fend for ourselves at dinnertime. Sometimes, I heat up leftovers for her and grab a handful of peanuts for myself. I think I am missing an opportunity for some one-on-one time with our quickly growing imp. So, I decided we would sit down and eat dinner just the two of us. While Alia rambled on about our cats, the birthday cards she made for Scott (Happy Birthday, Scott!), Flat Stanleyand James’ return to daycare, we ate Spanish rice leftover from Sunday night along with quesadillas stuffed with kale and cheese.

Some nights, planning dinner is like a segment of “Use It Up” on Everyday Food on Martha Stewart Living radio (Not sure if it is on any more. We cancelled our Sirius). Listeners called in with random ingredients and Sandy Gluck gave them recipe ideas. I had a bunch of kale that was starting to go south in the fridge. There was also some Greek feta and shredded mozzarella I always keep on hand . . . and a package of corn tortillas I bought for tempeh tacos. I had this recipe pinned on Pinterest.

The topic of kale came up a few months ago at a party. A friend asked a group of well-seasoned home cooks how we worked kale into our diets. Then, and over the course of a few months, we had so many suggestions we could have written a kale cookbook – kale and potato Spanish tortilla, kale and potato enchiladas, kale lasagna, kale and ricotta stuffed shells, sweet potato kale pizza, kale and feta egg bake . . . and how about kale pesto? I could go on, but I think you can see that kale is very versatile. Use it much like you use spinach – even in salads. It is a much sturdier green, which I appreciate. Spinach can break down into slimy goop so easily. Kale has a backbone and keeps it shape and some of its texture. Here is another recipe to add to the kale cookbook.


adapted from Serious Eats (makes about 9)

2 tablespoons oil

1/3 cup minced red onion

3/4 pound curly kale, chopped (You can also use the flatter lacinto variety . . . what ever is available)

1/2 teaspoon salt (Start out with a scant 1/2 teaspoon and add more if needed. The original recipe calls for 1 teaspoon and that was a bit too much. The amount of salt depends on the saltiness of the feta you use.)

1/4 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes or to taste

2 cloves minced garlic

1 cup diced feta cheese

9-12 corn tortillas

1 cup shredded mozzarella (I keep a bag of Kraft shredded mozzarella in the fridge ever since Cook’s Illustrated gave it a decent rating in a taste test. It is not organic, gourmet cheese, but it tastes pretty good and keeps well.)

In large (12-inch) skillet (I use cast iron), heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and beginning to brown, 3-5 minutes. Add chopped kale with any water clinging to leaves, along with salt, chile flakes, and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until greens are tender, about 10 minutes. Add water as necessary to keep skillet from drying out.

When greens are cooked, stir in feta and remove from heat. Season to taste with salt if necessary. Transfer to a bowl and wipe out the skillet. Resist the urge to eat all the filling before it makes it into the tortillas.

In the same skillet, heat remaining oil over medium-high heat until shimmering, using a spatula to spread evenly on surface. Add as many tortillas as will fit and cook on one side until softened, 2-3 minutes. Flip, then spoon 2-3 tablespoons of filling onto tortillas. Sprinkle a tablespoon or so of mozzarella on top of the filling. Use a spatula to fold tortillas in half.

Cook until tortillas are golden and cheese is melted, 2-3 minutes per side. If necessary, keep cooked quesadillas in warm oven until all are cooked. Repeat with remaining tortillas and filling. Serve immediately.

I served with leftover Spanish rice.


Me:  A

Alia: D (She ate it but with much prodding.)