Seasonal Pantry: Grilled cheese, the ultimate comfort food

So far, it's been a grilled cheese sandwich kind of year, which is to say the first quarter of 2014 has been full of bad news, sad news, weird weather and more challenges than usual, or so it seems.

A grilled cheese sandwich is one of my top go-to comfort foods — my version, I suppose, of a pint of ice cream or a big piece of chocolate. It gets me through until tomato season, when I shift to BLTs in times of trouble.

I think of it now, as well, because Saturday, April 12, is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day. It's as good an excuse as any to indulge.

What, exactly, makes a great grilled cheese sandwich and when does a sandwich, piled high with a lot of ingredients, stop being a grilled cheese and morph into something else entirely?

There seems to be a lot of agreement that when the two pieces of bread no longer stick together, it might be good, but it's no longer a grilled cheese. Others suggest that if there are more than five ingredients, it is something else.

When it comes to other aspects — what bread, what cheese, what condiments, and what, if any, additions — chaos reigns. Trying to corral the concept of a grilled cheese sandwich is a bit like herding cats. Everyone runs off in a different direction, often to their childhood favorite.

Certain friends like a sweet flourish, from onion jam, perhaps, or thinly sliced apples or pears. Others like roasted chiles, roasted tomatoes, sweet pickles, dill pickles, ham, roast beef, bacon, chutney, a fried egg and sweet onion, either solo or in all manner of combinations.

When it comes to cheese, aged cheddar seems to be the favorite, though Gruyere, Muenster, mozzarella, goat cheese, brie, blue cheese and even cream cheese all have their fans. Nearly everyone insists that butter must be in there somewhere, too, usually on the outside of the bread but sometimes on the inside.

For me, cheese must dominate. Sometimes I like a slice of thinly shaved onion or, now and then, caramelized onions. Occasionally, I add a few thin slices of avocado. If I happen to have ham on hand, a thin slice or two may make it onto a grilled cheese. I vary the cheese, almost always using something local except when I have an exceptional English cheddar around. Any good cheddar, Muenster, Jack or mozzarella will do in a pinch.

Sometimes I add herbs — most often sage, which flatters and is so flattered by cheese — and I generally like a shake or two of hot sauce, Crystal, Tabasco, Tapatio or whatever may be on hand. Sometimes I shake on some chipotle or serrano powder for extra heat.

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