Smile, it's National Grilled Cheese Day

Two recipes create a satisfying vegetarian dinner for National Grilled Cheese Day: Quickly sautéed apple slices and arugula liven up a classic grilled cheese sandwich, and cumin and fresh cilantro do the same for lentil soup.

Blue Kitchen
With buttery and crunchy, bread the sharp cheddar cheese, and crisp apple slices a layer of arugula adds its own layers of flavor and texture.

The Russet apples Marion had picked up at the farmers market had sat in a bowl on the kitchen counter for days now, their rough skin inviting an occasional touch and the promise of delicious tartness encouraging ideas for their use.

So when I found myself thinking about grilled cheese sandwiches the other day, the apples popped into my head about half a thought later. The two flavors play together so nicely. Think of trays of rich, creamy cheeses with slices of apples offering a crisp, tart counterpoint. Or hot apple pie with slices of cheddar on top, an old-fashioned tradition in certain parts of the United States that probably made its way here from England.

Sure, I could have sliced apples to serve alongside the grilled cheese sandwiches, but honestly, I’m not a huge fan of apples straight up. Something about their unrelenting crispness puts me off. But I am a big fan of sweet and savory together, especially when combined unexpectedly in a sandwich. Take my Chicken, Goat Cheese & Apricot Jam Sandwich, for instance. Or the even sillier sounding Bacon & Marmalade Sandwich on Pumpernickel Toast.

So it was settled, the apples would go into the sandwich after a quick sauté to take off their crisp edge. And some fresh arugula to add its nice, peppery bite. Was it the perfect grilled cheese sandwich? Anyone who loves grilled cheese has his or her own vision of perfection, some simple, some quite complex, but all with well defined ingredients and cooking procedures. I hope you’ll share yours in the comments. So I won't presume to tell you this is the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. But it was a perfect sandwich. The bread was buttery and crunchy, the cheddar both sharp and creamy. The apple slices were more subtle than I expected, but their sweetness played beautifully against the richness of the cheese, and the arugula added its own layers of flavor and texture.

Once I'd decided the sandwiches were going to be dinner rather than lunch, I wanted a soup to make it a complete meal. And since the soup was rich with cheese and butter, the soup needed to be just the opposite – fresh, light and with some mild spiciness (I’m talking flavor here, not heat). The cumin and cilantro did the trick.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Apple & Arugula
With most of my recipes, I'm very careful with exact ingredients and precise amounts. This sandwich is open to some interpretation, which I'll describe in the Kitchen Notes at the end of both recipes.

small Russet apple (or other cooking apple – see Kitchen Notes)
unsalted butter
a good, crusty white bread (see Kitchen Notes)
extra sharp cheddar (or other cheeses – see Kitchen Notes)

1. Peel, core and thinly slice the apple (one apple will make two sandwiches – if you’re only making one sandwich, go ahead and eat the other half apple). Heat a small nonstick skillet over medium-low flame. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in the skillet and sauté apple slices for about 1 minute per side. Transfer apple slices to a plate. Turn off the heat under the skillet, but leave it on the burner and add another tablespoon or so of butter to the pan, swirling it to melt the butter.

3. Slice the cheese thinly, 1/8-inch or so. You want about 2 ounces of cheese per sandwich.

4. Assemble the sandwich. To cook it, you’re going to butter the bread, not the pan. Brush one side of each slice of bread with the melted butter, making sure to coat the entire surface. Place one slice of bread buttered side down on a plate. Place a layer of arugula on it, then a layer of apples slices and finally, the cheese. Top with the second slice of bread, buttered side up.

5. Grill it. Heat a large, lidded, dry nonstick skillet over a medium-high flame. Transfer the assembled sandwich to the skillet, cover and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the sandwich and cook uncovered for another 2 minutes or until bread is browned on both sides and cheese has melted. If necessary, turn again until desired brownness is achieved on the bread. Transfer to a plate and serve.

Lentil Soup with Cumin and Cilantro
Serves 3 to 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery rib, diced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup lentils
2 cups water
2 cups vegetable broth (see Kitchen Notes)
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, divided
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste (see Kitchen Notes)

1. Heat a stock pot or large saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil, onion, carrot, celery and cumin. Cook until vegetables are slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add the lentils, water, broth, bay leaf and half the cilantro. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until lentils are tender.

2. Remove bay leaf and transfer 1 cup of soup to food processor. Purée. Return puréed soup to pot and add remaining cilantro. Cook for about 5 minutes longer. Adjust seasonings and serve.

Kitchen Notes

First, the sandwich. Russet apples are great for this; they have a nice flavor and hold their shape when cooked briefly. But any apple that can be used in cooking, even Golden Delicious, will work well. We really don’t like Red Delicious for this or any other use, but that’s just us.

For the bread, you want a good quality one, but not too assertive. An Italian bread or country white or sourdough are all good choices. Go for a light-colored bread – it colors nicely in the pan, and that golden colors part of the grilled cheese sandwich experience to me.

When it comes to cheese, we're big fans of extra sharp cheddar. This was a New York extra extra sharp cheddar from Trader Joe's. But brie or Camembert would be stellar on this sandwich – different, but very, very delicious.

Now the soup. I called for vegetable broth here. We like Better Than Bouillon Vegetable Base, by Superior Touch. as the name implies, it’s better than those cubes – at least to us. These bases [they offer several flavors] are concentrates that you mix with boiling water; one teaspoon makes a cup of broth, and they last in your fridge for months. But use whatever vegetable broth you like – or use chicken stock if you’re not concerned about the soup being vegetarian.

When you adjust the seasoning, use a light hand with the salt – and taste before adding any salt. One reason I used half broth and half water is that many commercial broths are plenty salty. As it was, I needed no extra salt in my soup.

Related post on The Blue Kitchen: Chicken, Goat Cheese & Apricot Jam Sandwich

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