Exaltations of parental cuisine usually fall into two camps. There are the paeans to Dad’s gumbo and Mom’s meatballs, the familial table as exhibition of inspirational culinary talent. Then there are the Ruth Reichlian rubber-neckings at kitchen disaster, picked-at plates as incentive for progeny to commandeer skillet and stove.
A Bronx-born Jew and the most gentle, self-effacing man I’ve ever known, he cooks according to his temperament and the limitations set by the mutiny of his gastrointestinal system. He has never cared for pickles, lox or Republican politicians. He is intolerant of both lactose and cigarette smoking. In fact, the only time I’ve ever heard him raise his voice was in a restaurant, when a couple dared to light up at the table next to me and my soccer buddies, though to their credit we were in the smoking section. He can detect a speck of black pepper in a vat of pea soup, and if you’d like a sense of his reaction to said pepper speck, just go to YouTube and type in “Carolina Reaper Challenge.” His Crohn’s disease, so serious it nearly killed him, precludes a vast catalogue of ingredients — most of them green, which sometimes makes me wonder whether Mr. Meat and Potatoes is exploiting his illness to evade vegetables on doctor’s orders.
While my mom’s cooking was slightly more ambitious in that the food she made — Ashkenazi sweet-and-sour meatballs with golden raisins and puffy homemade pizza — contained several ingredients and involved mild transmogrification, my dad’s manifested a stark simplicity. In his kitchen, many London broils were broiled. So too, unfortunately, were scallops and fish. The vast majority of spices struck him as too spicy, so dinners rarely saw seasonings other than salt or, for a spell, Mrs. Dash, with the notable exception of sugary, sticky things — Saucy Susan, Sweet Baby Ray’s, and kecap manis, a sweet Indonesian soy sauce that represented a rare dalliance with non-Western foodstuffs and could with a drizzle salvage even the most desiccated slab of sea creature.
His muse was the Cornish hen, and he would bake the diminutive birds with thawed orange juice concentrate until it reduced to a syrup. It was quite good. Perhaps his greatest triumph, though, was his exquisite “melted cheese sandwich,” as we called it, since it wasn’t cooked in a pan but rather open-faced under the broiler until the processed dairy product turned molten then erupted to form a single brown, crackly mountain.
Surely it wasn’t easy cooking for a kid who fancied himself a budding gourmand. Long before I helped chefs write cookbooks for a living, I was particular about the food I ate. For instance, I required that my Celeste brand Zesty 4 Cheese Pizza For One be nuked on the crust-crisping glossy disk that came in the box, despite rumors of its carcinogenic properties. Dino Nuggets, I stipulated, must be cooked in the oven, not microwaved, and served with a vast array of condiments stippled onto a separate plate, including a concoction of honey and mustard that I dubbed “honey mustard.” When I crafted Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, I pulled out all the stops, carefully curating the ingredients my dad could use — the ethos of Noma flourishing in Teaneck, N.J. I chose spirals, the slim pasta twists I preferred to standard-issue macaroni. I opted for butter, not the margarine my dad preferred. I insisted on real milk. As Rene Redzepi would say, this is no time for Lactaid.
It brings me no small amount of shame to report that I wasn’t necessarily the most charitable recipient of his efforts in the kitchen. I may have rolled my eyes when presented with singed scallops or engaged in ostentatious chewing to protest the texture of the London broil. And even when I was old enough to operate the stove, never did I consider briefly abandoning an episode of “Beverly Hills 90210” to make my own damn melted cheese sandwich. Instead, I’d holler my order from upstairs. Occasionally, after my dad had set aside the William Trevor collection in which he was currently enthralled to make and ferry his punk kid a snack, I would, like an oenophile rejecting a corked bottle of Chateau Margaux, dismiss with a hard look any specimens that weren’t adequately browned, dispatching him back to the kitchen for another go.
Before I became a parent, I looked back on those moments unsure why my dad might have decided to remake my sandwich rather than, say, remake my attitude. Now, as the father of two magical little ingrates myself, I recognize the enormity of my past behavior but also sympathize with why he may have let it slide.
While I was fussing about overcooked mollusks and insufficiently marbled steaks, my dad was quietly grappling with divorce, an ailing body and ailing parents. He was also navigating the complexities of raising a kid, and one with a disability to boot. My problems pale by comparison, and still I can barely summon the energy to nuke frozen peas and boil pasta, especially when I could just click them burgers and fries from Shake Shack.
Whenever I hear yet another request for “a big, cold glass of milk” from a child who is more than capable of pouring himself one, I think about the time my dad got home late from work, because for the third week in a row someone had stolen the battery from his elderly Volkswagen Rabbit. I don’t know what frustrations, disappointments and fears occupied his mind as he drove home over the George Washington Bridge from his office at City College. But I do know that I was happy he was home safe and that I was hungry for one of his signature melted cheese sandwiches.
If ever there was a time for a firm “no,” this was it, but he made the thing and left me to my “90210,” allowing me to immerse myself in the tribulations of Brenda and Dylan but disregard his. As an adult, I came to understand this as an act of generosity, then later, as a parent myself, as one of self-preservation as well. Not only did he leave me to bask in the obliviousness of childhood, he also melted that cheese for the same reason I gamely pour my son his third glass of milk instead of getting all “here’s what you must understand, son” about it. Sometimes keeping the peace lets you enjoy the quiet.
Cheese-Crusted Grilled Cheese Sandwich With Ham and Spicy Honey
Look for a soft rye for this sandwich, but you can also use white bread or whole wheat. If you prefer, make it with all cheddar cheese or all American. You’ll want thin, square slices of cheese that cover at least three-quarters of the bread’s surface, so buy cheese that’s already sliced or get it freshly sliced from the deli. Depending on how big your slices of ham are, they might only hang over two edges or not hang out at all. If you can’t find Calabrian chiles, Bomba Calabrese works great, as would most chile things, such as sambal oelek. Or, go savory with a little pesto on the side.
Storage Notes: These sandwiches taste best when freshly made. Leftovers can be tightly wrapped and refrigerated for up to one day. To reheat, warm in a 350-degree oven or toaster oven for 5 to 10 minutes.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 8 slices (about 6 ounces) sharp cheddar cheese
- 8 slices soft rye bread
- 8 slices (about 4 ounces) American cheese
- 8 slices (about 5 ounces) thinly sliced ham
- 1/4 cup honey, optional
- 1 tablespoon crushed Calabrian chiles in oil, or more to taste, optional
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 200 degrees. You’re going to make the sandwiches one at a time, transfer them to a large, rimmed baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven.
In a well-seasoned cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter until it bubbles. Add two slices of cheddar cheese side by side, then add a slice of the bread on top of each one. (If slicing the cheddar into thinner strips from a block, make sure that the cheese covers about three-quarters of the bread’s surface.)
Add a slice of American cheese to each slice of bread, then add two of the ham slices to one of the bread slices so that the ham hangs 2 inches or so over the edges. Cook until the bottom of the bread slices are brown and crisped, about 2 minutes.
Slide a thin spatula underneath and carefully flip the ham-less slice onto the ham-heavy one. Continue cooking, flipping the sandwich occasionally, until the cheese on the inside has melted, the cheese on the outside has formed a crisp crust, and the ham has slightly browned at the edges, 3 to 4 minutes more.
Transfer the sandwich to a large, rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven to stay warm while you repeat to make the remaining sandwiches. (As you make the sandwiches, you may find you need a bit less butter because of the residual butter left in the pan.)
In a small bowl, stir together honey and the chiles. Serve the sandwiches with the chile honey for dipping or drizzling.
Per serving (1 sandwich)
Calories: 576; Total Fat: 38 g; Saturated Fat: 22 g; Cholesterol: 118 mg; Sodium: 1288 mg; Carbohydrates: 27 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 2 g; Protein: 28 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Recipe from food writer and cookbook author JJ Goode.
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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