Food holidays seem to pop up just about every day, but when The Big Cheese himself issues a call for celebration, it's worth a listen.
National Grilled Cheese Day is Friday, April 12, and to mark the occasion (and indeed, the whole month of April, otherwise known as National Grilled Cheese Month) Jason Sobocinski, of the Cooking Channel's "The Big Cheese" and owner of Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro in New Haven (and its accompanying grilled cheese truck), has issued a friendly challenge to foodies. Through the end of this month, Sobocinski invites home chefs to enter the second annual "Say Cheese" grilled cheese recipe contest on Facebook. Sobocinski has partnered with St. Francis Winery of Sonoma, Calif., for the contest, and the winner of the contest gets a trip to the winery.
"We're trying to get more people involved with fun grilled cheese and wine pairings," Sobocinski explains.
Entries must include a pairing with a St. Francis wine. Lest potential contestants worry their recipe is too basic for a wine pairing, Sobocinski notes that a grilled cheese and wine pairing is a natural extension of your classic wine and cheese pairings. Similar culinary considerations apply.
For instance: acidity. Grilled cheese works best with an acidic accent or side dish to complement the sandwich's creamy cheese and starchy bread mix. Certain acidic wines - less-oaky Chardonnays or vinho verde, perhaps - work well as a palate cleanser.
For example, consider Sobocinski's Ratatouille Grilled Cheese, made with crusty bread. A rich mix of fresh Herbes de Provence and chevre meets with thinly sliced oven-roasted zucchini, summer squash and red peppers paired with Chardonnay.
Or, try it vice versa and let your wine of the night dictate your grilled cheese recipe. Got Merlot or a Zinfandel on hand? Throw in a side of an intensely flavored jam, like raspberry or pepper jelly. The spice of the jam will balance the sweeter fruit flavor of the wines. Sobocinski's own Zinfadel pairing calls for a combination of melted brie and Cocoa Cardona - goat cheese coated in cocoa and black pepper - with dark chocolate and bananas on a grilled croissant.
For Sobocinski the beauty of a grilled cheese is its versatility and appeal. Given a few ground rules, a grilled cheese sandwich becomes an open canvas.
"The thing that I really love about grilled cheese is everyone can understand and associate with it," he says. "Everyone has a little nostalgia that surrounds grilled cheese. (The contest) takes something so simple and familiar and starts having fun with it, and now you've made it into this adult thing. It's still playful and accessible, but raising the level of it."
First things first, though. Sobocinski suggests a cast-iron skillet greased with fresh unsalted butter as the best sandwich-making vehicle. The slow and even heat cast-iron provides ensures good cheese-melt and toasting. Even better is to start your sandwich in a skillet, then move it skillet-and-all into a preheated oven (about 400 degrees) to finish toasting and melting. An alternative to the oven technique is to use a foil-wrapped brick (or its equivalent) as a sandwich press while the sandwich is on the skillet.
If you're a Plain Jane grilled cheese fan, Sobocinski suggests sourdough bread sliced to 11 millimeters. (Rest assured, that's not a strange request to make at a bakery, and thickness matters in grilled-cheese construction.)
A note on cheese: shred it for even, quick melting. Sobocinski pre-shreds a mix of cheeses before he starts grilling. Typically, he'll combine good melters like provolone, Gruyere and young cheddars with stronger, nuttier cheeses like aged Goudas and Pecorino.
Finally, like a steak, a grilled cheese needs to rest before it's served. A few minutes of rest time allow the cheeses to cool down and firm up ever so slightly.
As for those acidic side kicks, aside from wine, Sobocinski suggests pickles, beer, whole-grain mustard and tomato soup as other tasty options.
Rules aside, Sobocinski's main mission this month is to encourage more fun and creativity in the kitchen.
"There is absolutely no right or wrong (recipe). The only thing you can do that's wrong is to not experiment. The idea behind this whole campaign is that people have fun with something they understand and recognize," he says.
For more information about the "Say Cheese" grilled cheese recipe contest, visit www.facebook.com/stfranciswinery.