Like many American kids I enjoyed grilled cheese growing up, but unlike most I didn’t crave it until I discovered grilled mozzarella. That I had to discover it belies its simplicity. Cut a hunk of crusty bread in half, a non-assertive loaf is best (don’t use sourdough). Tuck in some thinly sliced mozzarella and dab on olive oil before tossing the sandwich on a hot griddle. Smoosh the sandwich under your heavy cast iron pot. Watch the cheese overflow — those crusty bits provide crucial textural contrast. Take a bite: milky mozzarella accentuates sweet bread, which grassy olive oil cuts. Heat transforms common ingredients. With only a few steps, you could cook one now. Don’t. You’ll be disappointed in the result because enjoying grilled mozzarella requires planning, thought and skill.
Grilled mozzarella isn’t a panino. Nor is it a grammatically impossible singular panini. And it definitely isn’t mozzarella in carozza, Southern Italy’s eggy-bread cheese sandwich. No, grilled mozzarella is grilled cheese’s softer, waterier and tastier cousin. You could slather on pesto, include sundried tomatoes or prosciutto, but garnishes subtract from grilled mozzarella’s elemental pleasure. As pasta cacio e pepe concocts an indulgent meal from pepper, pecorino and pasta, grilled mozzarella reinvigorates bread, mozzarella and olive oil.
Grilled mozzarella exerts a pull that cold sandwiches lack because its tastes and textures demonstrate cooking’s alchemy. Yet citing the Maillard reaction — when sugars caramelize and proteins denature — is misleading. While the tongue tastes the product of the chemical process, experiencing the processes tempt the palate. You remember not only the flavour, but also how the melting cheese yields, separating into strands; how the crusty bread flakes; how the oil-toasted sandwich leaves the hands barely greasy. Cooking heightens the sandwich’s tactile pleasure.
Make your sandwich next Saturday. Pick up bread at the farmer’s market or your favourite bakery (no sourdough!). Buy the freshest mozzarella. Get more olive oil during your weekly grocery shop. During your routine-free lunch, marvel at the meal culture, heat and skill produce. Culture, skill, heat. Mozzarella, bread, olive oil. A fresh taste of a familiar triad.
Image: Flickr via cyclonebill