Sometimes when I make a grilled cheese sandwich, I deliberately load the bread with far more cheese than it can handle, knowing full well that as the sandwich cooks, the cheddar or Emmentaler will inevitably spill over the sides and undergo its beautiful alchemy in the hot pan, transformed into a crisp, golden filigree. Sure, the sandwich is good, but it's pretty much an afterthought.
You may not go to such extremes; you may get your melted cheese fix in another, less orchestrated way. Perhaps wresting the dome of caramelized mozzarella from the top of a pizza. Or liberating the crunchy layer of grated Parmesan or Fontina from atop a baking dish of pasta.
But the joys of melted cheese don't have to be stolen. Melted, grilled or baked cheese is a terrific dish in its own right, justly celebrated in many cuisines, where crispy discs of melted Parmigiano-Reggiano or Monterey Jack or caramelized slabs of haloumi (a Cypriot sheep's milk cheese) are served, gasp, right out in the open, even given center stage.
Walk into Jimmy Shaw's Lotería Grill in Hollywood and you can order a plate of chicharrones de queso, a burnished sculpture of grilled shredded Monterey Jack. Think Richard Serra's idea of cheese. Served with a napkin of warm house-made corn tortillas and bowls of salsa verde and guacamole, you break up the cheese and fold it into a tortilla, like a taco. The result is terrific, satisfying and unexpected, like a quesadilla in reverse, with the cheese crisped instead of the tortilla.
The Monterey Jack, a bland and often innocuous cheese, is transformed utterly by a few minutes on Shaw's flattop grill -- or, at home, in a nonstick pan -- into a richly flavorful treat, nutty and crispy as a potato chip or as the fried pork rinds the name recalls.
Pair the chicharrones with any sauce you have on hand, or make a tart, crunchy salsa with tomatillos, radishes, cilantro and cucumbers -- and a healthy dose of jalapeños. You may never eat quesadillas again.
(Shaw likes to melt cheese. In addition to the chicharrones, he has two other melted cheese dishes on his menu: queso fundido, a mixture of Monterey Jack and Muenster that he puts under a broiler until it's gooey and caramelized, then serves with warm tortillas; and queso panela, a seared rectangle of panela, a Mexican cow's milk cheese, that comes topped with spoonfuls of nopales salad and salsa verde.)
Italy's fried cheese
In Italy, similar disks of fried cheese are called frico. The rustic treats are a specialty of Friuli, in northeastern Italy, and are traditionally made with grated Montasio, a cow's milk cheese. When made with Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is more readily available in the United States than Montasio, frico is nutty and cracker-like, with a satisfying saltiness that makes them terrific nosh food.
Eat them out of hand like chips (watch out, they're seriously addictive) or use them as an element in a dish. Top a fennel-apple slaw with a pretty frico, the salt and crunch of the cheese a perfect contrast with the pale, cool reprieve of the salad. Break up a frico and use it like croutons, or place a delicate disk beside a bowl of soup.
With some cheeses, you don't even need to find your grater. Hard, salty cheeses such as haloumi, kasseri and some types of feta are perfect for grilling just the way they are. The interior of the cheese softens while the outside caramelizes, and after a few minutes you'll have a terrific snack.
Claudia Roden, in her updated classic "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food," writes of how fried cheese is a common street food, served in Cairo cafes in hot pans straight from the fire, with a bit of bread and a squeeze of lemon.
Try tossing other things into the skillet along with the cheese, like the sliced pears and spiced dates in Ana Sortun's recipe, from her cookbook "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean." Sortun uses haloumi, a terrific "grilling cheese" that's mild and salty at once.
Cooking cheese is a very simple procedure, but there are a few important tips, the most important of which is what kind of pan to use. Nonstick pans work the best. The cheese won't stick to the skillet, and you won't have to use any extra oil or coat the cheese with flour, as some recipes call for. Just be sure to use a wooden or plastic spatula to lift or turn the cheese, because you don't want to scratch the pan's coating.
For the chicharrones, simply sprinkle the Monterey Jack onto the pan and cook over medium-low heat for about 7 to 8 minutes, spreading the cheese thinly across the pan as it melts. You don't even have to turn the cheese over; it will crisp, from the bottom up, into a lovely golden disk. (Shaw sprinkles a bit of minced cilantro and onion over the top at this point.) When the cheese is cooked, use a paper towel to blot up the oil it's released and then lift the cheese out of the pan with a spatula and make a free-form shape. Use a spatula or your fingers or -- the cheese will be pretty hot -- just drape the cheese over a rolling pin. You don't have to shape the cheese, of course, but it's fun and looks impressive.
You can make frico in a pan too, but getting them as thin as you want them is far more easily accomplished in the oven. Spread mounds of about 3 tablespoons each of finely grated Parmesan into circles on a lightly greased sheet of parchment. After about eight minutes in a hot oven, they'll be done. Carefully lift the warm frico from the parchment and cool on a rack. The beautiful golden disks are delicate, but they're not as fragile as they look, and you can store them at room temperature in an airtight container for about a week.
Cooking haloumi is just as easy: brown slices of the cheese in a nonstick pan, turn them over and brown the other side. If you want a simple snack, just stop there and serve the cheese with some toasted bread and a squeeze of lemon. Sortun goes a step further, finishing off the haloumi in the oven with caramelized pears and spiced dates quickly cooked in a separate pan. After a few minutes in the oven to blend the flavors and further soften the cheese, take the pan out of the oven, pour in a little ouzo (an anise-flavored Greek liqueur) and set it aflame. (This is a really fun party trick, but be careful when you light this, or anything else, on fire in the kitchen.) The brief flambé burns off the alcohol, adds a glorious sweet note that complements the salt of the cheese, and gives one last bit of caramelization to the dish.
Of course, you can still sneak the extra toasted cheese from your grilled cheese sandwiches -- but once you get the hang of cooking cheese on its own, you might not need to.