I drove to northern Iowa for a wedding and back over the weekend. My brother and I zoomed past endless rows of tightly packed corn and soy, punctuated by classic white farm houses and red barns that looked like they had popped right out of our childhood story books.
Our cousin got married in a small farming community on a lake. It was quaint and beautiful and the sunny weather could not have been more lovely.
Ironically, however, the restaurant menus in this farm town were lacking in fresh food. I mean that as an observation, not a complaint—it was a good reminder that the farm-to-table movements still have a long way to go. In my daily life, I surround myself with people, restaurants and websites that also appreciate fresh cooking, so travel experiences always provide requisite jolts of reality.
In town with my parents for lunch, I skimmed past an iceberg ranch dressing salad on an otherwise meaty menu. I was relieved to find a grilled cheese sandwich listed under the kids menu on the backside. I welcome an excuse to eat a classic grilled cheese sandwich with fries, but I just can’t imagine feeling well if I ate from those menus every day. My dad related the experience to the small Oklahoma town where I was born. (He always comes back home craving fresh food.)
On the six-hour drive home, I paused in Omaha to drop off my brother at the airport and found a highly rated local restaurant serving brunch on Yelp. As I waited for my roasted vegetable grits to arrive, I thought about how unfair it is to lump the middle of the country together as flyover land. It’s not the coasts vs. the Midwest anymore. If anything, it’s cities vs. small towns, and there’s so much goodness to be found in between.
I think it’s just a matter of time until the small towns catch up. I’m not sure how I feel about the homogenization of America in general, but when it comes to healthy food and readily accessible information, I think it’s for the best.
I’ll quit rambling. These grilled cheese sandwiches are my tribute to the past weekend. I contemplated whether I should make them into quesadillas instead of sandwiches. I picked up the most marvelous loaf of whole grain sourdough in Kansas City last Thursday, so bread beat tortillas.
These grilled cheese sandwiches are my kind of grilled cheese—buttery but not overwhelmingly so, made with melty real cheese and stuffed with some redeeming, tender, caramelized roasted balsamic veggies.
- 1 pound broccoli, or 8 ounces broccoli florets
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 small yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 8 slices quality whole grain bread, preferably sourdough
- 8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 to 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1+ tablespoons butter
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare your veggies, keeping in mind that you want them to be roughly the same size for even cooking. Remove the florets from the broccoli stems and slice them into bite-sized pieces. Slice the bell pepper into thin strips. Halve the onion and slice it into thin strips as well (no need to separate the strips of onion from each other).
- Transfer the prepared veggies to a large, rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle on the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Add the salt and toss until all of the ingredients are evenly combined. Arrange the veggies in a single layer on the baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with red pepper flakes and a few twists' worth of freshly ground black pepper. Bake until the veggies are tender and deeply caramelized, about 20 minutes, tossing halfway.
- To prepare your sandwiches: Spread a very thin layer of Dijon mustard on one slice of bread. Top the mustard with a heavy sprinkling of shredded cheese, then as much roasted vegetables as you can reasonably fit on top. Top with more cheese and place another piece of bread on top. Repeat for the remaining three sandwiches.
- To cook your sandwiches: Heat a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium heat. Once it's hot, add a generous pat of butter. Let the butter melt and swirl it around. Carefully place one sandwich on one side of the pan, then another sandwich on the other side. Cover the pan with a lid or a baking pan to encourage the cheese to melt. Let the sandwich cook until the bottom side is golden and the cheese is mostly melted. Use a spatula to life one sandwich out of the pan at a time. Add a little more butter to the pan and let it melt. Carefully flip the sandwiches over and place them back in the pan to cook the other sides until they're nice and golden (I covered the sandwiches again here). Once the cheese is melted through and both sides are golden, transfer the sandwiches to serving plates. Repeat with remaining sandwiches.
Change it up: Pretty much any caramelized roasted veggies would be great in here.
Prepare in advance: Feel free to roast the veggies the night before. Actually, you might want to go ahead and roast extra veggies for other meals. Just make sure to arrange the prepared vegetables in a single layer on the baking sheet(s).
If you love this recipe: You'll also love my roasted broccoli, arugula and lentil salad and red pepper pesto with roasted cauliflower.