- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

My mother wasn’t much of a cook. (That’s putting it mildly. She could barely manage a TV dinner.) But there was one dish she made regularly and with aplomb: grilled cheese sandwiches.

You remember the drill: two pieces of Wonder bread, a slice a Velveeta cheese, a schmear of margarine, and the resulting sandwich was cooked crusty and brown in a utensil that has almost disappeared from the modern kitchen, an electric skillet. Ah, the 1950s America’s gastronomic glory days.

Fast forward four decades. I’ve just arrived in Buenos Aires to research a book that would become “The Barbecue Bible.” My mind has already been blown by the asadores, the Argentine grill masters, who cook belly-bludgeoning quantities of meat over fierce beds of glowing oak embers. (I’m not kidding about belly-bludgeoning.)

Glistening mounds of morcilla (blood sausage, both salty and sweet). Crinkly rows of choto (grilled sheep intestines) and chinchulines (chitterling). Falda (skirt steaks) and tira de asado (cross-cut rib steaks) that literally bury your plate.

Amid such carnivorous frenzy, there’s not much room for meatless grilling, and the options for vegetarians (which my wife was at the time) are mostly limited to grilled eggplant and whole grilled red bell peppers. Both are delicious, but hardly the stuff of a meal. Then I happened to notice what looked like a stack of oversize yellow poker chips decoratively stacked on the counter in front of a grill.

Provoleta asada, explained the grill master. Grilled provolone. Or, more accurately, the Argentine version of provolone. It was a firm, waxy, ivory-colored cheese that had been cut into hockey-puck-thick slices designed for grilling.

The asador picked one up, dipped it in flour (which helps prevent sticking) and tossed it onto the hot grate. The cheese was grilled long enough to become browned, soft and gooey, but not so long it melted through the bars of the grate. (Think of it as semisolid fondue.) The sizzling cheese was flipped onto a plate, seasoned with pepper and oregano, and served with crusty bread for spreading it on.

Why would you bother? Well, for one thing, the oak embers imbue the cheese with a wonderful smoke flavor. Grilling mellows the sharpness of the cheese and makes it as soft as runny brie and ideal for spreading on bread.

Of course, there are variations from pit master to pit master. Some baste the cheese with olive oil instead of dipping it in flour. Others apply the seasonings before grilling. Perhaps there’s even a pit master in Argentina who has heeded my silent prayer to accompany the flame-sizzled cheese with grilled bread.

Not that Argentines have a monopoly on grilled cheese. One has only to cross the border to Mexico to find it. Take sliced or grated cheese. Sandwich it between two flour tortillas with some jalapeno chilies and sliced scallion, maybe cilantro sprigs. Brush the outsides with butter and carefully place the resulting sandwich on the grill grate.

A minute or two of grilling on each side browns the tortillas and melts the cheese, giving you Mexico’s illustrious street snack: the quesadilla.

Most quesadillas served in the United States are cooked on a griddle or in the oven, but the smoky flavor derived from grilling produces a quesadilla you won’t soon forget. One word of advice, though, flour tortillas are one of the most flammable substances you can put on a grill. Trust me on this and don’t turn your back for a minute, or your quesadillas likely will catch fire.

Grilled cheese also turns up on the other side of the Atlantic. If you’ve ever been to an apres-ski party in the French or Swiss Alps, you know what I’m talking about. A huge chunk of a smooth, buttery cheese called “raclette” is placed on a special rack in front of a fire.

The wood smoke perfumes the cheese and melts it. As it melts, you scrape it over country bread or boiled potatoes, with tiny pickled onions and cornichon pickles on the side, and you end up with a sort of deconstructed fondue. The name of the cheese tells the story of this singular dish: “Racler” in French means “to scrape.”

Even Greece’s flamboyant appetizer, saganaki, tastes great cooked on the grill. Tradition calls for the cheese (slabs of salty kasseri seasoned with garlic, pepper and lemon) to be “grilled” in a frying pan or under the broiler. Then the sizzling slabs of cheese are doused with Greek brandy and dramatically served flaming at the table.

By dipping the cheese in flour, as described above, you can sizzle it on the grill. The added smoke flavor, not to mention heightened theatrics, makes grilling well worth the effort.

What follows is a grilled cheese sandwich for grown-ups. Even the bread is served grilled. I’m sure my mother would have approved.

Grilled provolone

If you live in a city with a large Argentine community, you may be able to find provoletta. If not, use a hard, aged Italian provolone or for extra flavor, pepper provolone, which is laced with peppercorns.

2 thick slices provoletta or provolone (3/4 inch thick, about 8 ounces each)

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

1 loaf French bread, cut sharply on the diagonal into 3/4-inch slices

1 clove garlic, cut in half widthwise

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to medium-high.

Lightly brush each slice of cheese with olive oil (using 2 to 3 teaspoons in all) and sprinkle oregano, pepper and hot red pepper flakes on both sides. Lightly brush each bread slice on both sides with olive oil.

Brush and oil the grill grate. Arrange bread slices on the grate and grill until nicely toasted, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a cutting board or basket and rub each slice of grilled bread on one side with cut garlic.

Arrange cheese slices on the grate and grill until browned, sizzling and partially melted, 2 to 3 minutes per side, turning with tongs or a spatula.

The idea is to grill the cheese enough to brown and melt the exterior, but not so much that it melts into a gooey puddle. With a little practice, you’ll get it right every time.

Serve grilled provolone on a platter, surrounded by grilled bread slices. Spread the former on the latter and accompany with a nice Argentine red wine. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: It’s also possible to make the cheese indoors on a contact grill or in a grill pan.

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