Taking comfort in melted cheese

Variety: The soft, velvety satisfying food is a featured ingredient in dishes many crave, including Welsh rarebit, fondue, nachos and, of course, pizza.

January 09, 2002|By Marlene Parrish | Marlene Parrish,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Quite often the comfort foods that we crave when times are worrisome have some kind of melted cheese as an ingredient. Some even feature melted cheese as the star ingredient.

Here are some homely versions of soft and velvety melted cheese from various corners of the world.

We can thank the occasional poor aim of English sportsmen for Welsh rarebit - melted cheese on toast, the dish that is eaten for supper when the hunter comes home empty-handed without a rabbit.

The Swiss were the first to dip cubes of crusty bread into melted cheese blended with seasonings and wine to make the first cheese fondue, now a cocktail-party standard. The word fondue comes from the French word for melted.

Less well-known is the Swiss Alpine cheese supper called raclette. The winter dish consists of cheese, pickles, potatoes and onions. The traditional way to make it is to place a wheel of raclette cheese on the hearth, close enough to the fire so that the cheese begins to soften. Raclette is scraped from the wheel as it melts and served with the vegetables. After a long day on the ski slopes, it is wonderfully satisfying.

Greeks everywhere love saganaki, fried cheese. This taverna standby is named for the two-handled pan in which it is fried. Some cooks include the flourish of flambeing the cheese with brandy for a dramatic touch, accompanied by a holler of "Opa!" Serve saganaki with hearty bread and a good ouzo, and you have the beginnings of a party.

Tex-Mex food lovers make nachos - melted Monterey Jack cheese on corn tortillas, topped with enough jalapeno chilies to get some attention. Slightly south, they make queso fundido, a classic northern Mexican dish that literally means melted cheese.

The dish is composed of peppers and onions piled high with a triple-threat combo of cheeses - Manchego, Cotija and grated panela or dry ricotta cheese. The whole thing is baked quickly in a hot oven, then served with tortillas to scoop up the bubbling mixture.

And Italian pizza is little more than cheese, cheese and more cheese on baked dough interfaced with a layer of red sauce. Italy's grilled cheese sandwich is also a winner. Mozzarella en carrozza means cheese in a carriage, which is a fun way to describe cheese "carried" between two pieces of bread. The sandwich is soaked in milk, then dredged in flour, egg and bread crumbs before being fried golden-brown and molten. Its closest cousin is the toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich from France - croque monsieur.

Americans have a love affair with cheese, too. Macaroni and cheese is a national favorite, almost as popular as hot dogs and apple pie. Although the pasta tubes known as macaroni came from Italy more than 200 years ago, baking them in a white sauce laced with English Cheddar cheese became popular in America only in the 19th century.

The grilled-cheese sandwich is America's simplest take on a dish that appears in the cuisines of many different countries. But one of the easiest American comfort foods with a capital C is melted cheese on toast - cheese toast. It's so simple, it's deceiving.

Here's how to make real cheese toast. Cut a thick slice of good bread and toast it on one side in a broiler or toaster oven. Flip it over, and on the soft side, cover the bread to the edges with slices of good cheese. Place under the broiler until the cheese starts to melt and little flecks of brown appear.

What's good bread? Homemade, peasant-style, whole wheat, rye, sour dough - just about any rough-textured, sturdy bread will be delicious. Even English muffins work. Wimpy, soft-loaf bread slices are not to be used.

What's good cheese? A sharp, aged Cheddar delivers. But almost anything that melts is a candidate. Gruyere, Jarlsberg and Swiss. The veined cheeses, such as Gorgonzola and Stilton, are good, too. Avoid orange prepackaged cheese-oid slices.

Here are some mighty good gussied-up cheese-toast combinations that are both comforting and sophisticated:

Goat cheese spread on sour-dough bread, run under the broiler, topped with fresh thyme leaves and drizzled with olive oil.

Smoked Gouda slices melted on rye bread spread with mustard.

Shavings of Parmesan cheese tossed onto pizza-sauced herb focaccia, and melted.

Provolone slices melted onto baguette slices topped with a few leaves of prosciutto.

For breakfast, lunch or dinner, you can depend on cheese on toast, cheese in toast or plain melted cheese to be satisfying and delicious in any language.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.

Welsh Rarebit

If you want to make the dish more substantial, poach an egg and place it on the toast and nap it with the sauce. Now the dish is called a Golden Buck.

2 generous servings

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

dash of cayenne pepper

dash of paprika

1/4 cup beer

1/2 pound natural Cheddar cheese, shredded

hot toast slices

In small skillet, combine Worcestershire, mustard, cayenne and paprika. Add beer and cook over low heat until beer is hot. Add cheese; stir until melted. Serve over hot toast. Drink rest of the can of beer.

Cheesy Beef Nachos

Makes 4 servings

1/2 pound ground beef

1/2 cup chunky store-bought salsa

4 cups tortilla chips

1 cup Mexican-style shredded cheese or jack cheese

toppings: chopped onion, chopped red and green pepper, chopped tomato, sliced jalapeno chilies, black olives, sour cream, guacamole

Brown beef in medium skillet until crumbly. Drain. Stir in salsa and simmer 2 minutes.

Arrange chips on microwavable dinner plate. Top with meat mixture. Sprinkle with cheese. Microwave on high (100 percent) power 2 to 3 minutes or until cheese is melted, rotating plate every minute. Top as desired.

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