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Toasted cheese sandwiches still a favorite

For many Christians, Lent is a time for sacrifice.

As kids, we used to forgo favorite foods during the six-week period that precedes Easter. So Lenten practices explain my aversion to fish sticks, my appreciation for toasted cheese sandwiches and my loyalty to ketchup.

The toasted cheese will be coming right up. First, fish.

Fish sticks — narrow, breaded pieces of frozen cod or haddock — were Friday night regulars during my adolescence in Rochester. Mom followed the church playbook, and meats were not served on Alameda Street on Ash Wednesday, nor on any Friday leading to Easter.

The culinary alternatives were grim for a 13-year-old raised on chicken potpies, meatloaf and cube steaks — along with the usual vegetables and boiled potatoes. When Mom pulled a metal tray full of fish sticks from the oven, it was gladly suffer the “flavor” of baked fish — or starve.

My brothers, sister and I didn’t have a choice, anyway. The house rules said you ate the food on your plate — even if specials of the night were fish sticks, Brussels sprouts or the dreaded tuna-noodles-peas casserole. Barbecue-flavored potato chips for supper were proposed and quickly voted down.

Making sticks palatable

For me, salvation arrived in a tall bottle of Heinz, Hunt’s or Wegmans brand ketchup. I don’t remember all details of my youth, but I vividly recall pouring waves of saucy, sugary tomato over all fish sticks. The maneuver just about obliterated the “taste” of the deep sea; it would have appalled the Gorton Fisherman and Mrs. Paul, two conspirators in this Friday night misery. The decision to go red surely appalled my mother.

Not Dad. I don’t think he liked fish sticks either.

As I grew older, I followed church rules and family tradition. Instead of fish sticks, I made tuna salad sandwiches, garden salads (with onions, black olives, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs) and toasted cheese sandwiches.

Assembling a favorite

I still have all three on my Lenten menus. Toasted cheese might be the best of the bunch.
My recipe requires large slices of bread — usually one of the heartier breads, such as any 12-grain blend. Swiss, mozzarella or Provolone cheeses are the choices, sometimes all three. In between slices, I’ll layer thin slices of onion and tomato. They have to be really thin; chunky pieces of vegetables equal lumpy toasted cheese sandwiches.

Once assembled, the bottom layer of bread gets a quick toast on a buttered frying pan, low to medium heat.

You really have to watch, because a quick toast can turn into a slow burn. There have been times when I’ve had to scrap pieces of blackened bread. The neighborhood crow has enjoyed an unexpected snack.

I generally cover the sandwiches with cooking lids. The trapped heat helps cook the top layer, too. It’s easy to see when both sides are cooked, as golden brown never lies.

The finished products should be cut in half. This makes the sandwiches easier to dip, and the all-season choice is a simple one — pass the Heinz.

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