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The crunchy bread in this Jalapeno Popper Grilled Cheese Sandwich mimics the breading of a popper, and the cheesy pepper filling is borderline better than the original. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Stirs: The perfect fix for February? These ultimate, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches

BUCKHANNON – February is the shortest month of the year, although somehow it drags on creating the longest-feeling days. Each day brings an additional glimpse of daylight, yet it does not seem to be enough to combat impatience. Seed catalogs are arriving, only to taunt of nice weather to come, while snow is still blanketing the ground.

This time of year, my mind flips to outside, and indoor projects become dreaded chores. Sadly, I include cooking projects in this dilemma. By now I am longing for a thriving and plentiful herb bed. While I am grateful to have a few fresh herbs year-round, I truly pine for the rest. Winter produce lacks flavor, as the majority is shipped in from elsewhere. My preferred method for grilling is over charcoal, and I discontinue this practice during winter. So, I can assure you the first semi warm day I will be firing up the coals.

Dark and cold evenings accompanied by a lackluster grocery supply, can make cooking a drag.

A speedy warm meal – that’s what I crave in February. By this time in winter, I have typically rid myself of thoughts about roasts and slow-cooked meals. Even chili seems boring. In my kitchen, when in doubt, make a sandwich. This is my absolute favorite bar none. The ideal concept, a complete meal you are able to hold in your hand (most of the time).

The flavor possibilities are endless, as regions all over the globe have signature sandwiches. Take just the east coast of the United States starting up north. Maine serves lobster rolls, New York has mastered deli pastrami, Philadelphia, of course, owns the cheesesteak, Nashville has perfected hot chicken, New Orleans arguably has two stars – the po’boy and muffuletta – then, there is BBQ (this one is a preference; to each their own). Lastly, y head to Miami for a Cuban sandwich to remember. This list is just the beginning of local sandwich delights throughout the country. There is no shortage of choices worldwide either; the Vietnamese banh mi, Mexican Torte, Italian panini, French croque monsieur, Venezuelan arepa, or Israeli sabich are all pure sandwich bliss.

I want to focus on one sandwich for now. Arguably the number one sandwich, period. Yes, I am in fact referring to THE GRILLED CHEESE. Adored equally by both children and adults. What makes this delight so comforting? Perhaps, it is reminiscent of your childhood? This classic sandwich embodies simplicity as its best, consisting of three basic ingredients bread, cheese, and butter. (Although I have heard the argument for mayonnaise instead, I am a butter girl). These are staples many of us keep stocked in the kitchen, fashioning it as a go-to when the fridge and cabinets appear bleak.

This sure-fire crowd pleaser is just what this dreary month ordered. The marvelous thing about a grilled cheese is, there are no rules! Although simple, it is crucial to follow a few basics that can make or break the result.

1. The sandwich should be crisp on the outside with a warm and melty inside. A soggy grilled cheese is a deal breaker. Overly buttered bread will not crisp properly.

2. Any bread will do, but a crusty, drier bread is the optimum choice for success.

3. Low and slow is the key to achievement; this will ensure proper heating throughout all layers.

3. Lastly, season the butter. Trust me, try this and you will be hooked forever. Some various butter add-ins I use are: cracked black pepper, fresh or dried herbs, grated Parmesan, or sesame seeds.

While a basic grilled cheese is hard to compete with, there is always room for variation. I have taken three classic dishes – an appetizer, soup, and pizza – and transformed each one into ultimate grilled cheese sandwiches. First, the classic bar appetizer, jalapeño poppers. The crunchy bread mimics the breading, and the cheesy pepper filling is borderline better than the original. This would serve as the ideal game day treat.

French onion soup, assuredly in the top ten most popular soups, may be delicious and decadent, but it is also messy to eat. The sandwich take eliminates this pesky problem, and it remains just as elegant as the soup. Lastly, and maybe my favorite, the margherita pizza grilled cheese. The bread is comparable to garlic toast, and the inside is loaded with cheesy tomato basil goodness. All three options are easier to prepare than their original form. I hope you find a favorite among these recipes. I am also adding on my tomato and cheddar grilled cheese recipe, mindful of the iconic combination of tomato soup and a grilled cheese.

Remember to allow yourself liberty in the kitchen; this ensures a pleasant experience. If you are someone who adheres strictly to recipes, I challenge you to create a freestyle grilled cheese with ingredients you love. Think of it as more than a sandwich to dip into soup, but instead the showstopper. As you wait on spring days, these sandwiches are sure to keep you warm. May the comfort provided reinforce that simplicity is peaceful and grounding. Finding rest in these winter days enables focus on new and positive creativity; perhaps, you will find this beautiful combination in the kitchen.

Happy cooking. Peace.

Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese

(Recipe makes 2 large sandwiches)


  • 3-4 jalapeños, thickly sliced
  • 6 oz softened cream cheese
  • 4 oz grated sharp cheddar
  • 2 tablespoons chopped chives
  • 1 tablespoon chopped dill
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 green onions chopped
  • 4 slices bacon
  • 4 tablespoons softened butter
  • 4 slices crusty bread


Cook the bacon until crispy. Set aside.

Brush the jalapeño slices with olive oil and either: roast peppers at 400 degrees; char over a flame either on the grill or gas range; or sauté until they have color and have softened. Set aside.

Combine butter, 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt and 1 tablespoon chives. Set aside.

Combine cream cheese, cheddar, remaining chives, dill, parsley, remaining garlic salt, minced garlic, and black pepper.

On the bottom layer of bread spread the cheese mixture. Next comes a layer of green onions, followed by jalapeño slices and bacon. Apply a thin layer of cheese spread to the top lid as “glue.” Butter each outer side of the sandwich with the chive butter. Cook in a skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium low until crispy and each side is golden brown.

French Onion Grilled Cheese

(Recipe makes 2 large sandwiches)


  • 4 slices crusty white bread
  • 4 slices Swiss cheese
  • 6 slices fresh mozzarella (from a ball)
  • 1 onion thinly sliced
  • 1 shallot thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove minced
  • 4 thyme sprigs (or 1 teaspoon dried)
  • 1 rosemary sprig (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
  • 1/4 cup beef stock (or vegetable stock)
  • 1 cup greens (arugula, spinach, baby kale)
  • 2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Olive oil for sautéing
  • Salt and pepper
Savory French onion soup can easily be converted to a sandwich. Who knew? / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran


In a skillet over medium heat sauté onions, shallot, rosemary, thyme (3 sprigs), seasoned with salt and pepper in roughly a tablespoon of oil until tender. Add garlic, cook an additional 2-3 minutes. Add stock, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

In a bowl combine butter, the leaves from the remaining thyme sprig, cracked pepper and salt to taste. In a separate bowl toss the greens with balsamic and flaky salt.

Spread Dijon on each inside of the sandwiches (4 surfaces). Then arrange a layer of Swiss and mozzarella, onions next, then greens, finally more cheese. Butter each outside with the pepper herb butter.

Cook in a skillet over medium low heat until crisp on the outside and melty on the inside. Finish with cracked pepper, flaky salt, and a honey drizzle.

Margherita Grilled Cheese

(Recipe makes 2 large sandwiches)


  • 4 slices crusty white bread
  • 3/4 cup freshly grated mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons basil pesto
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried) Red pepper flakes to taste
  • 4-6 slices of tomato
  • 1 cup arugula (or spinach)
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Flaky salt (or sea salt)
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • Honey for drizzling


Place tomatoes on a plate in a single layer, liberally salt and allow to sit a few minutes to release moisture.

Combine butter, garlic salt and parsley in a bowl. Set aside.

In a separate bowl combine cheese, basil, and red pepper flakes. Spread a layer of pesto on each piece of bread for the inside. Place some of the cheese mixture on two slices of bread (one for each sandwich).

Drain the tomatoes, toss with the greens and balsamic (extra salt, too).

Divide and place on each sandwich, top with remaining cheese. Spread the butter mixture on each piece of bread (outside) cook in a skillet with butter/oil over medium low heat until crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside. Finish with flaky salt, more red pepper flakes and a honey drizzle.

Margherita Grilled Cheese might just be Sara’s favorite ooey-gooey grilled cheese creation. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Cheddar Herb Tomato Grilled Cheese

(Recipe makes 2 large sandwiches)


  • 3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar
  • 2 oz crumbled blue cheese
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 4 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 4 thick slices tomatoes, salted
  • 4 slices crusty bread
  • Flaky salt
  • Cracked black pepper
  • Splash of balsamic vinegar


On a plate lay tomato slices in a single layer and liberally salt. Allow to sit 5 minutes to draw out moisture, squeeze slightly and drain. Drizzle with balsamic, season with flaky salt and coarse pepper.

In a bowl combine butter, a little salt (if your butter is salted, omit this), thyme, and Parmesan. Set aside.

Mix cheddar, blue cheese and basil together. Spread the butter mixture on each outside of the bread for the sandwich. Place a layer of the cheddar mixture, then two tomato slices, then a little more cheddar mixture. Place lid on sandwich and grill in a skillet on medium low heat.

Cheddar Herb Tomato Grilled Cheese is reminiscent of that timeless classic, tomato soup and grilled cheese. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Jeran is a culinary enthusiast, gardener, beekeeper and Buckhannon native. Follow her on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

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