It’s been a long time, friends. I’ve been away.
OK, it was only for nine days, and it was only last month…
For the first time since 2002, I left the country. Our first international family vacation. But the reality of life with a non-nivorous seven-year-old made our adventures challenging, and not in the exhilarating way I’d imagined. Going abroad with a child who’d prefer to live on nothing but hot dogs, pizza, and matzo ball soup creates a unique set of travel restrictions.
In 2012, my father-in-law accepted a job transfer to Manchester, England. That Christmas, my in-laws gave us plane tickets so we could visit. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in England, including a college semester in London, though I haven’t been since the 1990s. The chance to introduce Harry to a place where I’d formed so many memories delighted me. But Stephen started a new job in 2013, so our only vacation last year was a long weekend on Long Island’s North Fork.
Over Spring Break, we finally used those tickets.
To prepare for our arrival, my mother-in-law laid in hot dogs and mozzarella cheese. After a long night of travel, we reached their house just before lunchtime. My mother-in-law pulled out the hot dogs and buns and set to work, knowing she’d make Harry happy. Except that English hot dogs taste nothing like American hot dogs, plus the buns aren’t properly squishy. And fresh mozzarella from the cheese shop may as well be broccoli, in Harry’s view. He ate crisps (potato chips) and strawberries for lunch that day.
I began to suspect that rather than seeking out the local specialties, the food aspect of our trip would revolve around finding something, anything, our darling boy would eat.
At a celebratory dinner at my in-laws’ favorite local restaurant—fantastic Chinese food, of all things, in semi-rural Frodsham—the owners prepared the plainest chicken, just chunks of breast dipped in batter and deep-fried. Harry hated it.
At a Liverpool fish-and-chips shop, Harry took one bite of his kids’ meal fish nugget and put it back.
In London, our most successful meal was at My Old Dutch, a pancake house. Breakfast for dinner wins again! Trips to Legoland, a place constructed wholly to please kids, and Kew Gardens, which devotes a café to family-friendly food, proved disastrous as far as my son’s belly was concerned.
I’m not saying we didn’t have fun—seeing England through a seven-year-old’s eyes, I experienced the country in a completely new way. Watching him pretend to battle a knight (aka my husband) in the ruins of a Welsh castle provided enough joyful memories to last me for decades. But for nine days, our child lived on fresh fruit, Weetabix Crispy Minis (chocolate chip, naturally), crisps, chips, and bread. Oh, and his beloved shredded mozzarella cheese, which I was thrilled to find when we arrived in London. Yes, getting my hands on some packaged cheese was the most thrilling event of the trip.
For the grownups, our vacation had three highlights: Lunch with family friends at Carluccio’s, where I had a perfectly light piece of fish and Stephen had a perfectly not-light lasagna (Harry deigned to eat plain penne with olive oil only after my friend, an experienced grandma, literally sweet-talked him with the promise of dessert), the discovery of Fry’s Peppermint Cream chocolate bars, and a knock-your-socks-off toasted cheese sandwich from Kappacasein in Borough Market, London’s Smorgasburg.
I’m not the first to note the wonder that is this grilled cheese sandwich—according to Kappacasein’s website, no less than Ruth Reichl declared it “the platonic ideal.” Gooey, crispy, with a savory edge from five types of onions mixed into three types of cheese, it required a 30-minute wait on a wraparound queue. And it was worth every second.
When it comes to making grilled cheese at home, the idea of finely chopping five different alliums seems a bit excessive. Especially if you’re fixing one sandwich. So in my replica version, I only use three: garlic, red onion, and chives. (I know, only…) And since Kappacasein mixes up their cheesy filling in vast quantities ahead of time, I do the same, sorta, and keep the mixture in the fridge to use as needed.
In case you’re wondering: No, Harry didn’t like the sandwich, in London or at home. Someday those tastebuds of his are going to mature, and his world will explode.
Borough Market’s Grilled Cheese
If you’re making one sandwich at a time, refrigerate the extra cheese and allium mixture in an air-tight container for up to a week.
8 ounces shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (I use Kerrygold Aged Cheddar)
2 ounces shredded Gruyère or Comté cheese
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
1 large clove garlic, chopped fine
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
8 slices sourdough bread, about 3/4” thick
8 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
- Heat a large, heavyweight skillet over medium-high heat. Cover the bottom of a slightly smaller skillet with aluminum foil and coat lightly with nonstick spray. Pull some heavy cans from your pantry to weigh it down when the time comes.
- Put the cheeses and the alliums into a mixing bowl, and toss until thoroughly combined.
- Spread each slice of bread with 1/2 tablespoon of butter. Place 4 in the skillet, buttered side down (you may need to do this in batches). Quickly top each with 1/4 of the cheese mixture, then place the remaining bread on top, buttered side up.
- Put the smaller skillet on top of the sandwiches, foil-side down, and place the canned goods inside it. Cook sandwiches for 2-3 minutes until their bottoms are nicely browned, then flip, replace the weight, and cook another 2-3 minutes.
- Serve as soon as they’re ready—nobody wants to eat a congealed grilled cheese sandwich.
MAKE BABY FOOD: The shredded cheese, sure, for babies eating finger foods. The sandwich, not so much—the bread gets toasted. If your baby is already a confident eater, try cutting off the crust and serving strips of the easier-to-chew inner sandwich.