Mozzarella Tarantella for “La Nozze di Foglie di Salvia” or Mozzarella and Sage Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
A cheese dance for a wedding? La Nozze di Foglie di Salvia or The Marriage of Sage Leaves? Has Charles gone nuts again? Yes! I’m nuts for Italian food, Italian cheese, Italian opera, Italian bread and Italian wine. Anywhere there’s an abundant natural resource of food, chances are you’ll find Italians and Americans of Italian descent enjoying the local bounty. Lucky Oregon! We’re blessed with Italian food almost everywhere.
One of Oregon’s greatest Italian-American treasures is Nick’s Italian Cafe in McMinnville in the heart of pinot noir country. Sometime in 2004, Saveur Magazine published a wonderful article on Nick Peirano, chef/owner of Nick’s Italian Cafe, along with some of his recipes. On the sidebar next to the article, you will find links to recipes such as Dungeness Crab and Pine Nut Lasagne. Enjoy!
I love playing with words as much as I love playing with food. While my mind was searching for my inspiration muse for a mozzarella and sage grilled cheese sandwich, the word “mozzarella” kept dancing through my head. Mozzarella is a fun word to say and repeat rapidly — mozzarella, mozzarella, mozzarella! Before long I was singing it to a melody that came to me and I realized it was a tarantella, a very rapid Italian dance, usually in a 6/8 meter. Pretty soon my little song became “mozzarella tarantella, mozzarella tarantella,” etc. Aren’t unbridled minds interesting? It allows your inner two-year-old to emerge, and that can be a dangerous thing.
Well, enough of this nonsensical mind play − I’ll leave you with an entertaining example of one of the most famous tarantellas at the end of this post.
My “Sage and Mozzarella Sandwich” began to take shape quite a few years ago. I was thumbing through The Fine Art of Italian Cooking by Giuliano Bugialli. I became fascinated with a recipe titled Foglie di Salvia Ripieno or “little sage sandwiches.” I imagined Catherine de’ Medici serving these little packages at one of her repasts in France. And by the way, her personal chefs inspired the beginnings of French cuisine as we know it today.
My attempt to recreate this recipe was one of my biggest failures in the kitchen. The recipe was simple enough: fresh sage leaves sandwiched between small slices of mozzarella, coated in a breading of egg yolk and beaten egg whites then deep fried. What I ended up with was empty crispy breading with burnt sage and melted mozzarella loose in the bottom of the fryer. Merda!
I was really looking forward to enjoying the taste of warm and soft mozzarella voluptuously coaxing out the pungent flavor of the fresh sage leaves to create a whole new flavor. Not to be, so on to Plan B.
The fact that the word ‘sandwich’ from the recipe practically slapped me in the face wasn’t enough get me there immediately. It would be some time before my little sandwich lightbulb lit up and I thought – Grilled Cheese Sandwich!
I give you:
Mozzarella and Sage Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Since these are sandwiches, you will need to assume some responsibility for the amount of your ingredients. Don’t worry if you make too many; they store and warm up nicely. This time of year is perfect because vine-ripened tomatoes are at their best. These sandwiches are very garlicky.
- Fresh mozzarella
- Fresh sage leaves, enough to cover a single layer on each of your sandwiches – you can use the leaves whole or mince using a chiffonade method. When I use whole leaves, I remove the large inner vein.
- The best vine-ripened tomato you can lay your hands on
- Red onion, thinly sliced
- Good country-style bread – I like to use an olive bread
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Fresh garlic to taste
Once you establish how many sandwiches you will make, judging the rest of the ingredients is fairly easy. Most of our meals at home are for three: one who eats like a bird and two who eat for a whole flock of birds. We nearly always have leftovers. So we’re going to use 6 or 8 slices of bread.
- Prepare the garlic mayonnaise by pounding two cloves of peeled garlic, with the green center removed if it has one, in a mortar and pestle with a few grains of Kosher salt. When it reaches a paste consistency, begin moving your pestle in a circular motion while adding the olive oil in a tiny drizzle. When you think you have just the right amount, add the mayonnaise, and mix all together with the pestle. For my 3-4 sandwiches I will need at least ½ cup (120 ml.) of garlic mayo. If you think you didn’t make enough, you should be able to tell after you cover the first two or three slices. If you need more, just add more mayonnaise − the garlic flavor will still be obvious.
- Now you have a choice with how to deal with the fresh mozzarella: 1) slice it thinly, or 2) grate it. I have found grating fresh mozzarella a major challenge. Lately I have been placing the whole ball in my potato ricer with the large holes and pressing into little cylinders of cheese. Non-conventional but it works for me — especially for topping pizza.
- Slice your bread to the thickness you like. (I like to slice slightly on the diagonal too.) Have your tomatoes and onion sliced as well.
- Spread some of the garlic mayonnaise on each slice of bread.
- Spread a small amount of the grated cheese or the thin slices over the bread, covering it fully.
- Generously sprinkle the sage or the whole leaves, covering the cheese to your liking.
- Cover the sage with the same amount of cheese, cover that with the tomato slices, and finish with the red onion to taste.
- Cover each with the remaining slices of bread.
- Lightly spray or brush each sandwich with olive oil.
- Have a pan ready and heated for grilling. You may want to use a non-stick pan because the melting cheese oozes slightly. When grilling it this way, you may want to cover it after turning the sandwiches to help the cheese melt. Place sandwiches on the pan, leaving enough room to turn over, using two spatulas−the second one to help you hold it together.
- Alternatively, you can make these effortlessly using a panini press, which I did for this post.*
- Cut each sandwich in half and serve.
*This was my first time using a panini press and now I’m a huge fan. My good friend Kathy Thompson not only loaned me her fabulous Breville Panini Press, but plied me with dynamite heirloom tomatoes from her garden. Thanks, Kathy.
And now the entertainment I promised earlier, Rossini’s La Danza as performed by the late, great Luciano Pavarotti, accompanied by James Levine. Who would want to follow such an act? Ciao, e buon appetito!
About the Author (Author Profile)
Music, food and photography are at the center of Charles’ life. He performed with the Dallas Symphony, Dallas Opera and was assistant principal bassoonist with the Fort Worth Symphony for more than 20 years. When Charles and Victor moved to Baltimore, Charles created Lone Star Personal Chef and Catering Service and taught cooking classes at Williams-Sonoma. Now in Salem, Charles is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Mountain West Real Estate, taught cooking classes for children at the A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village, and owns and operates Charles Price Photography. Charles and Vic enjoy entertaining and frequently host dinners as fundraisers for local non-profits and charities