You don’t need tuna to melt

Tuna melts are said to have been accidentally discovered in the 1960s when a bowl of tuna salad fell onto a grilled cheese sandwich at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s department store in Charleston, South Carolina. It might sound like the cutest meet-up from a series of romantic comedies — and just as brimming with sexual tension — but it’s well-suited to the tuna melt that’s become one of America’s quintessential sandwiches.

The tuna melt remains an icon, but one that continues to evolve as plant-based diets become more popular. Chickpeas are a well-known alternative, usually mashed and flavored similar to a classic tuna salad, but there are other, more vegetarian options. Take Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen’s Broccoli Melts, for example: a blend of chopped, blanched ‘broccoli rubble’ combined with garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice and a healthy dose of pecorino cheese – topped off with a slice of grilled provolone for that gooey cheesiness it’s got melts.

When I first saw Perelman’s broccoli melt recipe in 2016, I realized that melts are a broad category of cheese-covered, open-faced sandwiches and aren’t limited to tuna at all. In fact, they didn’t even need a protein to function as a perfectly acceptable meal — the possibilities suddenly seemed endless.

A few years later, while working at the small Seattle bakery, Cafe Besalu, I stumbled upon artichoke melt. One of our bakers, Rozlyn, had come up with a recipe for a quiche filled with a mixture of artichoke hearts, garlic, parsley and Parmesan cheese. One day, while I was desperately trying to put together a lunch, I piled some of the artichoke quiche mix onto a piece of bread and topped it with some grated cheese. I tossed it in the oven under a tray of baking croissants and a few minutes later I was enjoying my new creation. I was surprised how well the salty, meaty and salty marinated artichoke hearts substituted for tuna. Even without real protein, Artichoke Melt left me feeling full and satisfied.

Artichoke melts are a quick and easy lunch I always make at home now, especially when my fridge is looking empty. I always start by draining and rinsing the artichoke hearts to tame them slightly but retain the salty flavor while removing excess oil (which could make the sandwich soggy). The artichoke hearts are then simply chopped and tossed with minced garlic, chopped parsley, red pepper flakes, lemon zest, and grated parmesan — the result is a “salad” that tastes bright and fresh, even under a blanket of melted Monterey Jack cheese.

The veggie melt offers a tasty excuse to use up whatever you have lying around in the fridge, from leftover sautéed mushrooms to roasted eggplant. The lesson is that most foods taste great on bread and under a generous layer of cheese. Why limit yourself to tuna when any number of veggies could fall over a grilled cheese sandwich and a new melt could be born?

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