For a satisfying vegetarian melt, look no further than a jar of artichoke hearts.
Tuna melts are said to have been discovered accidentally in the 1960s when, at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s department store in Charleston, South Carolina, a bowl of tuna salad fell onto a grilled cheese sandwich. It may sound like the meet-cute from any number of romantic comedies—and equally rife with sexual tension—but it turned out well for the tuna melt, which has become one of America’s essential sandwiches.
The tuna melt remains an icon, but one that is ever evolving as plant-forward diets become increasingly popular. Chickpeas are a familiar alternative, usually mashed and flavored similarly to a classic tuna salad, but other, more veggie-forward options exist as well. Take, for example, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen’s broccoli melts: a mixture 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 broiled provolone for the gooey cheesiness that makes it a melt.
It was in 2016, when I first saw Perelman’s broccoli melt recipe, that I realized melts were a wide category of cheese-covered, open-faced sandwiches and not 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.
Several years later, when working in the small Seattle bakery Cafe Besalu, I stumbled upon the artichoke melt. One of our bakers, Rozlyn, had developed a recipe for quiche that was filled with a mixture of artichoke hearts, garlic, parsley, and Parmesan cheese. One day, while desperately trying to cobble together a lunch for myself, I piled some of the quiche-intended artichoke mixture onto a piece of bread and topped it with some grated cheese. I threw it in the oven under a tray of baking croissants, and several minutes later, I enjoyed my new creation. I was surprised at how well the salty, meaty, and briny marinated artichoke hearts stood in for tuna. Even in the absence of any true protein, the artichoke melt left me feeling full and satisfied.
Artichoke melts are a quick and easy lunch that I now make at home all the time, particularly when my fridge is looking bare. I always start by draining and rinsing the artichoke hearts to slightly tame but preserve the briny flavor while getting rid of any excess oil (which could make the sandwich soggy). The artichoke hearts are then simply chopped and mixed with minced garlic, chopped parsley, red pepper flakes, lemon zest, and grated Parmesan—resulting in 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 what you have lying around the fridge, from leftover sautéed mushrooms to roasted eggplant. The lesson is that most foods taste excellent on top of bread and under a generous layer of cheese. Why limit yourself to tuna when any number of vegetables could fall over a grilled cheese sandwich, and a new melt could be born?