- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

Marilyn Harris is Cincinnati’s doyenne of food - cookbook writer, cooking teacher, food columnist and host of a talk-radio show for 20 years - and she loves Comte cheese.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said on the phone the other day. “It’s probably my favorite hard cheese. Of course, you can’t compare it to Parmigiana Reggiano because they are so different. Among the other French hard cheeses and those from Switzerland and Germany, Comte is my favorite.

“It’s so good melted, and it is a great cooking and snacking cheese. It’s great on pizza, too.”

Writing about Mrs. Harris in the Cincinnati Inquirer last year, Chuck Martin began by quoting someone who knows the city’s No. 1 foodie:

“Several years ago at a conference in San Francisco, someone at the dinner table had the gall to ask Marilyn Harris what she did for living. Before she could answer, a friend piped up:

“ ‘Marilyn’s in charge of food in Cincinnati.’ ”

Mrs. Harris also is in charge of saying what she is thinking - as often as possible. Once on her Saturday call-in show on KWRC-AM in Cincinnati, a woman inquired about a recipe that began with slices of apples being rolled in crescent-roll dough and placed individually in a pan and then topped with several ingredients, including a can of Mountain Dew. Mrs. Harris was, well, amazed.

“People call in with these recipes, and I give them my advice. Talk radio attracts a lot of crazies, but now a lot of young guys call me, now that men are into cooking. Nobody I know calls talk radio, though.”

After the caller described the Mountain Dew recipe, “I said, ‘Uh, it sounds awful. Is that a joke recipe?’ ‘My family loves it! I make it all the time!’ the caller told me.

“Oh, she was so upset, and I didn’t know what I had stirred up. I still get calls about it. I don’t know whether they are joking or are still mad because I trashed that recipe: ‘Could you do that apple-Mountain Dew recipe again?’ Finally we put it on the Web site so the calls would stop.”

Mrs. Harris recalled her visit to Franche-Comte, the administrative region in eastern France where Comte, a type of Gruyere, is produced. The largely rural region includes the departments of Doubs, Haute-Saone, Jura and Territoire de Belfort. It is a very green area of rolling hills, high plateaus and wide valleys bordering Switzerland. Besancon, the capital of the region, and Dole, where Louis Pasteur was born, are connected to Paris by the fast TGV trains. Arbois is where Edouard Hirsinger is the fourth generation of his family to operate Hirsinger chocolates; he is one of the few men to have the title of master chocolate maker of France.

With a population of about 1.1 million, Franche-Comte seems to have as many sheep and cattle as people.

Comte, one of more than 600 cheeses produced in France, is made by 175 frutieres - cheese-making houses or fromageries - from partially skimmed raw milk from Montbeliarde cows, a red-and-white breed that originated in these same Jura Mountains. Each frutiere, usually a co-operative, has about 19 members, or dairy farms.

The milk is warmed in large copper vats; rennet and cultures are added to create curds, which are cut into small pieces and then heated to about 130 degrees for 30 minutes. Next, the cheese is placed in circular forms, where it will age on spruce boards at the frutiere before being shipped to a cellar for refining or aging for a minimum of four months, often six to 18 months.

In 2006, the total production of Comte was almost 1.25 million wheels, with each wheel averaging almost 88 1/2 pounds. That’s some cheese.

One of Mrs. Harris‘ favorite recipes for Comte - befitting a lady born in Tupelo, Miss., where she was a beauty queen and high school valedictorian - is her own: Comte baked grits. She and her husband came to Cincinnati, she says, after graduate school because he had teaching job there. “We had no plans to say,” she says, “but Cincinnati grabbed us and wouldn’t let us go. I love Cincinnati. It looks European - and we have really good food.”

She also is a speaker on food and cooking, and she does cooking demonstrations - “where there is a professional kitchen. I’ve told them that I don’t cook on card tables.”

I still can picture Mrs. Harris at an outdoor restaurant near the Duomo in Florence, resting with a snack after a trip into the Tuscan countryside. She took a bite of mortadella from her plate, paused, contended about 15 seconds, and said, “You know, this mortadella would make a fine baloney sandwich.”

Grits, though, is a good dish, and that’s no baloney. In the introduction to her grits recipe, Mrs. Harris writes:

“Grits used to be found only in restaurants and home kitchens in the deep South. These days you are just as likely to find them on the menu of a trendy New York restaurant where the chef has discovered the ‘comfort food’ appeal of this corn dish. We´ve always made cheese grits and have used various cheese, but Comte adds a texture and special flavor unlike any other cheese.”

She also likes her recipe for baked Comte dip, which, she says, tastes like fondue. “It’s easy to prepare when you’re having just a few people. Besides, who doesn’t like melted cheese? Just put this top over a candle thing and keep it warm. It’s actually very tasty.”

Here are some of Mrs. Harris‘ recipes using Comte.

Comte baked grits

Completely assemble this dish the day before; cover and chill. Allow to sit out of the refrigerator for 1 hour, then pop into the oven to bake in time to serve for brunch.

6 cups water

1 1/2 cups grits, uncooked

3 large eggs

2 teaspoons salt

1 stick butter, (4 ounces)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or to taste

12 ounces Comte cheese, shredded

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Bring the water to boil in a large saucepan. Stir in the grits. Cook, stirring, until thickened.

Beat the eggs with the salt until fluffy.

Remove the grits from the heat and stir a large spoonful of the hot grits into the eggs and mix the egg mixture into the grits. Cut the butter into pieces and add to grits. Stir in the garlic, paprika, hot pepper sauce and 3/4 of the cheese.

Pour into a well-buttered 2-quart casserole and top with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes to 1 hour. Serve hot. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Easy baked Comte dip

Perfect for cool weather and the holiday season, this scrumptious dip can be assembled several hours ahead - ready to pop into the oven for baking just before serving time. Though originally created as party food, this easy-to-make dip also can serve as a Sunday night supper. Serve with French bread and add a side salad for a complete casual meal.

Before one of her talks - to a group of church women - one person was aghast that the recipe called for 2 tablespoons of wine. “Then leave it out,” Mrs. Harris said. “It just won’t taste as good.”

16 ounces Comte cheese, shredded

1 1/2 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoon dry white wine

1 cup finely chopped onion

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

Stir together all of the ingredients.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the ingredients and put into a 1 1/2 quart ovenproof serving dish and bake 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbly and hot. Serve hot with slices of crusty French baguette or toasted pita triangles. Makes 12 to 16 servings as an appetizer.

Mushroom and Comte tart

This easy but elegant tart requires no special tart pan and uses a simple crust made in a food processor. Serve this tasty tart as an appetizer or as the main course for lunch or brunch.

CRUST:

1 1/4 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 stick very cold butter, cut into 8 pieces

4 tablespoons sour cream

2 teaspoons lemon juice

4 to 5 tablespoons ice water

Place the flour, salt and butter in the food processor. Pulse on and off until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Whisk together the sour cream, lemon juice and 4 tablespoons of the water. Add to the flour mixture and pulse on and off just until a dough forms. Add the last tablespoon of water if needed.

Press dough into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least one hour.

FILLING:

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

1 cup boiling water

2 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup thinly sliced scallions

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 pound white button mushrooms, thinly sliced

6 ounces shredded Comte cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the dry mushrooms in a small bowl and pour over the boiling water. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Drain and rinse the mushrooms well. Squeeze out the excess liquid and chop finely.

Melt the butter in a large skillet and saute the green onions for 5 minutes, or until soft. Stir in the garlic, rosemary and thyme and cook a minute longer. Add the fresh and dried mushrooms and cook until the mushroom liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Cool.

Allow the chilled dough to sit for a few minutes at room temperature until pliable enough to roll. Roll out on a lightly floured surface into a 12-inch circle. Place on a baking sheet.

Sprinkle half of the cheese on top of the dough, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border around the edge. Top with the mushroom mixture and the remaining cheese. Fold the uncovered edge of dough over the filling, pleating to make it fit, leaving the center open.

Bake at 400 dergrees 35 to 40 minutes, or until the tart is golden brown. Let the tart rest for 5 minutes, then slide onto a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.

Comte potato soup

This delicious classic combination of potatoes and leeks adds creamy Comte for even more flavor and a luscious velvet texture. To make ahead, complete the recipe omitting the cheese and seasonings. To serve, reheat the soup and then stir in the cheese over low heat. Season to taste, and add the fresh dill.

4 medium potatoes (Red Bliss or Yukon Gold)

4 large leeks

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 cups chicken stock

1 cup dry white wine

2 cups shredded Comte cheese

Salt, to taste

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Peel and cube the potatoes. Place in cold water until ready to use.

Trim the root ends and tough green tops from the leeks. Slice into 1/4-inch rounds, place them in cool water, and wash thoroughly, making sure all grit is removed. Drain.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot. Stir in the leeks and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Drain and stir in the potatoes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Partially cover the pan and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are fork tender.

Puree the mixture and return to the pot. Stir in the wine and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Over low heat, gradually whisk in the Comte, stirring until all of the cheese is melted. Season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with dill just before serving. Makes 8 servings.

Zucchini-Comte casserole

Zucchini is such a versatile vegetable, and this casserole is a favorite because it is easily assembled, can be made ahead ready to bake and is a great accompaniment for any rather simple main dish, such as grilled fish or roast chicken.

4 small zucchini

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup thinly sliced onion

2 tablespoons flour

2 eggs

1 cup cream (light cream may be substituted)

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

6 ounces Comte, shredded

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash, trim and coarsely shred the zucchini.

Heat oil in skillet and saute the zucchini and onion for 5 minutes, stirring. Sprinkle the flour over the zucchini and cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes longer. Remove from the heat.

Beat together the eggs, cream, hot pepper sauce, nutmeg and salt. Sir into the vegetable mixture. Pour into a well-buttered, shallow 2-quart baking dish and cover the top evenly with the Comte.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until hot through and lightly browned. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.

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