- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

With no disrespect intended for the supermarket’s plastic-wrapped vacuum-sealed Swiss, cheddar and blue, there’s something magical about the taste of a cheese that’s handmade on a small farm in California or Maine, in a creamery in Normandy or in the French Pyrenees.

If you haven’t experienced the taste and texture of mixed-milk Amarelo da Beira Baixa from eastern Portugal, a washed-rind cow’s milk cheese from Ireland or a creamy blue from Northern California, you haven’t really tasted cheese.

Thanks to the Web, catalog shopping and membership in cheese-of-the-month clubs, it has never been easier or more rewarding to experiment with and enjoy artisanal and farmstead cheeses, regardless of where we live. For summer entertaining, artisanal cheeses add unforgettable flavor to salads, pastas and grilled meats. Even desserts.

Sandy Peterson, merchandise director for food and housewares for the Williams-Sonoma catalog, credits founder Chuck Williams with introducing the concept of artisanal cheeses to the general public as far back as the 1970s, when he offered English cheddar and Stilton to his customers. “We were one of the first to offer farmhouse cheese, and now there’s rarely a catalog that doesn’t. Today, people are as fascinated by cheese as they are with wines, and the more knowledge they have, the more interest is generated. It’s really a huge phenomenon, especially for entertaining.”

The Williams-Sonoma official also thinks people are starting to grow more confident with cheese and are willing to take risks with flavors and regions they might not otherwise have tried.

Williams-Sonoma offers a few selections each month, often from California cheese makers such as Cowgirl Creamery (now with an outlet in downtown Washington), Harley Farms and Point Reyes Farmstead; during the holiday season, customers can order membership in a cheese-of-the-month club, the ultimate gift that keeps on giving.

I received a cheese club membership from Artisanal, a New York-based company founded by chef Terrance Brennan, whose Manhattan restaurants (Picholine and Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro) and cheese education classes have certainly contributed to cheese appreciation in the United States.

Each month, three cheeses from around the world arrived with detailed descriptions, cheese tags, suggested wine pairings, guidelines for presentation, temperature and storing recommendations.

We’ve now become a family of cheese enthusiasts, enjoying, for example, three in March from California Humboldt Fog, a fresh goat cheese; Fiscalini, a bandaged-wrapped cheddar; and Point Reyes Farmstead, a briny blue. In April, three classic French cheeses from Poitou, the Pyrenees and Haute Savoie regions arrived.

Catalogs and Web sites make artisanal cheese buying a breeze, and many of them provide cheese education classes, recipes and tips on beverage pairings — wine, craft beers, lambic and India ales, even Irish stouts and porters that can add a new dimension to summer entertaining.

Murray’s Cheese, with two New York retail locations (Bleecker Street and Grand Central Market), has a huge selection of regional and international cheeses. It offers in-store cheese classes and sells condiments, groceries and cheese accessories.

Web shoppers can subscribe to Murray’s four-month cheese club, with selections made to coincide with the seasons and holidays, such as cheese from France in July to coincide with the Tour de France.

NapaStyle, a California-based catalog and Web site, advises its customers that the single most important element of serving great cheese is the temperature of the cheese when you serve it — namely, room temperature. They offer a wide variety, including such stars as Vella’s Jack, a dry and aged Jack coated with cocoa and black pepper, and St. George, a nutty cheddarlike cheese.

Michael Chiarello, founding chef of Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena, Calif., and NapaStyle, says, “It really is true that $5 cheese will taste like $20 cheese at the right temperature and $20 cheese will taste like $5 cheese at the wrong temperature. Your Brie should be weeping, your blue stinking and your Reggiano glistening with a whisper of its oil.”

SOURCES

There are many sources for artisanal cheese, but here are a few that have Web locations and take orders by phone:

Artisanal: retail location Artisanal Bistro and Fromagerie, 2 Park Ave. at 32nd Street, New York; cheese education courses, online ordering and cheese-of-the-month club, www.artisanalcheese.com or 877/797-1200.

Gourmet Cheese of the Month Club: online ordering and cheese-of-the-month club, www.cheesemonthclub.com or 800/625-8238.

Cowgirl Creamery: retail location at 919 F St. NW; online ordering and cheese-of-the-month club, www.cowgirlcreamery.com or 866/433-7834.

Formaggio Kitchen: retail location 244 Huron St., Cambridge, Mass.; online ordering, cheese-of-the-month club, cheese education, www.formaggiokitchen.com or 888/212-3224.

Igourmet.com: online specialty cheese and fine foods, cheese-of-the-month club, www.igourmet.com or 877/446-8763.

Murray’s Cheese: retail locations at 254 Bleecker St. and Grand Central Market, 43rd Street and Lexington Avenue, New York; cheese education courses, online ordering and cheese-of-the-month club, www.murrayscheese.com or 888/692-4339.

NapaStyle: catalog and online specialty cheese and fine foods, www.napastyle.com or 866/776-1600.

Williams-Sonoma: retail locations nationwide; catalog, online ordering and cheese-of-the-month club (seasonal), www.williams-sonoma.com or 877/812-6235.

Ham salad on Gruyere potato coins

Gruyere is a hard Swiss cheese similar to Emmental but with smaller holes. In addition to its role as a fondue cheese, Gruyere is also an excellent sandwich cheese that melts evenly.

Perfect for a picnic, these potato “coins” and the ham salad can be made in advance and assembled at serving time. The recipe that follows is from igourmet.com.

½ pound lean ham, finely chopped

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish

1 tablespoon capers, finely chopped

1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Freshly ground pepper

Potato coins (recipe follows)

In a small bowl, combine ham, mayonnaise, chives, pickle relish, capers, tarragon, mustard and pepper to taste. Spoon ham salad onto potato coins and serve. (Leftover ham salad makes delicious sandwiches.) Makes about 3 dozen.

POTATO COINS

Nonstick cooking spray

2 long, thin Idaho potatoes, unpeeled but washed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 to 1 cup (about 4 ounces) shredded Gruyere or a similar cheese

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil and lightly mist with nonstick cooking spray. Cut potatoes into about 36 1/8-inch-thick slices.

Cut slices into rounds, if desired, or leave full size with peel on. In medium bowl, toss potatoes with olive oil and arrange them in a single layer on the baking sheet.

Season with salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle with cheese. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender and cheese is golden. Remove from oven and cool. Transfer to paper towels.

Prosciutto-wrapped figs with Point Reyes blue cheese

Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese is made from raw milk from a closed herd of Holstein cows that graze in pastures overlooking Tomales Bay.

The key to this ultrasimple recipe is to crisp the prosciutto quickly, leave the blue cheese just melted and the inner part of the fig cool in temperature. The recipe that follows is from NapaStyle.

½ cup Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese (or similar), cut into 16 cubes

8 Black Mission figs, cut in half

8 slices prosciutto, cut in half lengthwise

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Place a piece of blue cheese on each fig half. Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each, making sure the cheese is covered and the ends of the prosciutto are overlapping. Grill each piece for about 2 minutes on each side, or until the prosciutto begins to color and crisp.

Remove from grill, lightly drizzle with olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

Makes 4 servings.

Goat cheese and vegetable pasta

Goat cheese, also known as chevre, is made from goat’s milk. It comes in many sizes and shapes, including round patties, logs, drum shapes, pyramids and loaves. It ranges in texture from soft but firm, like cream cheese, to extremely hard. This pasta dish combines the light, fresh flavors of summer vegetables with the creamy texture and tangy flavor of goat cheese. For a spicy kick, add a pinch or two of crushed red pepper flakes to the vegetable mixture. The recipe that follows is from the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 yellow onion, sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and thinly sliced

2 zucchini, thinly sliced lengthwise with a vegetable peeler

2 cups baby arugula

4 ounces crumbled goat cheese, divided

Crushed red pepper flakes, optional

Salt and freshly ground pepper

8 ounces fresh fettuccine (see note)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add onion and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion starts to caramelize, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Add sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, arugula, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, three quarters of the goat cheese and red pepper flakes to taste, if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Salt the boiling water, add the pasta and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well, add to the bowl with the vegetables and toss gently to combine.

To serve, transfer to warmed pasta bowls and sprinkle with remaining goat cheese. Serve immediately. Makes 2 servings.

Note: Dried pasta can be substituted for fresh, but cooking time will need to be increased to about 7 minutes, or until tender but firm to the bite.

Brocciu frais panna cotta with caramelized figs

Brocciu is a fresh sheep’s milk cheese from Corsica. Adding it to a traditional panna cotta recipe creates a sensational dessert, but you can substitute ricotta cheese with good result. The recipe that follows is adapted from Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro.

PANNA COTTA:

2 cups brocciu frais or ricotta cheese

1½ cups milk

3 tablespoons sugar

Pinch of salt

1/4-ounce envelope unflavored gelatin

CARAMELIZED FIGS:

1 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

½ cup port

½ vanilla bean, split

1 sprig rosemary

2 pints Black Mission figs, stemmed and halved

To make the panna cotta, chill six 4-ounce ramekins or metal molds. In a food processor or blender, combine cheese, milk, sugar and salt and puree until smooth.

Pour ½ cup cheese and milk combination into a small saucepan and sprinkle in gelatin. Heat on low for 2 to 3 minutes, or until gelatin is dissolved. Combine with remaining cheese and milk and pour into prepared ramekins or molds. Chill for at least 1 hour, or until set. (Panna cotta can be made the day before serving.)

To make the figs, in a large saucepan over medium heat, combine brown sugar, vinegar, Port, vanilla bean and rosemary. Bring gently to a boil, reduce heat and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until reduced by half.

Add figs, bring mixture back to a gentle boil, then remove from heat and let figs cool in syrup.

To serve, unmold panna cottas by dipping each mold quickly into warm water, then turning them upside down onto a dessert plate.

Divide figs equally around each, discard vanilla bean and rosemary and spoon some of the syrup over.

Makes 6 servings.

Margaret M. Johnson is the author of “The Irish Pub Cookbook” and “The Irish Heritage Cookbook” (Chronicle Books).

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