There’s More Than One Way To Cut The Cheese

Yeah, you thought the holidays were over, but not quite.

Yesterday was a holiday for everyone still experiencing the morning after 21 days post New Year’s Eve.

It was National Cheese Day!

Now there’s a banner day that we can all get behind (there are numerous non-dairy cheese options for our vegan friends).In honor of this cheesy celebration, today’s essay will be all about what Webster calls, “a food consisting of the coagulated, compressed, and usually ripened curd of milk separated from the whey” (I think that last sentence is iron-clad proof that the first person to eat cheese tasted it before hearing the definition).

Like stone tools and in-laws, the origin of cheese predates recorded history.  And, probably derives from a lucky, delicious accident.  The simplest cheese is usually farmer cheese which is young, unripened, and soft.

Yup.  That’s an Amish dude with a camel dairy.

And the number of animals whose milk is made into cheese is much larger than cow, goat, sheep and buffalo.  Folks around the world have used donkeys, horses, camels and yaks.  And a few years ago, the internet blew up over a restaurant serving cheese made from humans—yeah, thanks no.

Goat cheese has become ubiquitous.  Most of the time it’s a crumbly, tangy product that tops salads and livens up beets.

The milk can be made into the same types of cheese as cows.  I asked a goat farmer why we don’t see goat cheddar, or provolone, or Havarti.  He explained since the yield from a goat is so much lower than cows, chèvre (French for goat cheese) gleans a higher, less labor-intensive yield.On any given month, I eat my weight in goat cheese.  I love it on mixed baby greens along with toasted pecans, dried cherries, and shaved onion, very lightly dressed with balsamic dressing.  Toast, a sandwich restaurant in Durham, schmears it on sliced baguette, drizzles on a little honey, and finishes with a sprinkling of freshly cracked black pepper.

Chèvre can be expensive; a tiny nub just large enough for two or three main course salads can run to seven or eight dollars.  Add a few more if you like organic.

I’ve discovered that Costco carries two large logs for $7.  I throw one in the freezer and am very rarely caught cheese-less.You can fry some types of cheese, and I’m not talking breaded, deep-fried awfulness you might find on the appetizer menu at Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag.  This version is sliced and toasted in a dry skillet.  It’s an addictive treat that The Kid has adored for years.

It’s most commonly made from Mexican queso blanco or queso freir.  But halloumi from Cyprus, Greek kefalotyri and kasseri can all be fried.  Children love this, and it makes for party food that is sure to spark conversation.Another cheese that’s out of the ordinary but is becoming a little more common is burrata.  Burrata is the piñata of the cheese world.  A balloon of mozzarella is filled with stracciatella cheese and cream.  Stracciatella is fresh cheese curds which are stretched and shredded.

If you’re especially fascinated with coagulated, compressed milk curds it’s not very hard to make cheese at home.

There are plenty of websites that will give you step-by-step instructions.  You add rennet to milk, heat it, then stretch the resulting curds.  Rennet can be found in gourmet shops and online. But lots of stores like Southern Season and Whole Foods, as well as the interwebs sell kits, with everything you need to make like Little Miss Muffet.

Then you lucky thing, you can make poutine.

I swear, that looks so good to me it’s almost indecent.  

Thanks for your time.

 

Definitely Dixie (kind of)

I’m broken, and it’s all because of my mom, The Kid, and Fresh Market.

I used to be like all the other proper Southern children and eat any pimento cheese that was offered.  And like any good Southern child, ate it on spongy white bread.

But then two things happened that changed everything, and broke me.

First, my mom came to visit from Greensboro one day.  I honestly don’t remember her ever having arrived empty-handed.  Well, on this fateful day, knowing that I love both pimento cheese and Fresh Market and she brought me a tub of the goo they make in-house at that culinary Aladdin’s cave.

Secondly, when The Kid was in middle school we made a trip to the supermarket.  In the chip aisle, my spawn asked for a specific bag of pretzels.  The ones requested were Utz Special Dark sourdough; another kid had brought them for lunch, and they were a big hit among the lunchroom set.

They were also a hit at Chez Matthews, I took to keeping them around for The Kid’s lunch and to munch on.

One day I had some fresh pimento cheese from Fresh Market in the fridge.  I also had a bag of dark pretzels on the counter.  I wandered into the kitchen looking for something on which to snack.  I pulled out the cheese, and opened the pretzels.  I dunked and tasted.

My whole world shifted.

When The Kid was little and faced with a new food, I used to say try it, because you never know, it might be your new favorite.

The pretzels and the pimento cheese were both tasty on their own.  But the sum of these savory parts made for a whole that was so intensely delicious I needed to sit down.  I may have passed out from the sheer sensory overload.

A couple years ago, I was making oven-baked pork chops.  I needed some breader.  And I just happened to have the better part of a bag of Utz’s on hand.

After grinding in the food processor, I coated the chops and threw them in the oven.  The special dark specialness did it again.  We loved them.

The other day I was making pork chops had an epiphany: I would make a stuffed hybrid.

Stuffed pretzel pork chops

pimento pork

4-1 ½ inch thick boneless pork loin chops

1 cup your favorite pimento cheese

5 cups Utz Special Dark sourdough pretzels, divided

2 cups heavily seasoned flour

2 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Cooking spray

Prepare stuffing:  Run 5 or 6 pretzels through food processor until finely crushed.  Measure out 2 tablespoons and mix it with pimento cheese.  Set aside.

With a thin flexible knife cut a pocket into chops.  Cut a small slit (2 inches or less), horizontally in the side.  Push knife into pork, being careful not to cut all the way through.  Wiggle the knife back and forth opening up the pocket.

Put cheese mixture into a zip top bag and cut off one small corner.  Place bag into pork chop, and squeeze in about ¼ of cheese into each.  Place into fridge for at least an hour to chill.

Grind up the rest of the pretzels into large, coarse crumbs.  Place into shallow dish.  Put flour into another bag, and pour buttermilk into another shallow dish.

Coat pork with 3-part dredge; shake in flour, dip in buttermilk, and heavily coat with pretzels.  Put back in fridge for another hour to cool and set the cheese.

Preheat oven to 350.  Put oil into a heavy baking dish.  Set in pork chops and give them a spritz of cooking spray on top.

Bake for 15 minutes.  Using a fork and spatula, gently flip them over and bake 15 minutes more. 

Remove from oven and let rest for 5-10 minutes.  Serves 4.

And how did my mom, The Kid, and Fresh Market break me?

They all contributed to spoiling me for any other pimento cheese.  Nobody else’s tastes good anymore.  And when it’s topping a very specific dark brown, knotted piece of dough, I am reclining among the angels in snacking heaven.

Way to go, guys.

Sadly, there’s no kit to fix me…

Thanks for your time.

Apostate Pasta

So a couple weeks ago a French website posted a recipe for carbonara and all of Italy lost their collective mind.

France, why do you want to piss this guy off?

The procedure called for the whole thing to be boiled altogether in one pot.  And while I’m a fan of the odd one-pot pasta, carbonara should not be trifled with in such a manner.

Boiled pancetta?  Really?

The classic recipe is extremely simple with just four ingredients: spaghetti, pancetta, eggs, and Parmesan cheese.

But simple, especially in the case of carbonara, absolutely does not mean easy.  It’s far easier to botch it and end up with a greasy congealed tangle of noodles that look more like a punishment than dinner.

As appetizing as a letter from the IRS.

What can go wrong: Over, or undercook the spaghetti.  You can burn, or conversely fail to render the pancetta and have limp, fatty pork.  And the most problematic of all are the eggs.  If the heat is too high, or you don’t stir briskly enough, you get scrambled eggs.  And if you do stir with enough vigor it’s possible to not have the now broken pasta hot enough to cook the eggs.

It is a dance that’s potentially dangerous enough to strike fear in the heart of the very finest dancing “celebrity”.

But done right?  Done right it’s a song sung by Freddy Mercury or Billie Holiday.  It’s a landscape by Ansel Adams, a shoe by Louboutin, a dress by Coco Chanel all rolled up into one creamy, unctuous, heart-breakingly delicious bowl of pasta.

See how that sauce clings like a bad boyfriend?  That’s what I’m talking about.

My advice from the trenches is to have every bit of your prep done before you turn on burner one.  If you’re not ready every step of the way, the whole thing will get away from you, and that way lies madness and scrambled disappointment.  Take your time—be the master of your culinary domain, and don’t let the food dictate your actions and state of mind.  You have to commit; you’re cooking something that’s a little advanced; don’t be tentative.

Attitude is half the battle.

My recipe has a healthy serving of attitude.  I had some beautiful fresh angel hair pasta and decided that it really needed to be used for carbonara.  But I had bacon, and not pancetta.  I was also very low on Parmesan, but had a nice big piece of aged Manchego, which is very hard and dry like Parm.

So I made an executive decision.  But purists might take issue with it.

Blasphemous Carbonara

carbonara

9 ounces long pasta

4 or 5 slices bacon, cut into 1/4-inch strips

3 extra large eggs or 3 large + 1 large yolk

1/4 cup Manchego cheese, grated fine, plus more for garnishing

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup pasta water, reserved

Place eggs and cheese into bowl, season, and whisk until well-mixed.

In a large pot, cook pasta until al dente in heavily salted water.

In a separate large pan, render bacon.  Remove and set aside.  Pour off bacon fat until 2 tablespoons are left.  Turn pan down to low.

Remove cooked pasta from pot with tongs, reserving water. Place directly into pot with bacon fat.  Toss until well-coated.

Take pot off heat and slowly pour in egg mixture while constantly, vigorously, stirring pasta.  When it’s all added, continue stirring until egg mixture is heated and emulsified.  Briefly place pot back over a low burner if more heat is needed to thicken (sauce should be the consistency of heavy cream).  If it just looks like raw beaten eggs, it needs more gentle heat.  If it seems a little tight, add in abit of pasta water.

Place into two bowls and garnish with the bacon and more cheese.

Serves 2.

If the idea of this pasta dish appeals to you, I really hope you try making it.

And it’s entirely possible that you’ll screw it up the first time.  It’s probably wise to have a dinner backup plan that night, just in case.

But I’m telling you, getting this right has a huge payoff.

Not only do you get to enjoy what is arguably one of Italy’s finest gifts to mankind (even taking into account Ancient Rome and the Renaissance), you’ll have the thrill of being the kitchen swashbuckler who had the chops to put this ambrosia on the table.  You are fierce.

 

Fierce, I tells ya.

Thanks for your time.

Blue and green

I love it, Petey likes it, but in moderation, and The Kid can’t stand it.

I’m talking blue cheese.

So when I googled “Blue cheese, I discovered something…

 

I discovered that this too, is called blue cheese.

When I was little, on the rare occasion when I was forced to eat a green salad, I passed up the thousand island, and asked for blue cheese, ‘cause that’s what my dad ate (Ranch wasn’t an option, as it was only discovered in 1979 when a guy in Idaho trying to dig his way to China struck a rich vein of ranch dressing in his backyard.).  I enjoy the funky saltiness of blue, and still love the dressing on canned pears—I know; weird, but try it before you judge too harshly.

Ten or twelve years ago, on a family vacation to the mountains, Petey discovered the joyous combo of blue cheese and beef.  But he shies away from too much or too strong; so that means no gorgonzola or Roquefort for my ever-loving spouse.

The Kid?  Forget it.  Although normally an extremely adventurous diner, blue cheese, along with coconut and beets, are on the iron-clad official “Thou shalt not pass (my lips)” list.

k hate

Nope.Nope.Nope.

Recently Petey and I discovered a new blue that we really like.  It’s Carolina Bleu, from the Ashe County Dairy.  It’s quite mild and much softer than a normal version.

I had picked up some hamburger on the $2.99 sale that Fresh Market has on ground chuck every Tuesday, and when I discovered that the Durham Co-op carries Carolina Bleu, I decided to make hamburgers.

Carolina Bleu-stuffed burgers

blue burger

1 pound ground beef

2 ¼-inch slices Carolina Bleu cheese

Divide meat into fourths.  Make four flat burgers about 4 inches across.  Place cheese on two of the burgers.  Cover with the other burgers and seal the two together making sure they are completely sealed.

Cook on a crazy hot cast iron skillet for 2-3 minutes per side.  Don’t overcook or the cheese will ooze out and leave you with nothing in the center but disappointment. 

Dress and enjoy.  Serves 2.

On the same trip to the co-op, I picked up the cutest little baby zucchinis.  It was a complete impulse buy; I had no clue what I would do with them…until I started thinking side dishes for the stuffed burgers.

Zucchini fries

zucchini fries

8 baby zucchini, washed and quartered, length-wise

Flour for dredging, very heavily seasoned with salt and pepper

2 cups buttermilk

2 cups panko breadcrumbs

½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Fine sea salt

Oil, for frying

Place seasoned flour into a large zip-top bag.  Pour buttermilk into a shallow dish.  In another shallow dish, mix together breadcrumbs and Parm.

Coat squash in flour, shaking off excess.  Dredge in buttermilk, then breadcrumbs, making sure veg is totally coated.  Place on parchment-lined tray and refrigerate for at least one hour, and up to six,

When ready to cook, heat 1 ½ inches of oil in heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches 325 degrees.

Working a few at a time, fry sticks until they are golden brown.  Salt directly after removing from oil, then place on a cooling rack in a 170-degree oven to keep warm until they are all cooked.

Serve immediately with dipping sauce of your choice (I like ranch or mouth-puckeringly sour lemon aioli).

I’ve two things in closing.

I recently discovered this cheese is also carried at Earth Fare, in Raleigh’s Brier Creek.

And because this cheese is so soft and sliceable, I think it would work really well for a grilled cheese on hearty whole grain bread.     

Thanks for your time.

Ally goat

“Walk away.  Just walk away.”

That’s a phrase one of my culinary heroes, Alton Brown, uses.  It’s meant to get the cook to back off and not overwork it or tweak it to death.  Like over mixing biscuit dough, developing the gluten, and ending up with tough, rubbery, inedible results.

It’s also what I tell myself when making mashed potatoes.

I mash them by hand with a good amount of butter.  When the spuds are mashed,  but still chunky, I mix in buttermilk, about ¾ cup at a time until they are just a little thinner than I’d like (they’ll tighten up while standing).  Then I cover them and walk away ‘til service; because if I continue to stir, I’ll develop the starch in the potatoes, and they’ll end up gluey.

But gluey can actually be a desired trait in a certain potato dish.

I love America’s Test Kitchen.  They have cookbooks, magazines, and a pair of PBS television shows.  Using theirCook’s Illustrated magazine, I finally got over my fear of cooking sugar; caramel, fudge, the whole candy thermometer megillah.  I also appreciate that if they offer a recipe, they have tested it into the ground.  One of The Kid’s culinary schoolmates was an America’s Test Kitchen intern and has verified that each dish was made with hundreds of variations to be assured of having the very best, most successful, recipe.

One Sunday afternoon I was watching an episode of ATK, and became extremely intrigued by a potato side dish they made.

It was called pommes aligot (pronounced “pom ally go”).  It’s a dish from the Aubrac region in France.  Aligot basically turns conventional mashed potato wisdom on its head.  The potatoes are whipped like crazy, cheese is added, and more stirring ensues.

The result is a rich, creamy, cheesy dish that is shiny and elastic.  The French sometimes use this as a dip for bread sticks and raw veggies, kind of like a fondue.

In France the dish is made with Tomme; a semi-soft cheese made in the Pyrenes and Alps regions.  It is almost impossible to find in the states.  Christopher Kimbel and the gang at the Test Kitchen came up with a gruyere/mozzarella combo to mimic flavor and texture.

I don’t buy a lot of Gruyere, and was pretty horrified by the prices.  I didn’t want to get too far off the reservation the first time I made the recipe, so I used Gruyere, but found a smoked version that was two bucks cheaper.  It added a nice, subtle smoky flavor to the finished dish.

Pommes Aligot

aligot

3 pounds red-skinned potatoes (6-8 medium)

3 tablespoon kosher salt + more for seasoning

Water to cook potatoes

2 cloves garlic, minced

6 tablespoons butter

1 cup whole milk

1 cup shredded smoked gruyere cheese

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg (a big-gish pinch) 

1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

Peel the potatoes, cut them in half, then into 1/2-inch slices. Place in a large pot with 3 tablespoons of salt. Add water to cover the potatoes by at least an inch. Bring to a boil and cook for fifteen minutes or until easily pierced with a paring knife. Drain the water. Put the potatoes in a food processor with the minced garlic, salt to taste and the butter. Pulse a few times, add the milk, and pulse until smooth. Return the mixture to your pot and turn heat to medium. Sprinkle in nutmeg and pepper.  Slowly add the cheeses, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon while doing so, over a period of 3-5 minutes, until stretchy, elastic consistency is achieved.  Check for seasoning.  Serves 8.

I made them on Sunday night with some Denver steaks I was lucky enough to catch on sale, along with peas and carrots.  It was a Valentine’s dinner that wowed Petey.  The spuds turn out glossy and gorgeous.

To be really honest they are at their most basic level, cheesy mashed potatoes.  But, the type of cheeses is unusual, and the method of preparation is fancier.  These are gorgeous, velvety mashed potatoes with a sexy French accent.

I googled “Sexy French”, and this rather attractive young man came up.  Is he French?  Don’t know, don’t care.

Thanks for your time.

 

 

Don’t let the cheese stand alone

Petey likes it simple; very basic, with no fanciness.  He’d be quietly satisfied if it was the same way every single time.

Sometimes simple is ok, but I really like to mix things up; today one way, tomorrow, another.  With me, variety is the spice of life.

I’m just talking grilled cheese here, folks.

An episode of “Chopped” on Food Network got me to thinking about grilled cheese.  A contestant decided to make a chicken pot pie grilled cheese sandwich.

Then she commenced to making a giant, gloppy mess of the whole thing.

She made chicken pot pie filling.  Then she cut some slices of brioche bread.  She filled it with pot pie stuff, slapped on a slice of cheese, and threw it, unbuttered, onto a ridged grill pan.

It didn’t brown, got stuck to the grill, and leaked all over.  She ended up shoveling it into a bowl and serving it to the judges like that,

Shockingly, she was chopped.

If she had really wanted to make a chicken pot pie grilled cheese, there were actually two ways that probably would’ve worked.  She should have made a very thick filling.  Then assembled it by using one slice of cheese on each slice of bread, spreading a layer of filling between them, and browning and crisping it in a non-stick pan.

Or alternatively, made two thin-ish grilled cheese sandwiches, cutting each in the shape of a gratin dish, and using them as the top and bottom crust of a traditional pot pie.

She would not have gotten chopped.

Even though a grilled cheese seems like the epitome of simple, it’s also simple to make a bad one.  You can burn it, over or under melt the cheese, or make it into an oil slick.  But with a few tips, a delicious, well-made sandwich is mere minutes away.

Break out your well-seasoned cast iron frying pan (or a heavy non-stick skillet), and set it on the burner at about medium-low.  Smear a very thin layer of mayo on one slice of bread.  The egg in the mayo will give the bread an almost French toast-like surface.  Place the bread mayo side down onto the heated skillet.  Layer on the cheese and any other fillings, starting and finishing with the cheese so it will act as a glue.

Put another thin layer of mayo on the other slice of bread and place on top, mayo side up.  Put a lid on the pan and cook for about 4-5 minutes.  Uncover pan, check and flip if the bottom slice of bread is browned and the cheese has started to melt.  Flip and cook until the other side is browned and crispy.

Remove and let sit for a couple minutes then slice and serve.

If you’re Petey, you pick Velveeta on Wonder Bread.

But…

Here are a few ideas if you’d like to shake things up:

The Kid likes fried green tomatoes, bacon and pimento cheese on a hearty homemade white made with a touch of cornmeal.  Or crazy sharp cheddar on chewy, mouth-puckering sourdough.

I like caramelized onion and goat cheese on French baguette. And also sautéed mushrooms, short ribs and Laughing Cow on Hawaiian bread.

So here’s my advice: go to the fancy cheese store, and buy some new interesting types.  Then go to a good bakery and get a couple loaves of funky breads.  Visit the produce department, and pick up some guest stars.

Then go into your kitchen and have a grilled cheese party.  No RSVP required.

Thanks for your time.