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Cheese monged: Leftovers

January 29, 2010
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Went down to the deli next to my office for a sandwich this afternoon, and as I was waiting in line happened to be standing next to the cheese section of a little cooler. There’s invariably wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino-Romano sitting there, but today there was also a half wheel of real-looking (i.e. not factory made) brie along with a few smaller pieces. I figured it was about time for a cheese-for-dinner night, so I grabbed a triangle to go along with a couple of hunks that were leftover from various meals this week–a blue that I’d stuffed inside of burgers (good idea, need to firm up the technique) and some Gruyère used for a quiche (seared mushrooms and caramelized onions ftw). Here they be:

Brie Couronne, Henri Hutin

Critter: Cow. Country: France. Type: Soft; double cream. Rawness: Not raw. Aged: ???

I’ve never been all that awed by brie, but I’m thinking that may be just because I’ve only had crappy brie. Fact about brie: it gets 600% better if it’s just a bit melty. Yes, I know that there are few cheeses that don’t get better as they melt, but the degree to which brie’s yumminess skyrockets is downright alarming. Anyway, we ate this one unmelted and it was simply superb. Let it warm up a bit in on your tongue it just turns to buttery goo in your mouth. I now get why brie matters, and that even though the taste is somewhat delicate and mild, it can still be an intense eating experience. Hard to get a lot of outside info on this cheese, but from what I gather it’s 60% butterfat which is a number I get down with. Fat’s the best.

Roth Käse Grand Cru Gruyère Surchoix

Critter: cow. Country: US (Wisconsin). Type: Firm. Rawness: Raw! Aged: At least 9 months.

Seems like maybe since this is made in Wisconsin they don’t really have any business sticking the accent over that e, do they? But, judging by their name, Roth Käse has no problem dropping accents wherever they so desire. And, I guess they can do pretty much whatever they please as they make a business of cleaning up at cheese awards, and this one in particular gets heaps and heaps of love year after year. I was under the assumption that Gruyère was name controlled, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, and could only be made in Switzerand from hardy Swiss cows in musty Swiss caves, but I guess I was wrong. Apparently, Roth Kase (which is one of the bigger highly-regarded American creameries) uses imported copper vats and maybe even an imported Switzerlander or two to make their Gruyères in the traditional Alpine manner, and might be making the Swiss sweat a bit. I thought it was good, possibly great, nutty and mushroomy and full-bodied and loaded with those crunchy crystals that I adore. All in all, really good, really yum, but why didn’t I love it? I feel like this cheese should have made me crazy, but it didn’t. But I guess it’s hard to knock something for not completely blowing you away.

Roth Käse Buttermilk Blue

Critter: Cow. Country: Wisconsin. Type: Blue. Rawness: Raw! Aged: 6 months

I like having the majority of cheeses on a plate be raw. Feels like I’m sticking it to the FDA somehow, which I know is totally ridiculous but it’s still fun to pretend to be some kind of anti-government-cheese-fiddling pirate. This one’s another winner from Roth Käse. Creamy, tangy and sharp and a bit sweet, though very light on the blue-iness. I like my blues to really wind up and suckerpunch me in the face, so while this is perfectly delicious it won’t make the list of favorites, even though I’m hugely in favor of anything with buttermilk in it, even if only in name. Anyone drink that stuff straight? Heaven. I should find out if there is any actual buttermilk used in this cheese.

/spends an hour in the Google wormhole

Shockingly, no. Or yes. I forgot to stay on course.

Updated cheese power rankings (yup–these are already completely useless, but I’m not one to let anything as inconsequential as uselessness hinder me from comparing apples to oranges):

1. Taleggio

2. Piave vecchio (jumpfrogged the Saint Agur Blue for no real good reason)

3. Saint Agur Blue

3a. Brie Couronne

4. Roth Kase Gruyère Surchoix

5: Covadonga

6. Buttermilk Blue

7. Queso de la Serena (again, may need revisiting)

8. Vacherin Fribourgeois

Guest cookin’

January 24, 2010

Yesterday, Josh and Christine from Sunday Dinner Club (a mildly secret undergroundish eat-party that you should know about and partake in if you don’t already–despite the name it happens many days of the week) were gracious enough to let me come and bumble around in their kitchen and help prepare a tremedous cassoulet dinner. I didn’t get many pics because they slapped an apron on me and set me to task prepping for dinner, which started with an outrageous seared scallop app on celery root purée, drizzled with a touch of cilantro/toasted cumin seed/serrano chile sauce. My dislike of scallops is pretty much a distant, unpleasant memory by now. Next was a roasted garlic potato soup with a heavenly little pile of nearly purple prosciutto. Then came the star of the show–cassoulet. I’m working from memory here, but I’m pretty sure this thing had garlic sausage, pork shoulder confit, bacon lardons, roasted duck legs, and braised lamb. The point is that it was absurdly good and decadently overloaded with slow-meat deliciousness. It’s really unfair to all other food how amazing this is. Part of my plating duties (there were 26 guests, so plating and serving was a team effort that would have made Henry Ford proud) was to apply the Dijon smear to the cassoulet bowls, and I had a sec to snap a shot, sadly without the cassoulet, but you’ll just have to attend to see what that’s all about.

I also got off a shot of the salads, which thanks to Christine’s guidance I am now familiar with the Zen-like calm achieved by lovingly crafting individual piles of greens. If you look carefully you’ll see a wee glass of scotch among the plates. How’d that get there!

I’d tell you about the mousse and toffee for dessert, but that may just be cruel at this point. What you need to do is get on Sunday Dinner Club’s mailing list and get thee to a feast. I can’t thank Josh and Christine enough for letting me join in for the fun, and know that I’ll keep coming as long as they’ll have me.

Food Map

December 30, 2009

Via good.is comes this pretty neato interactive map of what eats you can pull out of the ground where and when.

/shakes fist at California while gnawing on carrots, onions, and taters.

The good thing is that we have more carrots to look forward to in Spring!

Also worth a read is Peter Smith’s The Decade in Food. As to be expected, I see a lot of what’s shaped our own eating habits and tendencies (and self-serving desire to blog about same) in there, though I was particularly surprised to learn that in 2008 the FDA approved the meat and milk of cloned animals for human consumption. I honestly have absolutely no idea how I feel about that. A little grossed out, a little impressed.

(thanks to Randy for the tip)

Cheese monged: Part 2 (in which we are shamed, sated)

December 17, 2009
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Eager to bolster the cheese in our stomachs as well as on this flog, my lovely wife and I headed down to Pastoral, which had been on the “we should go there” list for years now. Having no real plan as to why we were there, we kind of hemmed and hawed until a woman asked if we wanted to try anything. Ian’s brain: “Yes, everything. Now.” Ian’s mouth: “Um.” So the lady proceeded to start whipping out hunks of cheese and slicing off slivers for us to taste. There was a lot of bumbling on our part and much patience on her part, with a couple touch-and-go moments where I kinda thought she might just ask us to leave. But she didn’t, and after she suffered such inane comments as “Kinda like a goat cheese” (which was apparently the dumbest thing I could have said, but dammit she had to have known what I meant–that chalky, crumbly tube of white gunk you get at the supermarket that says GOAT CHEESE) and “That’s a really mild blue” (reason: not a blue) we left with our pride in tatters but a bag full of cheese for dinner. The cheese lady was sassy, all right,  but she definitely hooked up us.

Here’s our spread:

From left to right: Queso de la Serena, Tallegio, Saint Agur Blue, and Covadonga. Not the prettiest array, I’ll admit, but who cares?

Queso de la Serena

Critter: cow. Country: Spain. Type: Semi-soft. Rawness: Raw! Aged: 2-3 months.

When we were in the store and mentioned we’d recently been to Spain, the lady asked if we’d had any of this stuff. When we said no she looked like she was about to cry (though who knows, it’s completely possible we had some–we certainly had a lot of cheese and I don’t have a clue what most of it was because I know squat and remember even less). Anyway, she made this whole big deal about this cheese and how amazing it was and a bunch of techy talk about rennett and other stuff that bonked right off our thick skulls. But, we liked it when we tried it, though for some reason eating it that night we were both decidedly less awed. Cheese lady claimed it was an unforgettable cheese, but she underestimated me. I’ve forgotten it in less than 24 hours.

Taleggio

Critter: cow. Country: Italy. Type: Semi-soft, washed rind. Rawness: not raw. Aged: min. 35 days.

Apparently this is kind of a stinky cheese for cowards. We were at a dinner over the weekend that had mac ‘n cheese made with Taleggio and it was killer, so we were eager to really get into some. The aroma’s a little funky, but by no means repellent, and the texture is, well, perfect, and melts like butter on your tongue with a mild but deeply savory and kinda tangy flavor. I LOVE it. I must have more. A new favorite.

Saint Agur Blue

Critter: cow. Country: France. Type: double-cream blue. Rawness: not raw. Aged: 2 months.

Now we get into the blues. Our cheese lady refused to give us any other sort of cheeses to taste once we’d drifted into the blue territory, because I guess the flavors would blow our tastebuds’ minds so much that they would be unable to cope with anything else. So we heeded her warnings in the store, though I wondered just how long until we could reclaim our palates from laying in smoldering ruins–an hour? All day? Forever? Anyway, at home we of course said to hell with it and ate the blues out of order, but why not? I tried the milder cheeses before the blues, then again after, and they tasted different. Not worse. Not less. Just different. I found it kind of fascinating how taste is so relative and how you can screw with it by going big then small, and small then big. Note: oranges taste super weird after a mouthful of blue cheese. Anyway, the Saint Agur Blue is spectacularly creamy–way creamier than it is blue-ey. A winner.

Covadonga

Critter: cow and sheep blend. Country: Spain. Type: blue. Rawness: not raw. Aged: 2-3 months.

Salty! Beefy! Perky! Good! A killer blue that hit my numbed, weary taste buds just right. Seemed to have more of those blue bits than other blue cheeses–in fact, there may have been more blue bits than white binder. If this cheese was a person it would probably be a really annoying person–overly bubbly and peppy. Good thing it couldn’t talk. It would have been too busy being chewed anyway.

So, learned a bit more about cheese, and I think I’ll start a cheese power rankings, because who doesn’t love power rankings?

1: Taleggio

2: Saint Agur Blue (more like 1a)

3: Piave Vecchio

4: Covadonga

5: Queso de la Serena (though I’m willing to admit it may need to be revisited)

6: Vacherin Fribourgeois

Cheese monged

December 15, 2009
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If you’ve ever met me, you probably know that I’m made up of approximately 23% cheese, and am trying with all my might to up that number whenever possible. I recently reviewed the Best Food Writing of 2009 for Booklist, and found this preposterous gem of a line: “When you eat cheese, you mainline the uncut elixir of life.” A totally ridiculous thing to say, to be sure, but also kind of great and a sentiment that I can totally relate to. But, sadly enough, I’m a total idiot when it comes to remembering anything when I venture outside of the heavyweight class of cheddars and such. So, in the interest of committing to memory any new cheese dabblings, I’ll use this flog to create a handy reference source for me.

I went in to Whole Foods to get a Gruyere and Emmentaler for fondue, which is what I always use and love to death. But, said I to I, why not dabble a bit? I got talking to the fromage-dealer and nibbled a few samples, and ended up with two slight variations on the theme.

Taking the place of the Gruyere was a Piave. The little sign said it was similar to a Gruyere, but a little sharper. I’m all about sharp, so seemed like a good fit. Also, it was on a killer half-off sale and I’d eaten about half the sample bites so figured I should buy some.

Critter: Cow. Region: Paive River, Italy. Type: Hard. Rawness: Not raw. Also sometimes called a Piave vecchio (“old”) or stravecchio (“extra-old”). Via artisinalcheese.com (who seem to know what they’re talking about):

Piave is named after the river Piave, whose source is found at Mount Peralba in Val Visdende, in the northernmost part of the province of Veneto, Italy. The land surrounding the ancient river is integral to the character of the cheese: it is where the milk is collected, the curd cooked, and the cheese aged until hard. Piave has an intense, full-bodied flavor, reminiscent of Parmigiano Reggiano, that intensifies with age and makes this cheese absolutely unique. Pair Piave with Zinfandel.

And, in place of the Emmentaler was (/checks label) a Vacherin Fribourgeois. This one came after much deliberation with the cheese guy, but mainly I thought if I was going to get all snooty I might as well get a cheese whose very name will make the proletariat rise up and smite me. Plus, neato rind.

Critter: Cow. Region: The Fribourg canton (what’s a canton?), Switzerland. Type: Semi-firm. Rawness: Raw! Again, I’ll let artisinalcheese.com lay the groundwork:

Vacherin Fribourgeois is a hearty and potent Swiss cow’s milk cheese with a semi-soft to firm texture, depending on age. Selected by master affineur Rolf Beeler, Vacherin Frigourgeois is an “old fashioned” Vacherin with an uneven, craggly rind and harsh edges. Its taste is grassy, nutty, and with the perfume of fresh-cut hay. The flavors increase when melted, and, as such, Vacherin Fribourgeois makes an excellent fondue cheese. Pair this cheese with Pinot Noir.

New life goal: become a master affineur. Second new life goal, find out what an affineur is. Anyway, sure enough these two did make a lovely fondue, with a perfect consistency, though it probably won’t supplant the Gruyere-Emmentaler standard. We made sure to do a little lasting before they got thrown into the melt. I have a pretty crappy palate, so my mental tasting notes go something along the lines of “The Vacherin is a pretty good cheese, while the Piave is a really good cheese.” But if I had to play the game, I’d say that the most memorable thing was that the Vacherin really did smell awfully barny. Didn’t taste barny at all, but there you have it.

Ready for dippin’.

And primed for scrapin’. This is the incredible treat at the end of fondue–a quarter-inch thick shellac of crispy cheese cracklins. Bliss.

Thanksgiving in Heaven

December 5, 2009

The Cabin

We spent turkeyfest 09, as I hope to spend it every year, in the cabin in the woods of Maine, a treat that is only one of the many reasons why it’s really no contest that I’m the luckiest fella around. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, he’s a quick tour:

The faucet

The washstand

The bar
(missing, probably due to the fact that it was constantly being passed around, is the bottle of Brennivin, a curiously delicious Icelandic schnapps)

The view

Perty, no?

The way it works in Limerick, Maine  is that we all head over the Kate and Fontaine’s amazing house for a spectacular first Thanksgiving (followed by a round of headlamp croquet, in which my wife made a series of jaw-dropping shots to help us race from worst to first. If there was an ESPN Classic channel devoted to night croquet, this match would have been an instant classic, to be studied and marveled over for the ages). Then, on Friday everyone reconvenes in the cabin for second Thanksgiving. But, before I get ahead of myself, here’s some pics from First Thanksgiving:

The 28-pounder just out of the oven. This thing was massive, as if a turkey had et another turkey. I’m not sure how this thing walked around. I’m guessing it didn’t. Not that I would have, but I could have stuck my entire head in that cavity. Ok, I kinda wanted to, but am blessed with remarkable restraint. Figuring out how to transfer it from the roasting pan to the carving dish without it coming apart from its own sheer weightiness was a challenge, but Fontaine was up to the task:

Note the cast-iron wood-burning stove in the background. I MUST have one.

Without a doubt the cleverest salad I’ve ever seen. Get it?

Plate o’ happy.

On to Second Thanksgiving. This is the big event for Aba, when he gets to deep-fry two new turkeys in the woods. Here’s the setup:

Hard to see here, but it was pretty much pouring all day. However, Aba’s got this method so well perfected that it mattered none at all. Take that, precipitation!

About to drop bird one.

Bird one in!

And about an hour later, perfection.

While bird two is getting its fry on it’s time to finish up the fixins. Caramelized pecans for the sweet potatoes, and in the big pot is a double helping of roasted hearts, livers, and gizzards for the gravy.

Meanwhile, bird one is getting torn asunder by ravenous hordes. The desired method is to peel off a bit of skin and use it a taco shell for torn-off hunks of thigh meat. No pics available because I was pretty busy gorging myself.

The Spread:

(the tankard in the center is filled with gravy. I couldn’t have been the only one to ponder the implications of gravy as a beverage)

The pies:

Thanks to everyone who made it such a terrific weekend! I daersay it’ll be impossible to top, but have no doubt we’ll find a way to do so next year.

BBC Chili

November 10, 2009

That first B stands for Bison. The second one stands for Bacon. And the C? Oh you’d better believe that means Chorizo my friends. After years of dabbling, I may have finally found the perfect meat combo for chili. Rejoice!

Actually, since I did use a bit of leftover beef and the main bean source was black beans, I could call it BBBBBC Chili (or B5C2, which a few months ago would have had a nice mad scientist lab experiment ring to it, but now just probably sounds like a new flu). So I’m sticking with BBC Chili.

IMG_3219

I had planned to do one of those lists that ranks chili toppings in order of importance, but I’m finding that sort of impossible. How can you say that minced onion is any less vital than shredded cheese? Where do you rank sour cream? Sour cream’s so good that no matter what list it’s on, it should be first. I eat sour cream straight out of the tub with a spoon and not an ounce of shame. But with all the delicious but admittedly soggy textures, you really need some crunch, so the Fritos can’t possibly be a secondary option (some people go with Saltines, which is fine, but trust me, a handful of crunched-up Fritos on your chili takes it to a whole other place. You’re welcome). I love me some avocado and how it’s essentially a fruit trying to pass itself off as fat, but I suppose it’s the least essential chili add-on, so if I had to rank toppings it would probably look something like this:

1. OnioncheesesourcreamFritos

1a. Avocado.

The main thing to keep in mind is to get a bit of everything in every bite. Sometimes I re-top my chili as many as three or four times before I reach the bottom of the bowl, and then gobble up all the leftover topping scraps scattered about the cutting board. A couple tupperwares full of chili in the freezer makes for a truly happy winter.