Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Time to Cheese.

Alluring cheeses at Borough Market, London 2010

In life there are times to cook, and then there are times to cheese.

Some days you just can't bring yourself to whip even the simplest of dinners up, and, lucky for me, I live with two men who will happily sit down to a table of bread and cheese as a complete meal.  Confession: I can't say I'm entirely with them.  I need something to go with the bread and cheese (prosciutto? olives? avocado? homemade jam? Membrillo!), but maybe that's the Mexican in me coming out.  My ancestral tendency to leave the cheese to the Europeans can't be entirely escaped.  (Translation: I'd still rather have some huevos rancheros.)  But despite all that, I do have to agree with my 3 year-old, there are most definitely days when you just have to cheese.

I remember well the feeling I had as the cheese cart was wheeled over to us at Daniel in NYC back in 2006.  (Brenda's inner-monologue: "A cheese course?! Amazing. OMG - what the hell do I choose?!")  It was the same feeling I used to get when I'd timidly walk to the cheese counter in Agata & Valentina and then run off pretending I didn't want cheese anyway.  Or how I felt going into the infamous Murray's Cheese with my chef brother-in-law for the first time.


Slightly scared to ask questions.  Worried I'd pick the wrong one and end up not eating it, or, worse yet, not pick anything at all.  Then worrying the monger / waiter would judge me based on what I did pick.  Dreading that with one wrong turn I might end up with a shoe-box apartment that was not only stiflingly small, but also smelled like stinky feet.

A good meal.
Image credit: Marcus Ciardiello

  It has taken a couple of years (about seven, actually) for me to feel somewhat comfortable going to a cheese monger.  I didn't grow up eating a lot of cheese - outside of Oaxaca and Queso Fresco, of course.  As a remedy, it helped to live in London for almost four years.  There, cheese - good cheese - is available at even the worst supermarkets (well, not at the rather unfortunate Iceland, but you get the idea).  I dove head first into deliciously crumbly, aged Cheddars.  Dabbled in the world of wonderfully fruity Wensleydales.  And occasionally even tried a Stilton or two - ever-eyeing the Potted Stiltons at Fortnum & Mason - though I've, admittedly and somewhat shamefully, never been a huge fan of blue cheeses.

At some point in there, I also made a brief foray into the world of luxury food marketing and had the opportunity to visit Casa dei Giovani - and their cheese farm (a side business to their charity-fueled olive oil) where I took home a small wheel of handmade Pecorino plucked from the aging barn where the sheep themselves were tended to.  I carried it home to England, gently tucked in between my clothes on my carry-on.  I never looked at cheese the same way again.

These days, I am decidedly more adventurous in my cheesing.  I don't buy imitation Parmiggiano - Matt and Roman are far-too addicted to the real-thing to ever go back.  And I am lucky to, even in Denver, have grocers near me that carry wonderful, wonderful cheeses from both local (US) and international makers. 

After tasting many, many cheeses I feel it's truly an art and something that takes time to appreciate.  Each is different, unique and worth getting to know.  I still have some I like better (goat) than others (sheep), but at least now I can eat cheese for cheese's sake - without having to drown it in Membrillo or cold cuts.

Here are some of my favorites lately - maybe next time you don't feel like cooking, grab a few, sit down, and enjoy one of life's acquired-yet-simple pleasures.  Go on, cheese it.

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Brenda's Top Five Favorite Cheeses
Lately, anyway, and in no particular order

Camembert, fruit, saucisson & olives: an old standby.
Image Credit: Marcus Ciardiello


1. Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog, American, Goat's Milk
This is a cheese I discovered in Maine, though it's made in California.  I love the tangy goatness of it.  So delicious and creamy - kind of a crowd-pleaser, actually.  And yet somewhat more sophisticated than the average goat cheese because of the distinctive layer of vegetable ash running like a vein through the center.  I love that America is producing such great cheeses now - no longer have to only buy French, Swiss or Italian.

2. Gorgonzola Dolce, Italian, Cow's Milk
My local King Soopers Supermarket is a hidden gem of delicious and reasonably priced cheeses.  They have a bargain bin where all the pieces are under $5 - a deal for good cheese.  In one of those a couple of weeks back I found a great looking piece of Gorgonzola Dolce.  Being a professed blue-hater, I had no clue that this would be the cheese for me.  Developed specifically to be milder than regular gorgonzola, it packs a gentler, kinder punch.

3. Parmiggian Reggiano, Italian, Raw Cow's Milk
Does Parma make any bad food?!  This is a classic but it bears repeating: everything tastes better with a little Parmiggiano on it.  I've always cooked with it, but it's only been in the past few years that I've started eating it alone, serving it as part of my cheese plates, and letting Roman snack on it.  It's a strong flavor, but one that is complex and infinitely satisfying with its crumbly, yet substantial feel.  While I almost always buy the Italian original, it's worth noting that there are now some nice American counterparts (counterfeits? :)) from, of course, Wisconsin.

Personal goal: to one day have a whole wheel in my house for the holidays, and finish it. :)

4. Taleggio, Italian, Cow's Milk
What a stinker this cheese is!  But it's creamy and receives the honor of being classified as "truly delish" by yours truly.  I have to admit that I especially like when it's really aged and becomes runny.  I don't like keeping it in the fridge for long because it really does make it awkward when you have visitors who don't like / know much about stinky cheese and its surprisingly large stink-span.  I also think it's cool that this type of cheese (washed-rind, smear-ripened) has been around since the Roman times.  Cicero cheese, anyone?

5. Saint-André
This cheese is almost too muchTriple-cream?  Seriously?  
Predictably, it's one of Matt's favorites - a self-professed cream-freak and lover of cow's milk cheeses.  And after having it several times, I've also come around to loving it.  I especially love the white, fluffly, billowy little mold skin that covers the outside of the cheese.  If left to properly come to temp, this cheese is the closest thing you'll find to eating really, really sophisticated cheese-flavored-butter.  Ok, something about that almost grosses me out.  I can't eat much when we do have it (not that Matt minds), but I do love having an indulgent slice or two.

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