Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cheese'n Ale Tasting: March 13

Saturday, March, 13, 4-6 p.m.
Quince Fine Foods, 209 W. Girard Ave (at 2nd Street)
$12/person; email reservations appreciated (
     Yes, the good folks at Philadelphia Brewing Company are going to help us navigate the trail from beer to cheese. Come toast St. Patrick and learn some pairing skills so that you can appear cheese-savvy the next time you have folks over for game-day snax. PBC brewer Dean Browne will be on hand to answer questions and serve up local brews, from Rowhouse Red to Walt Wit, while I, Madame Fromage, will be in the background waving wheels of cheddar.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Raw Cheez-its

Cheese and I had a break-up in January – shhh, we’re back together. I just had some sinus issues to work out. Of course, I had to get my cheese in somehow, so I set about conducting some dairy-less experiments in my kitchen with the help of some vegan sympathizers. I know, I know…a dangerous and unlikely path.

The recipe for these raw Cheez-its made it into my repertoire after I read raves on several food blogs. They are effortful, oy, but they were actually quite delish. Think of Pizza Fish, then give them a nubbly texture – actually, try to imagine Pizza Fish granola.

If you’ve dabbled in raw cuisine, you know that the idea is to eat as much living food as possible in order to harness nutrients maximus – raw veg and fruit, sprouted nuts and grains. It’s an oven-free situation, although you can dehydrate food at low temperatures, usually 110 degrees or less. My convection oven just happens to hit that mark, so I decided to it was time to enter raw Cheez-it production.

I set aside twenty-four hours. Seriously. I soaked some nuts. Yup. Then I ground them up with a few simple ingredients, spread the dough on parchment paper, and no-baked the beast overnight. If you think the process sounds torturous, let me tell you this: the house smelled sooooo good. It was like having a sun-dried tomato air freshener.

My no-bake Cheez-its lasted about a month, and I took them to work in my lunches alongside salads or avocado halves. Because they are chock fulla nuts, they were really filling. So, even though I was eating like a bird, I felt full (sorry, I don’t mean to sound like a diet pill commercial).

Crazy thing is, I’ll make these again, not because they taste like cheese but because they don’t. They taste healthy and fresh, and when it’s tomato season, it’ll be a good way to use up some of the bounty. 

If you’ve got a dairyless cheese testamonial, let’s hear it. If you are raw curious, you might check out the the super-friendly raw food community at Raw Food Rehab; if you're way curious and in PA, you might check out the raw cafe at Arnold's Way in Lansdale. If you really want to jump down the raw-food rabbit hole, check out the Raw Cookbook, by Juliano

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jose Garces Trading Co.

Fans of the cheese boards at Amada in Philadelphia are in for a post-Valentine’s cheese-gasm. Amada’s chef, the much-acclaimed restaurateur Jose Garces, has just stocked your pantry with many of the breads, spreads, and charcuterie he serves on his tapas menu. Yes, you can find roasted garlic dulce de leche here, by the jar, along with Spanish cheeses and sausages robust enough to stand up to a good slather.

The space is stunning, thanks to white subway tile and harem lamps. It’s nice to enter a market that doesn’t overwhelm with overhead fluorescents. You might not like the heavy branding on all the bottles near the door (hopefully, Jose will not morph into a spice-aisle magnate à la Emeril), but you will like the lighting. You will want to bask there in the afternoons, drinking coffee and eating pink grapefruit macaroons. You will be rubbing olive oil – available in bulk from gorgeous samovar-like dispensers – into your skin when no one is looking.

But here’s what will make your jaw drop: see that tony wine cellar flanking the dining area? Yeah, that’s a mini state-run liquor store, so you can buy a bottle for your table or brown-bag it for home. Shocking. Bah-bah-bahrilliant! There’s so much wine, you almost wonder if the Trading Co. is really a market or if, secretly, it’s a wine bar for people who like sitting in luxe grocery stores – nothing wrong with that. Yes, there is something a little Aveda meets Dean & Deluca about the whole affair – it’s a cheese market spa.

So, uhm, you know where to find me on gloomy Sundays…or Mondays…or, well, any day really. Goat cheese face mask, anyone?

Garces Trading Co., 1111 Locust Street, is open seven days a week: Mon-Fri (7 a.m.-10 p.m) and Sat/Sun. (8 a.m.-10 p.m.).  

Friday, February 19, 2010

Black River Gorgonzola

For the last month, I’ve been on a beet salad bender. It’s easy to make, it keeps well, and it’s easy to pack in a lunch if you don’t mind purple fingerprints around the office. For variety, I add scallions or caramelized leeks, along with walnuts, and a crumbly cheese – feta, chevre, mascarpone (with a dash of lemon zest), or a creamy blue all work well.

Lately, I’ve been loving beets with gorgonzola – Black River Gorgonzola. This award-winning blue from North Hendren Co-op Dairy in the tiny berg of Willard, WI, has been a favorite of mine for years. I first discovered it on a road trip to the Christine Center, a wonderful place to write and relax (amid nuns who enjoy nothing more than a good wood-fire sauna), and recently, a good friend shipped me a whole box of the luscious stuff for old time’s sake.

North Hendren Co-op Dairy is a wonderful place. Used to be you could stop in for a sample, and you’d leave with a hunk as a big as your hand. Yes, that was the sample. The co-op uses high quality local milk from cows you can see grazing along the tiny two-lane highway leading to Marshfield, all of it rBGH-free, and that freshness is evident in the taste of the cheese. This gorgonzola is wonderfully sweet and grassy, and the texture is something fierce-creamy.  

I don’t get to Willard very often anymore, but Black River Gorgonzola keeps popping up around me. Most recently, on my doorstep, but also in restaurants along the East Coast, including one in Manhattan. At the end of last summer, I ordered a beet salad at a street café in Morningside Heights, and wouldn’t you know, it was served with a sprinkling of Black River Gorgonzola? When I told the waiter I’d been to the dairy, he raised his eyebrows. “No kidding?” he laughed, “I thought maybe it was a made-up place.”

I assured him it was not a figment of a marketing campaign but, in fact, a wonderful place – I described lush hillsides and Amish buggies, but I could tell that he didn’t really believe me. Which was fine. I don’t mind letting people think that Black River Gorgonzola comes from a mythical realm. 

Beet Salad with Gorgonzola

6 medium-sized beets
2 scallions, finely chopped
½ cup walnuts, toasted
6 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
sea salt & black pepper

Boil beets whole, skin and all. When they’re fork tender, rinse them under cool water and scrape the skins off with a spoon (or a paper towel). While they’re cooking, prepare the dressing by mixing mustard, olive oil, and vinegar in a small bowl. Slice beets into rounds, toss with dressing, and chill for at least 20 minutes. Serve on a bed of greens, with a sprinkling of scallions, toasted walnuts, and Gorgonzola. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Scenes From Tonight's Tasting

Here's a sneak peak at tonight's selections, a trio of French cheeses ranging from creamy to ultra dreamy. Our Cheese Board of Seduction included this breath-freshening pyramid of goat cheese rolled in herbs, followed by Gaperon (otherwise known as "the salami of cheese"), to the very mousse-like Pierre Robert.

There was plenty of bread and bubbly...

And a great turnout of cheese lovers...

Thanks for coming out, everybody!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Whoopie Pies w/ Cream Cheese Frosting

This year, my Valentine’s vote goes out to my fave baker, Elizabeth Halen, a.k.a. Baker E. I ordered her Elvis Cake for my birthday, and this Sunday I will be giving my sweetie one of these divine red velvet whoopee pies in exchange for a new toaster oven and a close shave.

Baker E. is the in-house dessertista at A Full Plate Café in Liberties Walk, a great go-to spot for really good vegetarian (and non-veggie) fare with a healthy Southern twist. (Try the vegan riblet sandwich, unless you dream of chicken and waffles.) For dessert, you can sample Baker E.’s bars, her cookies, and – best of all – her cakes.

These are ‘50s era layer cakes, the kind you might find in a pink kitchen, displayed on a milk-glass stand. They are moist, oh so moist, thanks to Baker E.’s penchant for buttermilk, and her frostings are exquisite – creamy, not filmy or foamy.

In liquor-drinkin’ circles, Baker E. is famous for her Root’n Red Velvet cupcakes that incorporate locally made Root Liquor, a spicy brown blend based on a 1700s-era recipe for Root Tea (it tastes like boozy root beer); it’s made here in Philly by Art in the Age, an arts collective with a shop on N. 3rd Street. Hint: stop in this weekend and you can sample a mini Root’n Red Velvet cupcake for free.

Baker E. also provides her Root 'n Red Velvet cake recipe here, on her blog, the popular You can special order cakes from her at 215-627-4068.

P.S. Tomorrow's cheese tasting is still on! See you at Quince Fine Foods for a pre-Valentine's cheese board at 4 p.m.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bella Vitano

So, there’s blended scotch, and then there’s blended cheese. Take Bella Vitano, a Parm-Cheddar hybrid created by Sartori, a third-generation cheese company in Plymouth, WI. It’s got the sweetness of a Parmesan alongside the sharpness of a cheddar, and its texture is somewhere in between: flaky and yet firm, not rock hard.

I was curious about this award-winning brick, which Sartori developed for their stable of “Reserve” cheeses, including a Raspberry cheese made with New Glarus Rasberry Beer. The web site feels very different from most companies that call themselves “artisanal” – forget pictures of grazing cows, there’s a lot of jargon about “designer cheese” and something called “Intensa” cheeses, which are billed as having “true-to-taste artisan flavor” at a fraction of the cost. Hmmm.

I get it. So, it’s like you’re getting the taste of a single-malt for the price of a lesser scotch. Unfortunately, we all know you get what you pay for. That said, Bella Vitano is an interesting cheese. Does it live up to its hype? No, not in my book. Maybe I’m a grumpy puss, but I’d rather eat a killer Parm or a really good bandaged cheddar, rather than fusion käse.

Bellavitano has a sour, faintly yogurty aftertaste. The sharpness is excellent, the sweetness a little too sweet perhaps. When I loaded it into an omelet, it melted well but didn’t retain much flavor. Alongside a bowl of salty split-pea-and-ham soup, it was at its best. It also paired well with meaty green olives and crispy flatbread. In fact, it’s the only cheese I know of that actually tastes better when eaten on a cracker.

I’m always up for trying a new cheese, but I guess I’m a purist. Some things, like a fruity Parm and a sharp cheddar, are simply good enough in their true forms. There’s no need to cross-pollinate. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cheese & Wine

One of my favorite go-to books for planning a cheese board is Janet Fletcher’s Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying (Chronicle Books, 2006). It’s not a comprehensive book by any means, but it’s inspiring – full of beautiful photos, interesting cheese selections from artisanal makers in the U.S. and abroad, and helpful pairing notes.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed in the world of wine and cheese – so many kinds, what to offer? I like that Fletcher’s book actually suggests a series of thematic cheese boards – a trio of Spanish cheeses, French classics, new world vs. old world cheddars – and she profiles each cheese separately, so that you actually have a set of tasting notes to guide you. She also provides an easy-to-follow chart in the back of the book on how to pair wines with cheese, so that if you pick up a washed rind at the store (a Morbier, or a Taleggio, say), you can quickly determine that a Pinot Gris or even a Riesling would be appropriate.
From Fletcher I’ve learned to follow my nose, and my eye. I like to group cheeses, combining the mild with the heady. So, on a recent cheese board, I started with a mild Mahon, moved to a medium-bold Gaperon, and finished with a strong but sweet blue Valdeón. I also like to mix cheeses of different textures, starting with a creamy goat or a weepy washed rind and moving toward a hard aged gouda or aged cheddar.

The key is to vary flavor, aroma, and texture, so that the tastebuds are enlivened with each new cheese, and when you choose a wine, you want to create harmony among the different tastes. Fletcher offers some good rules of thumb: “For delicate wines, choose delicate cheeses.” She also suggests off-setting salty cheeses (blues, for example) with sweeter wines to create a teeter-totter effect on the tongue. For heavy triple-crèmes: light, bubbly champagne or Prosecco.

Janet Fletcher has written a number of books on cheese (she also has a web site of her food columns, The Cheese Course, from the San Francisco Chronicle), but this book is my favorite. Whenever I leave it on my coffee table, people always feel compelled to pick it up and leaf through it. Soon, my guests are mewling over the photos, which gives me time to duck into the kitchen and rustle up a little wine and some cheese.