5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational

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Sunday night, I went to a cold storage warehouse in Queens to the 5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational, a battle of skill pitting monger against monger in a championship bout – and raucous cheese party. Forty six cheesemongers spent the previous two days in the preliminary stage of competition, judged on their knowledge, skill, taste, and charisma. Sunday night, the mongers presented their “perfect bites” to the public and the finalists (Top 11 this year) battled for the title. And welcoming us all to  The Cheesemongers Invitational this year was an adult man in a cow suit, Mr Moo aka Adam Moscowitz, the tournament’s fearless organizer.

Inside the warehouse, I walked a gauntlet of cheesemongers presenting their perfect bites. I had a clear favorite: Leslie Uhl from Di Bruno Bro’s in Philadelphia’s The Full Cremonty, a bright, fresh concoction of La Quercia, Thai Basil, Whipped Prosciutto, Key Lime Pie, Cremont. I wasn’t surprised when she was called as one of the top three best bites.

The competition rolled through rounds of cutting to weight, wrapping, “selling” the monger’s favorite cheese, a beer pairing, and finally the winner was announced: the first NYC based female monger to win, Emily Acosta of Eataly.

Seeing the group of cheesemongers who were competing, the cheesemakers and writers and business owners attending the competition reinforced for me my belief in the importance of those whose role is to match-make between food and the inexperienced eater. In the hands of a snob, cheese becomes  the apocryphal vol au vent of larks tongue, inaccessible and unappealing; in the hands of a pedant, it becomes boring. But cheese making and selling is hard, dirty work, work that is often fueled by passion above profit, for love of the fascinating world of milk and microbes and cows, goats, sheep, of grass and earth.

For me cheese is the “everyman” artisan food in large part because of the kind of people who make and sell cheese. I don’t want to generalize, but wine can have an intimidating aura surrounding it, walls reinforced by the vocabulary and cost. Cheese people may take their work seriously, but they seldom take themselves too seriously. They tend to be generous people, knowing that what they do enhances and is enhanced by the good work of other artisans.

I also see cheese as the food to help a larger swathe of the public appreciate why a slower food system is worth supporting. It has been exciting to see the growth and refinement in the craft and business of cheese that has taken place in the last few decades; new creameries are coming to market all the time and cheesemakers are refining their skills to produce world-class cheeses that can hold their own against anything from Europe.

The people who sell wine, cheese, or any new food to people are the ambassadors for that product and as such, their approach to neophytes can either open or close the door on exploration. During a trip to Europe in my early twenties, I visited a cheese shop in Rotterdam. I had read  David Lansing’s Confessions of a Cheese Smuggler describing the raunchy sticky glory that is Epoisses de Bourgogne. I really wanted to try it in Europe where it is made with raw milk but being young and on a tight budget and a little intimidated by the Euro I was a little afraid to ask for it lest I accidentally find myself the unwitting buyer of  a ruinously expensive piece of cheese. The shop owner greeted me graciously, asked if I needed help as I wandered around looking at the bounty in the glittering cases. I demurred, but a few minutes later, she persisted, asking if I’d like to try anything. I said I was interested in Epoisses but didn’t know how much it cost. As any good monger slash psychologist would do, she read my unease and said emphatically “Nothing is too expensive to taste.” Looking back, and knowing what I now do about which cheeses are usually sold as whole pieces, I don’t know if she already had a wheel of Epoisses open to sample already or if she broke one open for me, but she gave me a taste of the cheese and then sold me a quarter of it. It was a generous gesture and an approach to the timid eater that has informed nearly every interaction I’ve had with a nervous customer since then.

Here is why I think cheese and cheesemongers are important: cheese reflects certain stages of growth in a culture. Great cheese happens when a society is sufficiently established to advance from a subsistance agricultural existence to an agrarian model with the resources of time and money to support culinary arts. In the case of American artisan or farmstead cheese, it has been formed by advancement from subsistence to industrial and then the fortunate (and progressive)retreat to a “slower food” approach from the goal of peak efficiency that industry forces upon food producers. We’ve seen the shortcomings in an industrial model of food production and have begun the work of establishing a support level for food production that takes longer, is less of a cost/benefit decision, and is more of an investment of time into the quality of the product. It’s a progression that is easy to see in the maturity of American wine making- from the rustic wines of early American vineyards to the jug wine mechanically harvested giants of the mid to late 20th century and now the plethora of smaller grower producer wineries that are emphasizing terroir and healthy ground and the deft touch of the maker’s hands. Cheese has followed a similar route. And with smaller farmers struggling to survive in a bulk commodity crop economy, cheese is a value addition to a raw product that creates more profit for daily farmers who may not be making ends meet selling milk to dairies at constantly fluctuating prices determined by the commodity futures markets.

American palates have matured too. I remember my grandmother telling me that she had never tasted pasta during her childhood in Montgomery Alabama or her college years in Philadelphia until her husband and brothers returned from Europe after WW2. Food writers like Julia Child and Marcella Hazan fueled American’s curiosity taste for European food and created a market for imported cheeses, wine, olive oil, charcuterie, and daily baked bread. American food began to develop an identity, an aesthetic, a rich broth created by the waves of immigration and the growing ability of middle class Americans to travel. And the rise in awareness of the “slow, local, and sustainable” model of food production has made us more conscious of where and how our food is made.

The Cheesemonger Invitational was a lot of fun. I got to taste a lot of great cheese. but more than a great party, it was a glimpse into the future of cheese and I’ve gotta say, the future looks bright.

Hurricane Potluck Mac and Cheese

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This time a year ago, I was standing in the fading light in my kitchen cooking mac and cheese with all of the cheese, milk, and butter I had salvaged from the  fridge and trying to figure out what I could still use in my rapidly thawing freezer. Sandy had hit Hoboken three days ago and we were one of the fortunate few to have no flooding, gas to cook, and some food in the house. Hoboken had become a dark little island, the only sound or light at night  from the police or national guard patrols or the occasional disjointed voices from passersby. During daylight we would walk around town trying to find out how our friends had fared, if there was any prediction about when power would be restored, when the water would be drained out.

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I never posted anything about the storm. During the exciting parts, I was husbanding my rapidly draining phone battery to try to get the occasional update from twitter or to get a text out to our families when I could find some wi-fi. As days began to pass with no clear picture of how or when life would begin to return to normal, I wrote a rambling narrative of our experiences, of the National Guard trucks driving through the flooding to rescue residents, of the restaurants opening to cook in the dark, of the few homes with power running extension cords out onto the street and making handwritten signs saying “Free WiFi/password: sandy/ Charge  Your Phone Here”.  Even after the power came back on a week later, I didn’t post. It was too big and horrible to sum up, it would have felt disrespectful to the magnitude of the situation. And “normal” was so relative. Our main supermarket had flooded so badly that it stayed closed for 15 weeks, the PATH train from Hoboken to Manhattan was closed into February.

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In the middle of that week though, there I was, cooking mac and cheese. We ran into a friend who told us that another friend had power and was an open door for anyone who needed a shower, to charge batteries, to eat a hot meal. We went home and emptied the freezer and fridge of anything 20 or so people could eat and took it over to her house for a potluck.  And in this, I think, I found the bright spot in the hurricane. Hoboken, and my community within Hoboken, pulled together in a really powerful way during the storm. The overwhelming spirit of my neighbors during the crisis was of calm and generosity.  And it was then, during one of its least lovely moments that I resolved that if home is where the heart is, Hoboken was home.

This mac and cheese is of course tastiest when shared with a group of friends in the aftermath of a hurricane, but is not bad on any less dramatic occasion.

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Mac and Cheese

serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

3 cups milk (preferably whole milk)

pinch cayenne pepper

pinch nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated

4-6 ounces young gouda, grated

1 ounce pecorino Romano, grated (optional)

8 ounces dry elbow noodles

bread crumbs, toasted in butter (optional)

Cook the elbow noodles in a pot of generously salted water according to the instructions, but drain well just before they are al dente since they will cook a little more in the cheese sauce.

Make a roux with the butter and flour, cooking the flour just until it is a pale blonde color. Whisk in the milk, stirring to incorporate the roux. Cook over medium/low heat, stirring almost constantly until the milk begins to thicken. Whisk in the spices and mustard. Once the sauce comes to a simmer and has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove it from the heat and stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Stir the drained noodles into the cheese sauce; it will seem very soupy at this point but the noodles will soak up the sauce and thicken. Taste for salt.

If you like a baked casserole style mac and cheese, pour it into a buttered baking dish, top with bread crumbs and a little pecorino cheese and bake at 250 for about 20 minutes or until the top is golden and the pasta is bubbly.

Since everyone in my house doesn’t like the bread crumb topping, I usually toast the bread crumbs and just spoon them over each serving for a little crunch.

Note about the cheese: I like the taste of sharp cheddar in my cheese sauce, and the sharper the cheese, the more the flavor comes through in the sauce. The texture of cheddar, however, is not ideal for melting, so I add another melting cheese, one with a creamy buttery texture to make the sauce rich and silky. Young gouda is nice as are most alpine style cheeses, Gruyere, Havarti, or even Monterrey Jack. You’re looking for something both flavorful and one that will give you those nice gooey strings of melted cheese when you make a grilled cheese sandwich.

Color Inspiration: Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata

It’s funny how a meal can kind of form itself in my mind through a spectrum of memories, visual inspiration, and serendipity at the farmers market.

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I brought home a bag full of produce from the farmers market and was so excited about the beauty of the pile of eggplants, squash, beans, peppers. I spread it out on the table at home like a vegetal color wheel. It was a pastel summer collection with the exception of the tomatoes, a watercolor wash of violet, gold, ivory and green. I loved the tonal spectrum of squash blossoms and wax peppers and decided to play with an old favorite  by adding squash blossoms to a cheese filled pepper frittata.

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This is a gentle dish, subtly  flavored, the mildest hint of heat from the ivory chartreuse peppers softened and mellowed by the creamy eggs and cheese. Squash blossoms infuse their delicate herbal flavor into the eggs as they bake. And if you prefer an even mellower flavor, go with banana wax peppers rather than its younger, slightly hotter cousin the Hungarian wax. The difference between Hungarian and banana wax peppers is maturity and heat level. Hungarian wax peppers are younger, a little thicker fleshed, and mildly spicy. Banana wax peppers are a little larger, mild and sweet with thin flesh.

This dish is easy-going in another way: do you like gooey strings of melted cheese oozing out with each bite or do you prefer the creamy tanginess of fresh goat cheese? Different cheeses produce different results, both lovely depending on your mood.

For a buttery gooey melting cheese, I like a Fontina Fontal or Monterrey Jack. They melt beautifully but have a bit more flavor than Mozzarella. Goat cheese doesn’t melt but since it’s already soft and creamy, you may find its flavor makes up for that. An herb-flavored goat cheese is also a good way to add some extra flavor if you like.

I’ve written this recipe to serve 2 but the proportions of 2 eggs, blossoms, and peppers per person are easy to double. You’ll just need to increase the cooking time by about 10 minutes per additional serving.

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Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata 

4 squash blossoms

4 Hungarian wax peppers or banana wax peppers

4 eggs

2 ounces cheese

salt

Cheese to grate over the top

Preheat the oven to 350

Trim the stem ends of the blossoms to leave about an inch of stem. Gently open the blossom a bit and use your finger to pop the stamen off and remove it. The petals may tear a bit but that isn’t a problem since you’ll be twisting them closed around the cheese.

Make a slit down the length of the peppers with a paring knife and rinse out the seeds.

Cut the cheese into strips and chunks that will fit inside the squash blossoms and peppers, and slip the cheese inside. Twist the tips of the petals to close the cheese inside.  If you are using soft goat cheese, spoon the cheese into the cavity in the blossoms and peppers.

Lightly butter or oil a baking dish. Arrange the peppers and blossoms (I alternated them to make them fit AND make them look prettier.)

Beat the eggs and salt and pour them over the peppers and blossoms in the baking dish.

Grate or sprinkle a little cheese over the top. Bake until the eggs have just puffed and set in the center of the dish, about—— and the cheese is lightly golden on top.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool and set for 5 minutes or so before cutting.

Corn and Black Bean Chiles Rellenos

I love those puffy crisp chile rellenos covered with their golden eggy batter, deep fried, filled with oozing cheese and served with a scoop of salsa. If a restaurant or cook can make that dish well, without being soggy or bland or greasy, they have my respect and admiration.

It wouldn’t be wise for me to indulge in that particular version of the chile relleno very often though. They’re a little too rich for everyday (or every week) consumption and they are time-consuming to make well. But “relleno” just means “filled” or “stuffed” in Spanish so I make my version with poblanos baked and filled with vegetables and just a little cheese. It’s satisfying without being too heavy and a lovely way to enjoy more peak summer corn and chiles.

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The only fiddly thing about this recipe is charring the peppers to remove the skin. I’ve made a lot of stuffed peppers of all types over the years and I cannot make one that I like if I don’t start with a somewhat cooked pepper. The timing of cooking is always off somehow, the pepper is still crunchy when the filling is disintegrating or the filling gets watery from the liquid that the pepper releases while cooking. So bear with me and try charring the peppers at least once.

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Dicing the vegetables into somewhat uniform pieces makes for a better bite; the combination of a fork-full of sweet peppers, creamy black beans, and the pop of sweet corn and salty cheese all at once is better than stabbing at lots of disparate chunks.

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I also like to add a little cheese to the filling right before I stuff the peppers. It adds a little bit of tang and richness and the fat brings the flavors in the filling together. If you live somewhere that has good salty crumbly fresh Mexican Cheese available, use that, but I have used feta and fresh chèvre when I can’t find the Mexican cheese and the flavor works well.

Since cilantro can be such a polarizing flavor, I’ve omitted it from this recipe but if you like cilantro, stir some torn leaves in with the cheese.

The amounts in this recipe can be adjusted according to the size of the poblanos. Think of it more in terms of proportions rather than exact measurements.

Corn and Black Bean Chiles Rellenos

4-6 poblano chiles

oil

1 medium red onion

1 red sweet pepper

1/2 jalapeño, seeded

1 1/2 cups corn kernels

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin

salt to taste

1 large ripe tomato

1 1/2 cooked black beans, rinsed and drained.

3 ounces fresh cheese such as cotija, feta, or chèvre

First, char the poblanos, either on a grill, on the burner of a gas stove, or under a broiler. Turn to blacken the skin evenly. When the chiles are blistered all over, put them in a bowl with a plate to cover them to steam a little and cool down to the point they can be handled. Pick the blackened skin off the outside, although this is not the time for perfection, a little of the char left behind adds flavor.

Prepare the filling: dice the onion, peppers and tomato into pieces not too much larger than the beans and corn. This will help the ingredients cook evenly.

In a large skillet, heat a splash of oil to a shimmer. Add the onion and peppers and sauté for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Add the corn kernels and spices and raise the heat, stirring to let the corn caramelize a little. Lower the heat and gently stir in the tomatoes and beans. Once they have warmed, remove the pan from the heat and set aside. Stir in 3/4 or so of the cheese, trying to keep it in chunks.

Heat the oven to 300

Make a slit down the side of each poblano and scoop and rinse the seeds out. Place the, slit side up in a baking dish that just holds the peppers without a lot of room to spare. Spoon the vegetable filling into the poblanos, filling them generously and pouring any accumulated juices over the pan. Crumble the rest of the cheese over the top and bake for about 15 minutes.

Serve with rice and a drizzle of chipotle salsa roja (if you like).

Meeting Madame Fromage

Many of you know that while I am a general culinary enthusiast, I am also a cheesemonger. Here at Cognitive Leeks, I try to share my love of food and cooking, try to encourage and enable my readers to go boldly into the kitchen and feed their bellies and their souls. At work, I do the same with cheese (mostly).

Many years ago, I was traveling in The Netherlands and Belgium and wanted to try a cheese that I had read about, Epoisses, which is so funky and raunchy that it is banned from public transportation in some European cities. I was a sort of timid traveller then, a little nervous about the Euro to dollar rates so when I found a really lovely cheese shop in Rotterdam, I went in, browsing quietly, a little afraid to ask questions. The shopkeeper greeted me and after seeing me eyeing the case with a Epoisses several times, asked if I would like one. I stumblingly asked if they were expensive or something similarly awkward. She answered “NOTHING is too expensive to have a taste!” and went and found a runny piece of Epoisses from behind the counter and sold it to me for a couple of Euros. I’ve kept that experience in the back of my mind at work; I try to make cheese discovery a welcoming experience at work. I try to answer questions, give tastes, listen to feedback, overcome any intimidation people may be feeling. But sometimes I get a question I can’t answer so I’ve found a few wiser cheese people who I can look too for help, many on cheese blogs or on Twitter.

One of these experts is Tenaya Darlington (better known as Madame Fromage) a writing instructor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia whose mighty cheese obsession fuels her cheese blog. After moving to Philadelphia from Wisconsin, she developed a relationship with Di Bruno Bros, one of the titans of cheese on the east coast,  (you may remember the picture I took of their store in my post about a weekend in Philadelphia.) They have collaborated on a new book called Di Bruno Bros House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings  and to introduce the book, Tenaya and Emilio Mignucci, one of the owners of Di Bruno Bros. hosted a class Sunday night at The Venue at The Little Owl in NYC. I was excited to be invited, not only to experience the cheese and pairings that were presented, but also to meet other passionate cheese people.

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As I sat at one end of the table, I noticed a few faces that looked familiar and discovered that there were three Twitter cheese peeps in attendance whom I’ve interacted with for a while but never met, Matt Speigler  writes Cheese Notes and has been very helpful in my exploration of the cheese culture here in metro NYC and Colleen from Cheese and Champagne and cheese tweeter from Washington DC.

This was our menu:

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I appreciated that the menu (and the book) provide a way to associate styles and flavors of cheese in a memorable and relatable way. I talk to people who, when tasting a cheese, sort of squint thoughtfully and try to think of a word besides “delicious” for what they are tasting. It seems to help when I suggest adjectives like ” green oniony” or “butterscotch” to help place the flavor in context.The book and the class expand on that premise with categories like “Quiet Type” and “Mountain Man” and then goes into background on the cheeses to help pinpoint why the unique flavors in each cheese are there.

Each cheese was served with an accompaniment and a wine pairing and a bit of explanation, guidance, and back story on each plate by Tenaya and Emilio.

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The Camemebert du Normandie was the classic pairing of bloomy rind cheese, dried fruit and nuts. Subtle and approachable, nutty and sweet.

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 The “Stinker” Adrahan on the menu was replaced by this Sardinian Pecorino called Moliterno, paired with apple pepper jelly and a dirty martini. The sharp pepperiness of the cheese echoed in the hot pepper jelly and the saltiness with the briny olive in the martini.

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This final plate was a crysatalized caramely aged Dutch gouda called L’Amuse with candied pecans and a buttery voluptuous Blue de Bufala with chocolate covered figs.

We each took home a copy of the new book. Im looking forward to reading it, seeing what Tenaya and Di Bruno Bros. have put together. I also left happy to have learned something new from people who know a lot more than I do and feeling excited to have met more people who are really into good food, into the experience of sharing flavors with their friends, readers, and customers. Like the experience I had with the shopkeeper in Rotterdam, I’ve learned that there is a desire among “food people” to open the door and make everyone welcome in the world we inhabit, to share our enthusiasm. I left the class feeling energized and excited to keep providing that open, welcoming door for those who might be feeling timid.

Pimento Cheese – Southern Food Challenge 1

One of the first things I made after our cross-country move was pimento cheese. (The very first thing I made was grits with sweet corn and pan-fried catfish, just sort of as a declaration that you can put the girl in Jersey but you can’t put Jersey in the girl!). It was while we were living in that furnished apartment with a “fully equipped kitchen”  and I had to grate the entire block of cheese with a fork. It was totally worth it, but I highly recommend a cheese grater; it makes the whole process much easier. And you’ll get fewer blisters.

Pimento cheese is simple, easy to make, and endlessly varied. I like the combination of really sharp cheddar and creamy, mellow Monterrey Jack.

Pimento Cheese

makes about 3 cups

12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese

6 ounces Monterrey Jack cheese

1/2 cup roasted red peppers, chopped small

about 2/3 cup mayonnaise (we like Duke’s)

Use the fine side of a grater to grate all of the cheese. If you are using jarred roasted peppers, drain them well before chopping them up. Put everything into a mixing bowl that gives you plenty of room to energetically stir. Start with a bit less mayo and stir everything together so that the peppers are evenly mixed through the cheese and everything is creamy and cohesive. If it seems too stiff, or when you taste it, you prefer a milder, creamier flavor, add a little more mayo and stir it in.

Following the pimento train of thought a little further, you can add finely chopped green olives (the pimento stuffed type) to half of the pimento cheese-very nice on a cracker.