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.

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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.

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.

“Mutz” and Farm-to-Table Dinners

Rynn Caputo and I met because she made a provocative comment about mozzarella on Twitter. Fresh mozzarella is the stuff of legends in Hoboken NJ but is something I have only become familiar with recently. Every deli worth its salt has bowls of white, milky “mutz” waiting to be sliced into creamy slabs for giant sandwiches or tomato and basil salads. So when Rynn tweeted in response to Josh Ozersky’s article “Masters of Mutz” about where to get the best mutz in New Jersey by saying basically “too bad none of it is real mozzarella,” I was intrigued.

She explained that almost all commercial American mozzarella curds are formed by adding an acid to milk rather than a more time-consuming rennet set which actually cultures the milk, eats the lactose, and gives the curds a richer and more tangy flavor. (I think she actually said “if you add acid to grape juice, it doesn’t make it wine.”) She and her chef husband Dave had recently started Caputo Brothers Creamery in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania where they make the more traditional Italian fresh cheeses with cultures, and she invited me to a cheese stretching demo that she was holding at The Cheese Store here in town where she would be able to explain the process and differences more thoroughly.

You can’t go to a Rynn Caputo cheese stretching demo without catching some of her infectious enthusiasm for artisan cheeses and Italy, and she supports her enthusiasm with a thorough knowledge of her topic. Since I am fascinated by fermented and cultured foods, I peppered her with questions during her demo. By the end of the afternoon we had decided that two girls who love cheese as much as we do should be friends, and she had invited to me to come out and make cheese with her at the creamery, and to bring Scott out for one of the farm-to-table dinners that she and Dave host in their home.

So a couple of weeks ago, we found ourselves out in the Kodachrome green Pennsylvania countryside at the Caputo’s old stone farmhouse with a dozen or so friends and neighbors eating a mostly locally sourced Spring feast.

Here’s what we had for supper:

Tuscan white bean and wild onion fritters  with house-made sour cream and basil pesto

Freshly stretched Oaxaca cheese with green tomato relish (made by Rynn’s mom) and olive oil

Sunchoke pasta with sauteed sunchokes and dandelion green pesto.

Wild garlic frittata with straight-from-the-garden asparagus

Berries with homemade limoncello and fresh house made ricotta

Everyone brought bottles of wine to share and one guest who owns an olive oil and vinegar shop brought a couple of bottles of olive oil to taste, an Italian and an Argentinian oil. Once we had tasted both and decided which we preferred, we drizzled the oil over our fresh cheese that Rynn stretched and rolled for us.

I’m looking forward to getting back out there soon to actually make cheese, rather than just consume it (although that’s not a bad idea either).  When I do, I’ll fill y’all in on what I learn.

“Great Personality” Cauliflower Olive Penne

I made this delicious cauliflower pasta for the first time this winter and immediately loved it. I had seen this recipe and liked the idea but it was one of those weeknights when I had cauliflower and pasta but not much else from the original recipe and I was tired and hungry so I used what I had already. In one of those happy accidents of leftovers alchemy, I liked my version so much I never went back to try the original inspiration.

I knew I wanted to share the recipe here but there was a problem. Nutty roasted cauliflower, green picholine olives marinated in coriander and herb de Provence, smoky sweet piquillo peppers, creamy salty tangy sheep’s milk feta – it was delicious and satisfying. But if the explosion of Pinterest has illustrated anything, it is that people like to cook food that not only sounds good, but looks good too. We want the whole package. And when I take pictures of some things I cook, the visual just don’t do the flavor justice. Some dishes just aren’t as easy on the eyes as others.

It’s like the classic set – up conversation:

“I have this friend. He’s smart, funny – you’ll love him!”

“Awesome! What does he look like?”

“He looks smart and funny! He’s a lot of fun!”

“But what does he look like???”

“He has a GREAT personality.”

Don’t judge this recipe by its looks alone. Get to know it. Look for its hidden depths. Because, really,  it has a great personality.

Cauliflower Olive Penne

– 1 head cauliflower

– olive oil

– 6 brined green peppercorns, crushed*

– 1 teaspoon anchovy paste

– 1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste

– 1/4 cup coarsely chopped green French picholine olives

-1/4 cup chopped roasted piquillo peppers (or roasted red bell peppers)

-about 2 ounces feta, crumbled (I used a sheep’s milk feta)

– 1/3 cup panko crumbs

– 6 ounces dried penne pasta

Heat the oven to 400. Separate the cauliflower head into small florets, cutting the stems and bigger florets into bite sized pieces. Toss with just enough olive oil to lightly coat, spread the florets out onto a big baking sheet and roast until the bottoms and edges start to brown, about 20 minutes. stir the cauliflower once to make sure the bottom isn’t browning to quickly, but otherwise leave it alone.

Meanwhile, begin to bring a pot of salted water for the pasta to a boil.

Get the olives, peppers and feta ready to go; if the olives have pits, smash the olive on a cutting board with the bottom of a glass or the flat side of a knife blade. The pit will be loosened and the olive will be easy to chop.

In a large saute pan, pour about a tablespoon of olive oil over low heat; add the crushed green peppercorns, anchovy paste, and garlic paste and allow the garlic to just cook through. Stir once in a while to keep the garlic from sticking and burning.

Toss the panko crumbs with a little olive oil and toast the crumbs, either in a skillet on the stove or in the oven. Keep and eye on it; the oil makes it brown quickly.

Cook the pasta; since it usually takes about 10 minutes, give or take, start it a little after halfway through the cauliflower’s cooking time.

Remove the cauliflower from the oven and add it to the pan with the garlic. Gently stir to infuse the cauliflower with the garlic mixture, then mix in the peppers, feta, and olives. scoop the very lightly drained pasta into the saute pan with the cauliflower mixture. That splash of starchy water will keep the whole thing moist without watering the flavor down.

Toss the crumbs through the pasta just before serving. Finish with a little drizzle of fragrant olive oil.

*Brined green peppercorns come in a jar and look very similar to capers. They are pungent and have a lemony pepper taste that is great with a wine sauce on fish or chicken or in a creamy vegetable dip. Their flavor is midway between black and white peppercorns. In the brine, they keep indefinitely.

Winter Citrus & Endive Salad

Walking here in the city is, to misquote Ralph Waldo Emerson as completely as possible, about the destination, not about the journey. It’s a great place to be a pedestrian, but it helps to be goal oriented about it. And I have to admit I’ve adapted, hook, line and sinker. I cover a lot of sidewalk day-to-day, iPod playing something in my ears that makes me fast and focused, mental route mapped out, watching where I step, navigating other pedestrians and their children, dogs, strollers, granny carts. I’ve caught myself playing sidewalk chicken and doing the classic eye roll/deep disgusted sigh/throw hands up in exasperation combo thing pretty often. I’ll even admit  (and I share this from a deeply conflicted mixture of burning-faced shame and adrenaline-fueled exhilaration) that recently, while walking to an appointment in the wintry rain, I tried to start across the street before the car coming the opposite direction had passed in order to time it as closely as I could.  When the driver stopped in the middle of the street, rolled down her window and started yelling at me for “being in the middle of the street like an idiot” it took me about half a second to start waving my arms and yelling back. In my defense, everyone I told about it thought I was totally justified, because everyone knows the drivers here are all crazy.  I  haven’t lost my common courtesy completely – sometimes I deliberately smile at people as I pass. It seems to freak a lot of them out, so win/win for me.

So I’m striding down Washington Street a couple of days ago when I came to a short, hard stop on the pavement,  arrested by the scent of hyacinths and freesia. Buckets full of those most fragrant of late winter blossoms were spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of a mini-grocery (I think people call them “bodegas”). Completely distracted from my no doubt urgent errand, I stopped and just took a deep breath and literally inhaled the beauty of the moment.

It reminded me to look up occasionally during these things that seem like something to “get through” – a commute, a north-eastern winter, a tiresome daily task – and actually notice what’s going on around me.

That the sunniest of fruits, citrus, is at its brightest and most abundant and varied in the winter is reason enough to take a little pleasure in the journey. Whether you are in California where the tree are incandescent with Meyer lemons, or you just live close enough to warmer climes to get the influx of Ruby reds, Cara Cara navels, clementines, and Sevilles that glow from the bins lining frigid northern sidewalks, they are like yellow signal lights flashing “slow down, pay attention.”

I’ve made this crunchy, bittersweet winter salad with them several times this year. Like that burst of lime squirted onto hot posole, the fragrance seems to instantly brighten the mood and the cool mixture of coral and jade is a feast for the eyes.

(I’ll just add that there are lots of lovely parks and river-front promenades where a contemplative stroll is not generally frowned upon, as long as you stay out of the jogger’s way.)

Citrus Endive Salad

serves 4

– 1 ruby red grapefruit

– 1 navel orange

– 1 Cara Cara orange (red navel orange)

– 1 largish head of Belgian endive

– 1/4 medium sweet red onion

– 2 ounces feta,  crumbled into rough chunks

Peel and section the grapefruit and oranges.  Remember, in this case, the perfect is the enemy of the good, so don’t stress about getting it right the first time.

With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.

Slice down the curved sides of the fruit, removing the skin, pith and outer membrane.

Once the skin is gone, you can go back and clean up any pith or membrane that got missed the first time.

Cut each section out from between the white membrane. get as close as you can, but don’t go crazy; you’ll use the leftover juice for the dressing.

Once all the fruit segments are cut out, squeeze the leftover pulp into a cup to get as much juice out as you can. Save 2 tablespoons for the dressing and drink the rest.

Core and separate the leaves on the head of endive. Thinly slice, almost shave the red onion into slivers. Arrange the citrus sections, endive and onion on a platter and tumble the crumbled feta over the top. Drizzle with the citrus vinaigrette and a little of the fig balsamic and serve.

These aren’t the  3/1 proportions of a classic vinaigrette, but a lighter sweeter version.

Citrus Vinaigrette

– 2 tablespoons reserved citrus juice

– 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

– 1/2 teaspoon spicy mustard (may I suggest Figgy Mustard?)

-1 teaspoon finely minced shallot

– fresh black pepper to taste

– salt to taste

-3 tablespoons olive oil

– drizzle of fig balsamic vinegar (optional)

In a screw top jar, combine the juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot, salt and pepper. Shake to combine. Add the oil, and give everything a good hard shake until it’s emulsified into a creamy golden color.

Get stuffed

Sometimes you want to have an all out,  pull-out-all-the-stops free-for-all, all day, special occasion, feast day, soup-to-nuts cook-a-thon. And sometimes (most of the time) you just want something tasty for supper that is neither an indulgence in time or in calories, something you can make in half and hour or so with ingredients that are easy to pick up on the way home from a busy day, something that doesn’t make you consider re-upping your gym membership and getting a cholesterol test taken again. I’m talking about “convenience food” in some shape or form, but I’m not talking about a blue box of mac and cheese or a bucket of fried chicken from a drive-thru.

I am talking about chicken, though. Boneless chicken breast is undeniably a convenience food. They are totally easy to find in any market, quick to cook, lean, and easy to portion. It’s not usually my favorite piece of chicken  for a couple of reasons: first, because it is so lean, unlike the legs and thighs, it tends to be pretty flavorless on its own, and second, it can go from undercooked to dry, stringy, and rubbery in a New York minute if it isn’t treated properly. But there are at least a couple of ways to take advantage of  the convenience factor without losing the good eats factor.

    Poaching is one cooking technique that will infuse flavor without drying the meat out. If I’m going to make chicken salad, I usually poach the chicken breast. For some reason, I usually prefer poached chicken when it’s eaten chilled.  Another option (the one I’m talking about here) is to slice a pocket into the chicken breast that will create as much surface contact as you can between the chicken and a flavorful filling, a filling that contains enough moisture to steam itself  through the blander chicken surrounding it, but not so moist that it ends up just turning everything into a puddle.

I guess traditionally I think of a bread crumb based stuffing-like for turkey at Thanksgiving – but if you think about it in terms of a savory tart filling, vegetables can really be the star. I probably had  spanakopita on my mind when I came up with this particular combination but if If you can think of a flavorful vegetable that would be good with chicken, it will probably be good in chicken. I usually quickly roast or saute my vegetables first to cook off a little of the water that they naturally contain, just to soften them and  concentrate their flavor, then add some seasoning and a little something to oomph the flavor (in this case, feta) and then while it’s still hot, stuff the chicken and stick it in the oven for a few minutes.

Chicken Breast stuffed with Spinach and Feta

-2 boneless chicken breast halves (I used skin-on, but boneless skinless may be easier to find)

– Oil to saute’ and oil the baking dish

-1 shallot, minced

-2 cloves garlic, minced

-6 ounces spinach leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped (frozen thawed spinach works well too)

-Pinch each of dried basil and oregano

-1/3 cup panko crumbs (or dry bread crumbs)

2 ounces crumbled feta

-Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 °

In a large saute’ pan or skillet, heat a splash of oil over medium low heat. Add the shallot and garlic  with a pinch of salt and cook until they begin to soften. Sprinkle the basil and oregano over and stir everything together until the herbs become fragrant. Add the spinach leaves to the pan. Don’t bother to dry the spinach when you rinse it; the water that clings to the leaves should be enough to wilt and steam the spinach. Once the spinach has shrunken and wilted, take the pan off the heat. Gently stir in the panko and feta chunks. The panko will absorb most  of the residual liquid in the pan, leaving you a moist but not soupy filling.

 Place each chicken breast on a cutting board, skin side up, so that it looks like an upside-down pear shape. With a sharp knife, make slit all the way down the center of the top of the chicken breast, starting just below the wide end so that it will still hold its shape after it is filled. Then use the point of the knife to slice pockets into the meat on either side of the slit, widening the cavity so that the stuffing is making as much contact with the chicken as possible. This is what will help keep the chicken from drying out while it’s cooking.

Divide the still-hot spinach mixture between the two chicken breasts. It should be a generous amount, enough to fill the pockets in the meat and mound up in the middle. Smear a tiny bit of oil in the bottom of a baking dish to keep the chicken from sticking to the bottom.  Bake the chicken for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is done and the filling is bubbling and beginning to brown on top.

 

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.

Cheese-Straw Apple Tart

I am, finally, back home in New Jersey. It’s still winter here; I’d been sort of hoping it would be done with if I stayed gone long enough. But alas, it is still February. There are mountains of gray snow everywhere, mounded above my head in parking lots and roadsides. The days are shorter here and the high temperature today was supposed to be 25°F. It’s strange and sort of exotic in a way to one who is not even accustomed to many days with the low temperature of 25°. But speaking of exotic Northern climes….

When I was little, my paternal grandparents lived in upstate New York. Whenever they came to visit their grandchildren in Atlanta, they would bring gifts of apples and maple syrup and sharp cheddar cheese. I remember apples with names I had never heard, exotic and fragrant Winesaps with their coarse skin and red-veined flesh, tart/sweet crisp Empires, Northern Spy and Cortland. They favored crisp crunchy apples with balanced sweet and tangy flavor and brought bags full from the roadside stands they passed on their drive down. They also introduced me to the awesome combination of a cool slice of  apple and a sliver of creamy sharp cheddar cheese, one of the most perfect bites ever devised, in my humble opinion.

With that combination in mind, I started working on this tart a few months ago. I had the idea of a sharp cheddar short crust with a tart apple filling and combined the easy cream cheese tart crust recipe I love to make with a Southern-style cheese straw recipe to make the crust. It has the faintest kick , more like a poke really, of cayenne that just underscores the tang of cheese in the crust. It’s a tart that combines the flavors of fond nostalgia with my ideal of sweet/salty/tangy/crisp balance.

 

Cheese-Straw Apple Tart

Crust-

1 stick (8 oz) butter, softened slightly and cubed

5 oz finely grated extra sharp cheddar

1 tablespoon sugar

dash cayenne pepper

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

Use the whisk attachment on a stand mixture to blend the butter and cheese, sugar and pepper, until it’s a smooth blend.

 

 

Throw in the flour. Slowly mix to combine the flour with the butter and cheese. Stop and scrape the sides of the bowl, then speed things up until the dough starts to look like pebbles and pull together. Stop and gather the dough into a ball, kneading it a couple of times to keep it from crumbling.

 

Press the dough into the bottom of a 9 -inch tart pan. Using your fingertips, start from the center of the pan and press the dough out and up the sides as evenly as you can manage. Cover well and chill the crust in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

In order to keep the edges of the crust from slumping when I blind bake it, I put a ring of rolled up foil around the inside of the sides while it cooks. Blind bake for about 20 minutes at 325°.

Cool a bit before putting in the apple filling; it will help keep the crust from getting soggy.

Bump the oven temperature up to 375°.

 

Filling:

3-4 sweet/tart baking apples, peeled and thinly sliced

(save the peel and core)

2 tablespoons  apple cider vinegar

¼ cup sugar ( I used turbinado, but white or brown is fine)

1 tablespoon butter

Arrange the apple slices in the crust in an arrangement that pleases you; I did a sort of homage to the spiral tarte tatin arrangement, but in my typically disheveled fashion. Bake for about 35-40 minutes until the apples are crisp-tender.

Meanwhile, simmer the cider with the apple peels and sugar until the peels are soft. Strain the peels out through a fine mesh strainer. Whisk the butter into the syrup . Brush the syrup generously over the top of the apples.