Friday, December 13, 2013

Tips from a Cheese Lady: Having Fun with Fromage this Holiday Season and Beyond

Don't call me an expert. Those people exist but I'm not one of them. I package and sell cheese, but more so I just love it. Nothing unusual about that, most people do. But I also notice that most people stress about cheese on some level, be it the calories, the cost or the pressure to appear urbane. How unfortunate we should fret over something that ought to bring us pleasure. Kinda sounds like the holidays, right?

I say, 'tis the season for chowing on big globs of coagulated milk. Let's have fun with it. The following tips are meant to help you do just that:

Stop trying to make it be good for you Cheese has nutritional value but you can easily find leaner, richer sources of calcium and protein. Goat and sheep milk varieties are better for you only by being kinder than cow to your digestive system. They're still loaded with cholesterol. All cheese worth eating is quite fatty. You could sweat details like, "Is it organic or raw or grass fed or hormone free?" - if that's for ethical or aesthetic reasons, I get it. But if you're banking on those options being substantially healthier, just stop. It's the loveliest indulgence. Why not make the most of it by seeking good flavor instead? As with any food, I recommend avoiding anything highly processed. I know, that stuff also tastes good and it's usually cheaper, too. But I believe the tastier, not-as-bad-for-you cheese is worth the extra cash. Maybe it's better to be frugal by way of abstention. We shouldn't eat too much of this stuff anyway.

Having said that... If you have it, just eat it Don't obsess over preservation. If you need to maintain a big chunk, wax paper and aluminum foil make better long-term wraps than plastic (which suffocates cheese and leads to more rapid molding). If plastic is what you have on hand, wrap it tight. Keep it dry. Don't set it on a wet chopping surface. If you do find mold, cut it away and enjoy the good cheese underneath. Just don't freeze it. That ruins texture and flavor. Besides, you probably have regular access to a grocery store, right? If you can, buy smaller quantities. Or share it. Don't hoard the cheese, it will only lead to sadness. 

Snobs are jerks. Don't be one of them I once attended a cheese-selling class when I worked at Foodie Delight*. They dealt a fab selection, most of it unattainable to me for being in the $30 to $40/lb. range. I was excited but also intimidated. When the manager/teacher asked us to name our favorite cheese, I was too embarrassed to say Cambazola because I'd just seen expert Steven Jenkins trash it in his Cheese Primer. Now I feel silly for being so self-conscious. Screw Jenkins, Cambazola is yummy. True, it's no longer my favorite. I'm less satisfied with a lot of stuff I used to love because I've tried better things. Certainly, if you're so privileged that you get to sample cheese the world over, mainstream fare is gonna suck in comparison. But if stinky, gooey, sweet, crumbly-bits-o-blue laden Cambazola were the best thing around, I'd still be pretty passionate about cheese. And if you serve it at your party, I will be very excited. I will also be excited if you serve Velveeta nacho dip and corn chips.

Guilt-trippers are jerks. Don't be one of them Please don't balk at what your friends pay for quality goods. I can't stand customers who come to the counter just to groan, "Eighteen dollars a pound!" I don't stand in front of the Ferrari dealership and moan, "You want how much for a car?" Nor do I begrudge a Ferrari owner their deep desire for something that matters not to me. My feelings about jewelry and shoes are the same. On the other hand, I think it's totally worth spending ten bucks every once in a while on a memorably delicious cheese I can share with a few friends. And if that helps you feel better about occasionally blowing a small fortune on fromage, you're welcome.
I didn't avoid soft or raw milk cheeses during pregnancy and both my daughter and I lived to tell. Preggo ladies, take note - you can get your unpasteurized goods from me. I offer a zero judgement guarantee.

FYI 0.25 lb. yields 1 cup, shredded

Speaking of cooking... Here's my favorite, ridiculously easy recipe for delicious Slow Cooker Mac and Cheese (adapted from Stephanie O'Dea's Make It Fast, Cook It Slow) This is basically a cheesy, carb-y custard and it is divine. Like any great slow cooker recipe it's very low maintenance, but you can't leave it alone all day. You have to stir occasionally and it cooks fast. Make it when you're gonna be around the house anyway; most of that time can be spent doing other things.

A note about the cheeses - I love me some intense, aged cheddars but they don't melt well. I usually get something medium sharp, aged no more than a year (Henning's Mammoth is a great mild-but-flavorful, kid-friendly option). The fontina brings light sweetness and luxurious, gooey texture. 

1/2 lb. fontina, shredded
1/2 lb. young, mild or medium cheddar, shredded
4 cups milk
8oz. (1/2 box) elbow macaroni
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Spray crock pot with oil. Mix milk and egg, then blend in spices. Mix in the cheeses and macaroni. Pour mixture into crock pot. Cover and cook on low 2 to 5 hours or on high 1 to 3 hours, stirring every 30 - 45 minutes. Serves 4 - 6.

*not a real name