The comfort of cheese pervades palates worldwide. Whether faced with a creamy Gorgonzola, its blue veins outstretching and beckoning for you to taste or a gooey molten Gruyere oozing through the toasty blankets of a grilled cheese sandwich, cheese is a glorious food. From the simplest form of an assortment of cheeses arranged artfully on a platter to a winning combination of molten goodness bubbling in a baking dish of pasta, it can be savored in so many presentations.
There are hundreds of varieties of cheese throughout the world. If we examine the origins of blue cheese alone, Italy produces their coveted Gorgonzola, France is famed for its Roquefort, England is renowned for its Stilton, Spain churns out a stunning Cabrales and every American has surely sampled Maytag blue. Besides the blue cheeses, there are soft and creamy cheeses, such as triple-crèmes, and firm cheeses such as Gruyere, Ementhaler, Provolone, Cheddar and Gouda, and very hard cheeses such as pecorino Romano. Cheese can be produced from cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk. Some cheeses, such as Gouda, are best when aged for a number of years, developing the subtlest specks of crispiness throughout the sample. The best creamier cheeses, such as true Brie, are not legally sold in the United States due to ridiculously stringent laws governing the pasteurization of dairy products. Those wedges and wheels of “brie” spotted in every American supermarket are imposters! Even those that are imported from France were produced in accordance with U.S. laws in order to be exported to the U.S. No Frenchman would be caught dead consuming that in their native land. Since the U.S. bans the good stuff, the French enjoy savoring it all to themselves.
Some of the most comforting of winter fare showcases cheese as the star of the dish. Macaroni and cheese tops the list, as does a grilled cheese sandwich. The Italian variation of grilled cheese, the pannini, has been basking in fame in recent years. Just as a grilled cheese sandwich accompanied by a bowl of piping hot tomato soup is a classic warm welcome in from the bitter cold, the pannini accompanied by a side salad of mesclun greens has taken the café lunch scene by storm. Macaroni and cheese, however, reigns as the perpetual cheesy comfort dinner choice in homes across America.
Macaroni and cheese can be as simple as the basic macaroni pasta coated with the classic cheddar sauce. The dish has evolved to also include numerous combinations of stirred in ingredients to add more flavors and textures and ethnic flare. Utilizing different cheeses has also served to impart nuances of regional and international flavor appeal. One of the most involved macaroni and cheese dinners I have made to date remains Brian’s favored choice. It’s a recipe from an old issue of Bon Appetit magazine. The macaroni and cheese sauce contains several cheeses, and the dish contains breaded chunks of fried chicken. The finishing touch is a drizzle of Buffalo chicken wing sauce over the top.
Heartier appetites call for the addition of meat, such as sausage or chicken, or seafood, such as lobster or shrimp, into the baking dish of macaroni and cheese. Choose the ethnicity and/or tone of the dish that you wish to present. Seeking a romantic variation? Try lobster, with a sauce that contains fontina, shallots and a touch of cream sherry or cognac. Going Cajun for Mardi Gras? Add chunks of Andouille sausage, green peppers, cheddar or smoked gouda-based sauce and a sprinkle of Cajun seasoning. For dinner party elegance, go for a macaroni and cheese studded with mushrooms in a Gruyere-based sauce with truffle oil.
Macaroni and Cheese
1 pound short-cut pasta, such as elbows, small shells, penne
3 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon paprika
Preheat oven to 400-degres. Lightly grease a baking dish. In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and the paprika until well mixed, set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for about ten minutes. Drain the pasta and set aside. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Once melted, then add the flour. Stir for about a minute, then begin gradually adding the milk, stirring all the while so that the ingredients all blend together. Once blended and smooth and the mixture starts to thicken, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the cheese and the pepper, stirring until the cheese has melted and incorporated into the sauce. Add the cooked pasta and stir to thoroughly coat with the sauce. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the top with the breadcrumb mixture and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and the top is lightly browned. Serves four.
Stir-Ins and Toppers:
Before baking the above macaroni and cheese, try stirring in 1-inch pieces of cooked bacon and top the macaroni and cheese with diced fresh plum tomatoes before sprinkling with the breadcrumb mixture. Alternately, swap out the bacon for 1 pound cooked lobster meat or shrimp.
For a Southwestern variation: substitute 4 ounces of Monterey Jack cheese for half of the Cheddar. Stir in half a cup of diced red bell pepper and one four-ounce can of diced green chilies. Substitute ½ teaspoon ground cumin and ½ teaspoon for the paprika in the breadcrumb topping.
For a spicy Mexican version: instead of the 8 ounces of Cheddar, use only 4 ounces, plus 2 ounces of Monterey Jack and 2 ounces of Manchego. Stir in ½ pound cooked bulk chorizo sausage and 2 finely chopped chipotle chilies. Substitute chili powder for the paprika in the breadcrumb topping.
For a Cajun variation: stir in ½ pound cooked bulk Andouille sausage. Substitute Cajun seasoning for the paprika in the breadcrumb topping. Very lightly drizzle Tobasco or other hot sauce over the topping.
For a cheese lover’s dream: instead of the 8 ounces of Cheddar, use only 3 ounces, plus 3 ounces of comte or Gruyere and 2 ounces of Roquefort blue cheese. Omit the paprika and use finely chopped fresh parsley or basil with the breadcrumbs instead.
From olives to nuts to peas to chicken nuggets, the possibilities are infinite. Choose a style of cuisine that you enjoy and play with ingredients; you’ll serve up something exciting every time.
There are three cheese products that I implore every living thing capable of food consumption to avoid. First and foremost, the green can found in the pasta and tomato sauce aisle of supermarkets. Kraft grated Parmesan “cheese” is merely sodium sawdust. This is not cheese and any pasta, or Italian being served such pasta, will baulk and recoil at the mere sight of such a product being placed on the table. Next, we come to another abomination, known to American palates simply as American “cheese.” Whether sliced behind the deli counter or purchased as Kraft Singles in the dairy section, American cheese is not produced as cheese per say, but rather the resulting product of combining the scraps of refuse and by-products left by the cheese-making process. Does that really sound edible to you? The stuff resembles bland slices of rubber. Try a blind taste test by sampling a grilled cheese sandwich made with Kraft Singles and one made with sliced cheddar; it will be a flavor-awakening experience. Finally, at number three, we have the famed blue box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Are you noticing a pattern here? I don’t think Kraft actually produces edibles after all. Once you actually prepare the combination, the result is a plate of elbow macaroni clad in a day glow orange sauce that tastes, well, cheesy, and I don’t mean in the cheese sense. The ingredient label lists a host of things that you won’t find in homemade recipes. Guess what? Homemade macaroni and cheese is really not that hard! You boil pasta and stir a few things in a pot to make the sauce, just like the one in the box! The difference is in the flavor and in the knowledge that you didn’t just heap something reminiscent of your kid’s chemistry set potions into the pot.
Someday, I just might figure out why there is a need for all of these fake cheese products. Cheese Wiz is another prime example. The foodie revolution of the last couple of decades has introduced our kitchens to a host of stellar cheeses from around the globe. While Italy and France may hold the popular title of top cheese producer, there are numerous artisan cheese makers here in the U.S. For my fellow Long Islanders, a trip to the Catapano goat farm out east will reward with award-winning goat cheeses in a range of varieties, as well as other goat’s milk dairy products, beauty products and the opportunity to be up close and personal with the goats who welcome hands-on greetings and attention. Goodale Farms in Riverhead also produces goat cheeses and other dairy products. Mecox Bay, located in the Hamptons, produces excellent varieties of cheese. For those craving a sampling of several cheeses, a visit to the Village Cheese Shop is in order. Located in Mattituck and also in Southampton, the market offers an extensive array of cheeses from around the world. Their selection can only be topped by the cheese department of Fairway Market, located in Plainview as well as in Manhattan. Fairway’s cheese department is by far the most impressive display that I have seen. C'est Cheese, located in the village of Port Jefferson, offers a selection of international cheeses for purchase, as well as a dining experience where menu items based on cheese are prepared on the premises for immediate enjoyment with locally produced wines and craft beers.
Food For Thought
As delicious as any dish tastes when it contains cheese, the best way to sample cheese is in its pure form. When assembled creatively and attractively, a cheese platter can stand as the perfect conversation starter as guests arrive and assemble in the living room or kitchen, or as an elegant close to dinner itself. Begin by lining a large platter or board with decorative and edible leafy greens, such as leaves of Savoy lettuce. Arrange three different cheeses on the board. I like to choose one blue variety, one soft, creamy, gooey specimen and one hard cheese. For example, a Roquefort, a Delice de Bourgogne and an aged Gouda. You can stick to cheeses from one corner of the world or go with a combination. Fill in the rest of the board with rows or stacks of crackers and/or sliced baguette, bunches of fruits such as grapes, figs, sliced apples or pears or berries, and perhaps a dish of artisanal preserves, fruit relish or nuts, if desired. If the platter is served to conclude a meal, an additional small dish of premium chocolates would round things out nicely. If you are seeking a simpler, much smaller option, simply set out a quality cheese with a perfectly paired libation. For example, arrange some sliced Bosc pears alongside a big wedge of English Stilton and a bottle of Port for a very classic combination.