December 2008


Something about grey, wintery weather makes me crave a good melting cheese, and my first thought when biting into a slice of Hoch Ybrig was, “fondue!” A Swiss mountain cheese, this semi-firm cheese has a smooth texture with just a few little crystals, and a bold tang from being soaked in white wine. It is produced by acclaimed fromager Rolf Beeler in Zurich, known in cheese circles as “The Pope of Swiss Cheese,” and whose cheeses appear several times on the Wine Spectator list. Try it on a baguette with a chardonnay mustard and sliced salami for a hearty winter lunch. Its nutty flavor would pair well with a Riesling or pale beer, though I enjoyed it with some hot apple cider.

This cheese is produced in small batches only in the summer months (I guess those Alpine cattle hibernate in the winter?) so catch it while you can! I found it at Cheesetique, and online at Artisanal. There is apparently a Swiss ski resort by the same name; so whip up some Hoch Ybrig fondue and imagine you’re sitting by the fireplace after a day on the slopes.

However you ring in the New Year, we wish you nothing but the finest in cheese and life in 2009!

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Growing up, New Year’s Eve was the one time a year we got to eat all the processed junk food our little hearts desired, from ready-made French onion dip and Lay’s potato chips to whatever shrink-wrapped meat and cheese goodies my dad got in holiday gift baskets from his colleagues. I don’t believe I ever had a homemade cheese ball, but we did think the Hickory Farms cheese logs and spreads were a nifty treat. (Funny how warped a sense of “luxury food” one develops when raised on a strict healthy-food diet!)

Aside from the low gas prices, dismal economic reports continue to lead the daily news reports. If you’re feeling a little more frugal (late)-Seventies than Swinging Sixties, the retro cheese ball stretches your cheese dollar and is sure to amuse and delight your New Year’s Eve guests. Better yet, cheese balls are best made from a good, traditional cheddar and don’t require a special trip to your local cheesemonger. Apparently, cheese balls are all the rage this holiday season, having been endorsed by Amy Sedaris and Martha herself (link to video clip). A classic recipe requires cheddar, cream cheese, a liquid (Worcestershire sauce traditionally), spices and crushed nuts. The possibilities for variations are endless, but I kept mine simple and used Old Bay for a taste of the Chesapeake. Serve with some mini crab cakes or steamed King crab legs for maximum effect.

Recipe: Chesapeake Cheddar Cheese Ball

Ingredients:
2 cups grated cheddar 
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
1/2 cup crushed pecans
* (I used Tillamook to keep with the coastal theme. Had I planned a little more in advance, I would’ve used Chapel’s Country Creamery’s crab spice cheddar, locally-produced on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.) 

Instructions: Mix first four ingredients in mixer until well combined. Chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour, then shape into a ball and roll in crushed pecans until evenly coated. Wrap and store in refrigerator overnight. Bring to room temperature (at least 30 minutes) before serving. Enjoy!

Of course, you can make your cheese ball as simple or fancy as you please.  Alanna has a round-up of family cheese ball recipes over at BlogHer, including Big Red Kitchen‘s eye-catching Curried Cheese Ball with coconut and peanuts. The Kitchn offers a more gourmet option, a Blue Cheese and Rosemary Ball, or booze it up with this Cheese Truffle recipe from Tillamook. For a sweet option, try (or imitate) a Butterscotch Brickle cheese ball mix

Ringing in the New Year with cheese? Let us know what’s on your menu!
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New Year’s Eve was always a particularly fun evening for me, Colleen and our spouses. It typically involved a lot of food and wine and us yelling at whichever teeny-bopper of the moment was featured on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” that year. For our first New Year’s Eve together (2002), the food highlight was the top layer of Colleen and Lou’s wedding cake. The next year is significant for the debut of my (a.k.a. Ina Garten‘s) smoked salmon dip, which was a hit with our guests and my cat. But by the time we got to New Year’s Eve 2004, we found our true calling – fondue. I think it was the idea of our friend Jo, who had lived in Switzerland, and Colleen and I jumped at the chance to make cheese the focus of the festivities. We made two cheese fondues and one chocolate fondue and I think I remember all of them being delicious, but since we went through more bottles of wine that night than we had people at the party, all of our memories are a bit fuzzy.

If you don’t have a menu set for Wednesday night yet, consider fondue. It’s easy to make, everyone gets a kick out of dipping, and you could even make it part of a theme party if your theme is the Swingin’ Sixties. Here’s a step-by-step guide to having a successful fondue:

  1. Ask your cheesemonger for suggestions. Traditional fondue is made with the Swiss cheeses Gruyere and Emmental, which are fantastic, but it’s always fun to mix it up a bit. I went to the Premier Cheese Market yesterday, and the friendly cheesemonger advised me to consider adding Red Dragon or Black Mountain Cheddar. We went with the Black Mountain since its blend of garlic, herbs and white wine was appealing to my garlic fiend of a husband.
  2. Get your proportions right. Your cheesemonger should be able to tell you how much of each cheese to get based on the number of guests. For four people having our Black Mountain fondue, purchase 1/2 lb. each of the Gruyere and Emmental and a 1/4 lb. of the Black Mountain.

    Black Mountain Cheddar with yummy bits of garlic and herbs

    Black Mountain Cheddar with yummy bits of garlic and herbs

  3. Gather your non-cheese ingredients. You’ll want to make sure you have fresh lemons, garlic, cornstarch and white wine (we used a cheap Pinot Grigio from Trader Joe’s) on hand – all four are essential to a great fondue. Traditional fondue recipes often call for Kirsch, a German cherry brandy. I’ve never used it in fondue because I don’t keep any in my liquor cabinet, but if you have some, by all means pour some in. For dippers, you’ll definitely want some crusty bread, preferably cut into cubes ahead of time so they can dry out a bit. Other ideas include boiled new potatoes, baby carrots, broccoli or asparagus.
  4. Start shredding and stirring. Shred all the cheese with a box grater. Heat up your fondue pot (mine is electric, so I just plug it in). Rub the inside of the pot with a cut garlic clove. Add the cheese, the juice of one lemon, three heaping teaspoons of cornstarch and 3/4 cup of white wine (eyeball it). Stir until melted and smooth. Adjust heat as necessary to keep it from boiling.
  5. Enjoy! I made this fondue for my parents, sister and husband last night, and none of them could be considered cheese aficionados. But all of them loved it, so hopefully your group will, too!

For more fondue ideas, check out fonduebits.com or bestfondue.com. Happy New Year!

I don’t watch Conan O’Brien much anymore, so I don’t know if he still does that “If They Mated” bit where he merges pictures of celebrities to see what their children would like. But if we played the “If They Mated” game with cheese and paired up Parmigiano-Reggiano with Cheddar, you’d get my cheese of the week – Piave Vecchio. Is this a good thing, you may ask? Oh, yes.

Piave Vecchio all dolled up for the holidays.

Piave Vecchio all dolled up for the holidays.

This mighty tasty cheese has a sweet, slightly grassy flavor that reminds you of the famous Italian grating cheese. But unlike Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is usually cut into rough chips, Piave Vecchio has a Cheddar-like consistency that can be sliced with ease. It also has a few crystals that make a delightful crunch in your mouth – not a ton, but enough to surprise you every couple of bites.

An aged cow’s-milk cheese, Piave Vecchio would be a distinguished addition to your holiday cheeseboard – it’s easy to enjoy, easy to pair with dried fruits and nuts and, unlike Parmigiano, you don’t need a chisel to cut yourself a piece. Pour a glass of fruity Merlot and go to town! It’s also great shaved on green salads (dress it with just lemon and a really good olive oil) or atop a pile of pasta.

Piave Vecchio is also a favorite of one of our favorite cheesemongers, Jill Erber of Cheesetique. For Jill’s take on “the easiest-to-prepare hors d’oeurves or snack in history,” check out the June 2007 Cheesetique e-newsletter.

I love a good manchego, but my recent go-to cheese for entertaining guests (particularly those with timid palates) is a Spanish Idiazabal.

 

Idiazabal con membrillo

Idiazabal con membrillo

A sheep’s milk cheese that is lightly smoked for 1o days, it is firm, oily (in a good way) and flavorful without being overpowering. It hails from the Basque region and Artisanal Cheese recommends pairing with a full-bodied red wine from Navarra, which, coincidentally, is a budget-friendly choice as well. Because I was tasting bargain bubblies, and served this before our Hanukkah dinner, I sampled it with the Tarantas cava which was fruity enough to bring out the subtle smoky, grassy flavor of the cheese.

 

My favorite chef Jose Andres includes a recipe for rosemary-marinated Idiazabal in his book Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America. I have not yet tried Lima here in D.C., but they include Idiazabal on their Spanish cheese plate.

We know budgets are tight these days, and gourmet cheeses can really make your grocery tab add up quickly. Here are a couple ways to incorporate cheese in your holiday feasts and still have enough money for the Hanukkah brisket, Christmas goose or whatever else is on your menu!

Pick a “showcase” cheese. Odds are you’re serving enough other food for people to fill up on, so you don’t really need to have multiple cheeses. Pick one high quality cheese, centered among spiced nuts and other accompaniments, and pair with a beverage, for a stand-out start or finish to the meal. Try Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor paired with a California sparkling wine for a first course, or a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano and spiced hot cider for an after dinner treat.

Make cheese a star ingredient. Baked brie – with seasonal cranberry sauce or fig preserves – stretches your cheese dollars and is sure to please a crowd. Or try blue cheese-filled endives, topped with pomegranate seeds (a la Eric Ripert) for festive little bites of cheese.

Look for budget-friendly cheeses. You don’t have to get the most expensive triple-creme cheese from France to wow your family and friends. Look for heartier favorites like a Dutch gouda or aged Irish cheddar – or look for domestic brands, like Cabot/Jasper Hill (Vermont) or Carr Valley (Wisconsin). Tillamook‘s vintage white extra sharp cheddar (Oregon) is a budget-friendly family favorite. A mild, hard cheese like cheddar and gouda will hold up well to a variety of foods and beverages as part of the holiday meal.

Skip the Champagne. Perfectly palatable sparkling wines from California, Spanish cava, or Italian prosecco can be found for $15-30, and will delight your guests when paired with cheese treats. I love Tarantas organic cava ($12.99 at Whole Foods) and have used Trader Joe’s $6 prosecco in pomegranate cocktails that are perfect for Christmas. Sean of Vinifico! recommends Zonin Prosecco Brut NV ($14), and Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre calls Scharffenberger Brut “America’s best bargain bubbly.” (See his blog for more bargain sparkling wine recommendations.)  

Hope your holidays are cheese-filled and merry!

If you thought La Mancha was only the setting for my father’s favorite musical, “The Man of La Mancha,” you’re wrong! It’s also the birthplace of Spain’s best-known and universally loved Manchego cheese. This fertile area of central Spain brings us many of my favorite things: wine, saffron and (wait for it) cheese! Lots of sheep = lots of delicious sheep’s-milk cheeses, and Manchego is a great introduction to the genre for those who have shied away from sheep’s-milk cheeses out of fear of a strong “sheepy” smell or taste.

Why do I like Manchego so much? It’s the perfect table cheese. Its mild, slightly sweet and wee-bit nutty taste make it a good match for almost any meal. (Consider it the O-negative of cheeses.) Last night my husband, friend Ariela and I enjoyed it with salad, corn and roasted red pepper soup and some crusty rolls, and it complemented the other foods quite nicely. Its semi-firm texture makes Manchego easy to slice, and the cheese lends itself well to snacking. Manchego is often paired with other Spanish specialties, like almonds or dulce de membrillo (quince paste), but it also goes well with apples and other fruits for snacking. One of my favorite dishes at my all-time favorite restaurant, Jaleo, pairs Manchego with green apples and a light vinaigrette in a simple salad. (Alas, the restaurant has altered the salad by adding fennel and walnuts – I prefer the classic.)

Spains best-known cheese gets some love from fragrant rosemary.

Spain's best-known cheese gets some love from fragrant rosemary.

For wine pairings with Manchego, stick with Spain! Tempranillo is the obvious choice, both for drinking straight and as the base of sangria (best beverage ever!). Other suggestions are Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage, two moderately aged red wines that, according to WineFetch.com, “balance the sheepy, oily qualities of the cheese.” But not to worry, it’s really not that sheepy!

Vino Tinto con Manchego y Romero

Vino Tinto con Manchego y Romero

As I mentioned yesterday, you can sometimes find Manchego dressed up with rosemary. If you can’t find it at your local cheese shop, LaTienda.com stocks it. And while most Manchegos you’ll encounter in the United States are pasteurized, Colleen and I once had a raw-milk Manchego at a Cheesetique tasting cheese and loved the heightened flavors of the cheese. It’s also available at LaTienda.com, along with some other great Spanish cheeses. One of my sisters sent me the four-cheese sampler for my birthday this year (thanks, Mandy!). It’s always great to get cheese by mail.

Many thanks to Ariela for her cheese-styling assistance!

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