Monday, September 3, 2012

I've got the blues

Recently, in the fulfilling of my employment, I had the delight to meet and talk with the proprietor of the Tollipop Empire. She doesn't call it that, but since I only have one site and she has two, well, there it is.
Anyhow, we traded URLs and parted ways, but not before we spoke about blue* cheese, and I mentioned that the cheese on hand was easily one of my top five favorite blue cheeses. Kirsten—that was her name, you see—asked what the others were, and I couldn't think of them straight off the top of me head. In a (very complimentary) recent post on her blog, she made a call for me to publish my list in full, and so I present it to you here.

At the behest of the Tollipop Empire, I give you:

My Top 5 Blue Cheeses:

(in vaguely ascending order)

Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue

The folks at Jasper Hill make amazing cheeses, and this cloth-bound beauty is among my favorites from them. It has a thick smoothness and a back note of licorice that I really love, and the wheel gets serious points just for aesthetics. It's tall, lean, sandy-blond with blue eyes. If it worked for MI-6, it'd be the Daniel Craig of blue cheeses. Find a slice sometime and lay it on some thin sliced hearty bread and retire to a happier, cheesier place.

Point Reyes Blue

From the fogs of the Northern California coastline emerges this creamy, soft, fruity blue. The cows that provide the milk eat grass all year long, and the organic cheese that results is lighter in flavor and much brighter than other blues. It is almost spread-ably soft, and to smear it on a toasted bun before adding a grilled patty of ground beef would be, while un-koser, most definitely a good idea. It's named for the Point Reyes National Seashore, which is described on the park's website as a "natural sanctuary, a human haven." This cheese is a haven and sanctuary from the heavy, bitter, dark flavors of the blue cheese that you think of when you think "I don't really like blue cheese."

Roaring Forties Blue

Where to begin...
Yum. Let's start there. This is the only cheese of which I am aware from Tasmania. Yes, the one south of Australia. King's Island, the home of the cheese, is located roughly 40ยบ south of the equator, hence the name which comes from the (in)famous winds that sweep that region of the globe. Legend has it that grass seed and straw from wrecked ships got caught in the currents and washed ashore here, thus providing the good forage of, say, Normandy, for cows in the land down under.

Whether that be the case or not, the salty, sea-based terroir of the cheese is apparent. The taste of the sea is wrapped up in that dark blue wax. And that blue wax is important, because when they age the cheese in that wax, it retains more moisture than cloth-wrapped specimens. So what you get is a soft, thick, cream colored cheese with blue pockets and stripes. The flavor profile is fascinating, and includes strong notes of blueberry. I used this cheese, more than any other, to convince people that they do like blues. Want to make something spectacular? chop up a few ripe pears, toss them with chunks of this, drizzle with honey, and call it the most amazing fruit salad ever.

Shropshire Blue

What, not Stilton? No. But it was a close call. Stilton is the classic English blue, it's true, but there's something more to a Shropshire than there is to a Stilton. Shropshire is a bandage wrapped yellow blue cheese—as in the color of American cheddar, but it's blue veined. The visual appeal of this cheese is stunning, and the striking contrast gives way on your palate to a caramel-y richness and a hint of pipe tobacco. It is, in many ways, like a good aged cheddar, but not so sharp. It has a roundness that is comforting and warming as an old knit sweater on a drizzly fall day. If only it came in argyle...

Rogue River Blue

Here, my friends, is a winner. Yes, Rogue River Creamery makes a blue that is smoked over local hazelnut shells. Doesn't that sound delicious? So. Freaking. What. This is the epitome of artisan blue cheese making. The cows for this cheese forage happily in the hills and mountains all summer, then they are brought back down for milking. This cheese is only made between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, so production is very limited. But is that what makes it awesome? Well, yes, but that's not all. The terroir of the herbaceous mountains is added to and augmented by the finish: each wheel is lovingly wrapped in syrah grape laves that have been macerated in locally made pear brandy. What this cheese tastes like—and I say this with all seriousness and deference—is three seasons wrapped into one in the Oregon countryside. It is a masterful mixing of the flavors and textures of a specific land. The timing of the "harvest" paired with the leaves of summer and the flavor of winter in the pear brandy come together to make a symphony of a cheese. If you see this for sale from your local monger, buy it. I don't care about the price.

So, there you have it. My favorite blues. I hope you have the chance to taste them sometime. It will be worth the trouble to find them!

*As a side note/rant, I want to get something straight. It's "blue" cheese, not "bleu" cheese. Unless, of course, you are talking about a french blue cheese. But then, if you're not translating "blue" from the french, then why are you translating "cheese?" It should be "fromage bleu," not "bleu cheese." It's called blue cheese because the microorganisms in it make a green color that, when exposed to oxygen, turns blue. Let's call it blue. It is. "Bleu" is a fake way of making food sound "gourmet," whatever that means.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Pan Roasted Brussels Sprouts, or "Eat my sprouts? Yes please!"

If you overcook Brussels sprouts, they will taste...nasty. This can be attested to by kids all over the country (the world?) ranging in age form 5 to 96. But they still sell them, so market forces must dictate that people are still buying them, right? So, unless economics is a lie, either there is a way to cook Brussels sprouts well, or millions of Americans (and Belgians, of course) are suffering through soggy, bland, bitter sprouts with some regularity.

I kid of course. I know the sprout to be a noble, healthful vegetable that, when handled properly yield a delicious, firm, flavorful addition to a meal.

The sprout is, as you know, the bud of a kind of cabbage—a wild cabbage to be exact. Technically it is a cultivar of the species Brassicae oleracea, the same species as kale, collards, broccoli, and spinach. The sprouts, as a breed, have only been around for about 500 years (they are far younger than their kin, which date back to pre-history), and are supposedly so named because they were developed near Brussels, Belgium. They were cultivated in England in the 17th century and have been in America since the nineteenth.

Of course, in 17th century England, tasting good was hardly a prerequisite for being eaten, and I suppose it likely that those old time Brits boiled them until "tender." That was all well and good for then, but if we want to make the sprout sing on our plates, we need to do something else. I give you: the pan roasted Brussels Sprout. And the best part is: it's drop dead easy.

4 slices thick cut bacon (if you have some pancetta, feel free to sub it in, but you don't need it for this)
1 lb Brussels sprouts, rinsed and any bad leaved picked away
1 large clove garlic, peeled and crushed open
spritz of fresh lemon juice
salt and ground black pepper.

Cook the bacon in a large lidded skillet. When it is done (it should still be soft enough that you can stick a fork in it without shattering), romove it and drain on some paper towels. Keep the pan hot and add the sprouts and the garlic clove. Cover and let sit for a few minutes. You will want to stir them or shake the pan or something. Don't not yet. What makes these wonderful is that they pick up a slight...char seems like the wrong word, but probably isn't. Like grilled vegetables, they get that little bit of burn on them, and meanwhile the steam they let off is cooking them where they are not in contact with the pan.
After 2 or 3 minutes, shake the pan vigorously to let another part of the sprouts get the direct heat. Do this a few times.

While the sprouts are cooking, chop your cooked bacon into 1/4"-1/2" bits.

After the sprouts have cooked for 6-10 minutes, open the lid and see how beautiful they are. Give them a grind of pepper and a dash of kosher salt. Now add the bacon back to the pan and cook, shaking for another minute. Spritz with lemon juice and shake again. Serve hot.

The sprouts are, themselves, great to eat now; but take a bite with a piece of bacon, too, and the bright saltiness combined with the lemon will take it to a whole new level. the sprouts will still have a little crunch to them, which is good because mushy sprouts are icky sprouts.

I hope that you will give this a try and give this wild old cabbage a chance to show you its good side.

Oh, by the way, this technique, by the way, can be used with many vegetables. Green beans? Yes. Broccoli? Yes. Cauliflower? Yes. Asparagus? Oh, please yes!
I will do green beans exactly the same (some variance for cooking time!), but the broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, etc. are better done with a combination of half olive oil, half butter. About 3 tablespoons total. Try the asparagus with some fresh goat cheese for a great spring or summer dish.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book review!

The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat: How to Buy, Cut, and Cook Great Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry, and MoreThe Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat: How to Buy, Cut, and Cook Great Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry, and More by Joshua Applestone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wonderful book on the inns and outs of meat, from someone who really knows. There are many things being written right now about the evils of the food industry and the need for a change. This book is unique among them in the focus of its scope (meat only) and in the way it makes normative claims: not quite so doctrinaire as Pollan, not quite so real-world-eater as Mark Bittman's excellent Food Matters.

The move within the politico-culinary world from vegan being the only conscientious way to eat has been long in coming, but it is at last making waves. Like it or not, people all over the world, and especially in America, are going to keep eating meat. If those that care about the treatment of animals or the effects of animal by-product and meat production on the environment remove themselves from the system entirely, their voices for change are effectively removed—the essentially cast a null vote on the way meat is produced. However, if they buy sustainably, humanely raised products, that creates demand for them and therefore the supply will also increase. The purchase of these products is a monetary vote for the change that they want, and this is a realization that many have been coming too. This book will help to ease them into a meat-friendly lifestyle by whetting their appetites and providing guidance on the finer points of eating meat that is produced in this way. (Grass fed beef must be cooked slightly differently, and pastured chickens tend to toughen up even more than conventional if not handled properly, etc.)

The book's stance as a normative text is interesting. As I said above, it is perhaps not so normative as Michael Pollan (eat food, not too much, mostly plants), at least not on the surface. The Applestones expect us to eat meat (else why would we read the book...), but they expect us to eat less of it. In this they agree with Bittman and Pollan who say that we as Americans eat far more meat than we need. However, they try to soften the advice by couching it in economic terms—this kind of meat is more expensive, so just eat less of it. I can't quite decide if this re-packaging is patronizing or a welcome shift from the "if you eat this you're killing us all" rhetoric that has been flying around recently. I think, probably the latter, based on the fact that I had no adverse reaction to it at the time.

The color photographs were wonderfully done and the book was well organized and mostly very well written. There were some repetitious points, but that is hardly to be avoided in a book of this nature.

The recipes were nice, and I look forward to trying the chorizo, but the sausages were actually one of the reasons that I didn't rate this book higher. An important step was omitted in the instructions, one that beginning sausage makers need to know about: mixing. After the meat has been ground with the spices, it must be mixed together to form the necessary emulsion that occurs when the protein myosin binds with itself, trapping the liquid in the meat (along with any that you add) and making the meat adhere to itself. This "primary bind" is important if you don't want a crumbly sausage that dries out quickly once it is cut open. I cannot excuse the omission of this step in the recipe instructions, for it will only lead to unsatisfactory results.

One last reason for the rating is the commercial-like tone of some of the book. There a few mentions of the book that was written about them by one of their apprentices, and several mentions of the fact that maybe you, too, can one day apprentice with them. Don't get me wrong here: I would LOVE that. I might even apply some day. And while it will be because I read about it in this book, I just felt that the pitch was a little too forward. Why not just put it in the back with the rest of the resources?

Over all, it was excellent. I really recommend it to anyone wanting to know what it takes to be a butcher, what this dying art looks like, and how your meat comes to you.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


It is a sad and disappointing truth that when restaurant menus list a dish with "wild mushrooms" they almost always mean "Portobello mushrooms." If you get really lucky, you might even get shiitakes; but really, even those are only about as wild as a PG rated movie, circa 1992. I guess I can't blame them. Real wild mushrooms are expensive and the supply chain can be unreliable and dependent on factors like rainfall and proximity of clean forests. Plus, there is always that nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, one of the shrooms could be a little more...wild...than you want, and dead customers are not happy customers.

But now I live in Bloomington, and I now have the B-town farmer's market. Oh, and it's Chanterelle season. If you've never tried these yellow-orange delights, find some and do it now. They are, to me, the epitome of delicious mushrooms.

I tired them first when I was living in Hohenstein-Ernstthal in Sachsen, Germany, where the mushroom gathering culture is so ingrained that there are licensed Pilz Berater (mushroom advisors) who will look at your haul and tell you what to eat and what to discard. Some friends sauteed them in butter with some salt and pepper and brought me drooling back for more. They have a mild nutty flavor with only the minimum earthy flavor that you'd expect from a fungus of the forest.

And one of the wonderful things about living in Bloomington is that if you know where to look, you and three friends can gather two pounds of them in ten minutes. (No, that wasn't me, and yes, I envy them as much as you do.) This time of year the farmers market is chock-a-block with fresh wild chanterelles. We bought some last weekend (1 pint for $6) along with some fresh garlic from some farmer friends of mine and a half dozen ears of sweet corn. Lunch extravaganza.

I buttered and toasted a few slices of challah in the oven while I brought the water to a boil. What about the chanterelles? One beautiful French word: Duxelle (I thin it translates as "mushroom alchemy", but I'm not sure). We finely chopped half the mushrooms, about half an onion and one clove of garlic and sauteed it in plenty of butter. Dash of salt, grind of pepper. The mushrooms act like a sponge and soak up the butter, then the onions and garlic release their juices which are also soaked up. Once it starts to brown a little and the liquid is gone, kill the heat. We boiled the corn for a minute and served.

We spread the duxelle on the crisp toast and rolled the corn in butter and felt like no King of France, no robber baron of the last century, no gun-running drug-lord gastronome from the highest social circles of Prague ever ate so delicious a meal. Try putting a little heap of duxelle on your next bite of corn on the cob and you will have found a great thing.

So, one year into Bloomigton, and though the restaurant scene has failed to really amaze us (with the exception of one good Thai place and a great BBQ joint), we're finding that the local wild goods might be worth the search.