Morel & Leek Jack Cheese

Great Midwest Morel Leek Jack

When I was a teenager, we lived in a house that had a dark, musty patch of yard to the side of it. After my older brother ran off to live in the student ghetto and join a band, I was next in line to be the kid that mows the lawn. (My parents held no gender bias when it came to household chores.) So I got to intimately know the bumps and overgrown stumps in our lawn. And of course I got to know the smell that lingered for hours after mowing this side yard, always rampant with onion grass and mushrooms.

The reason I bring that up is that when I opened the seal on this cheese, I was transported instantly to that earthy, musty patch of yard, and all of those hours mowing over the dubious things that grew there. This cheese had the same mix of sharp, pungent green onion high notes, and dank fungal undertones. It smelled like old feet in the best possible way.

Great Midwest produces this young monterey jack cheese infused with leeks and morel (a type of mushroom that would make most teenagers giggle on sight). Leeks are in the same family as garlic and onions, and they carry a little flavor from each of their cousins. So that sharpness is a great balance for the funky mushroom base. In this case the leeks were a bit stronger that the morel.

Monterey jack is not ‘monterrey’ after the Mexican city, but ‘monterey’ after the town in California where Mexican friars started making this cheese in the 1800’s. (What’s the difference? Do you care? If the cheese is good…) It’s a semi-soft American variety of cheese that is only aged 1 to 3 months, so infusing it with other ingredients like jalapeño or mushrooms and leek, or even mixing it with colby, is fairly straightforward.

On a completely different note (and because I’m a geek), while reading up on jack cheese, I discovered something called a ‘cheese effect’. Unfortunately this isn’t related to being a turophile. Most aged cheese (and other aged food like beer, tofu and meats) and a lot of other berries and nuts have a chemical called tyramine that has been known to cause headaches and migraines. Fresh cheese like ricotta and neufchatel are exempt, and apparently of aged cheese, jack has the lowest amount of tyramine so it’s safe for people with migraine issues.

Okay, back from my geeky tangent… so this morel and leek jack cheese is pungent, smooth, and so full of flavors that the cat was sniffing at it for a few minutes before she could decide what to do about her sample. We had our first tastes with breakfast today and decided this would be perfect on some toasted sourdough bread with a bit of mustard and some diced green olives. Yummy sandwich. But warn anyone before trying to kiss them.

We found this at our local grocery store, and at $4.50 for a 1/2 pound little wheel, it’s not a bad price. It needs a crunchy toasted bread or crackers to contrast with the very creamy texture of the cheese. If you’re doing a cheese plate for a party, add this to the selection for a bit of fun. It’s definitely something you would serve with a meal you’re also serving beer with. Preferably a hoppy IPA.

Great Midwest
Morel & Leek Jack
$4-5 lb.

[Girl21]

Roncal Sheep Cheese

Roncal Cheese

The Man returned from a recent trip to the store and announced he had some sheep milk cheese. Even before he pulled it out of the bag, I could smell it. Salty, warm, old, dry, definitely ‘of the earth and soil’. This was not just a sheep milk cheese. This was Roncal.

It comes from the Navarre region in Northern Spain, an area that is as rife with extremes as this cheese is. The tiny territory has high, dry mountains, as well as deep, fertile valleys. The peoples range from Trans-Pyrenean Roman roots, touchy Basque communities, and convivial Mediterranean farmers.

These extremes are perfectly reflected in this cheese that gained regionally protected status. It can only be called Roncal if it is made here. Like the land and people, this cheese is at the same time oily and dry. Salty and subtly sweet. Tough to chop but easy to gently break. It comes from sheep who are hairy and unpredictable as goats, but somewhat more docile and drowsy. But you can still taste the fur, the warm press of bodies, and the green, moist feed.

I can’t help of think of an art project back in high school. We had to reproduce a portrait by a famous artist. I chose a self-portrait by Goya, not knowing anything about him except that I was drawn to the conflicted look on his face. If this cheese was a person, I imagine it as an older Spanish artist like him. Once young and passionate, but aged into an introspective character, riddled with opposing and undecided opinions.

The first notes from Roncal are on the nose, an saltiness that is animal and earth. Then is the layer of oils sweated from the hard, wax-like cheese. A knife is met with resistance, but it flakes like a soft granite under you bare fingers. The dark rind looks almost dirty. As if it was a rock in a cave for decades. But beneath the animal brine flavors, runs sweeping strokes of sweet butter, nutty warmth, and a gentle almond finish. It would be best crumbled and paired with a simple flat bread, maybe a mild mustard, and olives or asparagus. Drink a Spanish red wine with it, a Rioja or a strong tempranillo.

This artesian cheese can be found under several labels from a shop that offers specialty cheese. You can expect to pay anywhere from $18 to $30 per pound. It varies from semi-firm to hard, and varies from off-white to dark almond. The rind is thick and hard, often appearing dark and dirty.

Like Goya, this cheese is not for a pretty dinner party where you chat about celebrity gossip and cosmetic surgery. If you are serving anything you made from a recipe from Martha Stewart, you don’t need this cheese. If you are offering your guests finger bowls, you don’t want this cheese. This is for late evenings with friends on your back patoi, drinking wine and beer, and sharing from a loaf of bread and a bowl of olives.

[Girl21]

Old Quebec Cheddar

Old Quebec Cheddar

Those wacky Canadians! There’s only two kinds of cheddar… orange and white. Right? It’s that blocky stuff you get for grilled cheese sandwiches and grating over tortilla chips. Why would you spend $33.00 per pound on cheese that’s been sitting around for seven years?

Ah… vintage cheddar! When it’s super sharp, and aged long enough to flake instead of slice. When it has those crystals that make little gritty burst of saltiness on your tongue. It becomes slightly translucent, a little milky clear, almost glowing. Oh my!

Yes, yes! I know it’s just cheese, but we broke down in front of the cheese display at Uppercrust and got some Old Quebec Super Sharp Cheddar, aged 7 years. The blue-label reserve. The good stuff. This is no longer just cheese. This you can eat by just dropping a postage-stamp sized flake on your tongue and letting it dissolve. And you’ll be happy with that. It’s that good.

Cheddar cheese originated in the Somerset area in England, but cheddar as a name is so widely used now that they are bringing their style of cheese to the EU PGS board as West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. (There is much argument about ‘cheddar’ soon to come in the food arena, including stopping it from being artificially made bright orange for no reason whatsoever. And don’t get me started with the whole cheese-in-a-can rubbish.)

Proper cheddar should be treated as Old Quebec treats theirs, analyzing the process of making cheese, and honoring each season’s herds, feed, production cycle, and even weather during cattle grazing. They create cheese the way that it should be crafted, with a sensitive thought towards the final product. It’s let properly rest, mature, and age until it becomes something you would pay $30+ per pound for. Sometimes it is aged in caves. Like wine. Hm… what a coincidence.

This is not something you grate into your Kraft Macaroni & Cheese from a box. This isn’t something you would melt onto a gourmet sandwich, even if it included gold leaf. This kind of cheddar you eat naked (the cheese, not you, so please put your shirt back on). Serve it with sliced apples and pears. Some bits of crusty, fresh bread. Kalamata olives. Mustard. Or maybe some honey.

I can recommend a good cheddar for your next dinner party because it’s familiar and tasty enough for those people that think ‘fancy’ cheese is usually god-awful smelly. And it’s flavorful and well-crafted for your foodie friends to enjoy. Cheddar also pairs well with a mild wine or beer, so again, a great way to avoid scaring off your noob foodie friends.

Old Quebec Chaddar
OldQuebecCheddar.com

[Girl21]

[Mock] Poutine

Mock Poutine

First of all you are never, ever, ever to eat what I am about to talk to you about. I accept no liability for the state of your arteries or size of your butt after this warning. This is NOT good for you.

Up in Canada and some of the colder Northern states, they have a food tradition that is made for long months of snow with a mere peep of summer sunshine every so often. They say this fatty diet is to keep insulation against the cold. I suspect it also can be a form of birth control to combat the months with nothing to do but snuggle together for warmth. Not only are you too sluggish from the heavy meals to work up the energy to look at the opposite sex, you are most likely not going to be all that excited when you do look.

But that’s just my opinion.

So we were up in Rochester, NY, and were taken out to the Tap & Mallet Pub. We had just done a loop around the Finger Lakes and tried out some of the wineries, so a break for beer was required. Beer on an empty stomach is not a good idea when you’re talking about pints of the good stuff that runs around 10-14% ABV. There are a few starchy and fatty things on the menu for just these occasions.

Low and behold, we discovered poutine, and our Southern-food-trained stomachs never quite recovered from that joyous occasion. Poutine is essentially french fries covered with cheese curds, and then drenched with gravy. The hot fries and warm gravy melt the fresh cheese curds, and it’s suddenly a delicious orgy in your mouth.

Yes, there’s a growing popularity for this dish that offers “haute” poutine which adds lobster, truffles, caviar, and more. And there’s the low versions you can now buy at fast food chains. I may be new to poutine, but I have an opinion, and neither of the above versions are true poutine. End of story.

The Tap & Mallet is an awesome pub, and if you’re ever in Rochester, you’ll have to go by for a beer or seven. Save room for food. They do elevated pub food, including some vegetarian/vegan options. The poutine had a rich mushroom gravy, and their fries were of the hand-cut from real potatoes variety.

Unfortunately we cannot visit Rochester every time we have a craving, so we’ve looked around for adequate alternatives here in Florida. Mock poutine. A favorite alternative is something we came up with at The Top (picture above). An order of The Top’s cheese fries, which are real potatoes covered in cream sauce and melted cheese, and a side order of their ultra-amazing shiitake gravy poured on top. No, it’s not really the same thing, but it is enough to dampen the cravings for poutine for now.

My word! I need to go work out now just from thinking about this for the last fifteen minutes. I am not kidding you about how yummy and fattening poutine is. So don’t ever eat any.

Thank you for the food:
Tap & Mallet Pub
381 Gregory St.
Rochester, NY
585.473.0503
www.tapandmallet.com

[Girl21]

Breakfast Club Sandwich, The Top

Breakfast Club Sandwich, The Top

Be afraid. Be very afraid. This sandwich. Will. Kick. Your. Ass.

We were at The Top for brunch last Sunday with friends before a friendly meander around the art fair downtown. No big deal. We’ve done brunch at The Top dozens of times. It’s always good, and there’s plenty of coffee. And if I’m lucky, there’s Cuban bread with goat and cream cheese with guava on the menu (absolutely recommend, but I wish they’d put more goat and less cream cheese).

The menu was a bit different Sunday. We’re used to that. They’re working on brunch constantly. You never really know what cool things will get added.

Case in point…. bom bom bommmmmm… the Breakfast Club. At first it was a curiosity that the guys skimmed over. But they started talking about it and getting worked up to try it out. An egg, tofu, or tempeh, with lettuce, mayo, tomato, bacon or seitan bacon, on sourdough toast, with swiss cheese. Side of home fries, grits, or fruit. And another $1.00 for fried green tomatoes on it.

Well okay, it’s a sandwich and it sounds good. How many times have you had something very much like that? I could whip up one of those as a late night snack. But the Man and his foodie guy friends don’t ever take the easy option. Especially when there’s an option to add cheese, hot peppers, seitan, gravy, fried onions, eggs, or more beer to anything. So of course they had to go with the version that had all of the bells and whistles.

Even then, seriously, the basic model of this sandwich is enough to make Takeru Kobayashi pause for a breath before reaching for the second half. The triple-decker had a few quivering tooth picks speared through it to hold it together, but that was just a gesture. It was touch and go while they contemplated how to put Sriracha on these things. I almost saw fear in their eyes. Almost.

Suffice it to say, they could have split a sandwich and been more than happily full for the rest of the day. But not our gentlemen. With one eye on their own plates, and one on the other’s plate, they managed to devour the whole thing without making it look like it was any kind of competition. Which it wasn’t.

I wish we could have rented adult-size strollers for the art fair because the guys were food-drunk zombies. If they weren’t pointed in a specific direction and given a gentle push, there were content to stand in the sun and digest. And I cannot underline this enough… we did not buy any food at the art fair. This is how happy and full they were. Subdued like a bludgeoned anaconda, bloated from eating a whole goat.

So thumbs up and as many stars as possible to The Top’s Breakfast Club sandwich on their brunch menu. And don’t say I didn’t warn you. “Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns.”

[Girl21]

Roquefort: Cheese of the Angels

Roquefort Cheese

As a general rule, something moldy and smelly should not be put in one’s mouth. We all know this. It’s wired into our little lizard brains at the base of our spinal column. Moldy, stinky food brings digestive problems that were once blamed only on a plague from god himself.

But at some point someone decided to try rotten dairy products, and discovered it can be quite yummy and only cause a bit of wind that helped to keep the body lice under control. Those wacky, backwards Europeans. I mean, in the middle east they were inventing religious squabbling and perfecting the art of crucification, and the French were eating moldy cheese and reciting poetry to their favorite sheep.

You are free to click through to read more on the history of Roquefort cheese and how the original mold was grown and introduced to the sheep milk curds. I’m not going to turn you off the cheese until after you’ve tried it and fallen helplessly in love with it.

Roquefort is a blue cheese, and it is one of France’s first regionally protected foods (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) that they got on the list because it’s so freaking good. This means it can only be made in the Roquefort region, and the ingredients are very specific. In fact, even the breed of sheep that can produce the milk for it are limited to three (although they used to add some cow or goat milk, they’re not even allowed to do that anymore). The reason I bring this up is to reassure you that although this moldy, stinky cheese looks a bit suspect, you’ve nothing to be afraid of.

We were taken aback the other day to be at Uppercrust and find an almost bare cheese cabinet. The Roquefort called out for us though, and we liberated her (along with a cheddar and a specialty cheese). This was a smallish wedge of Société, and not inexpensive. But I promise you this is worth every penny.

I served this and the cheddar, each gently sliced into chunky slabs, along with a rosemary batard, a sliced granny smith apple, and some kalamata olives. We opened up a bottle of red wine (Our Daily Red, to be exact). This was easily one of the best meals I’ve had in six months. I am not exaggerating.

The Roquefort is a creamy blue cheese. Although it has a distinct salty, nutty flavor, it has a lovely sweet undercurrent and a clean finish. Keep in mind, a little goes a long way. Tear a piece of bread and top it with a small chunk of Roquefort and the flesh of a kalamata olive. Nothing fancy. When you wake up from your drunken food stupor and find the plates are clean and the wine is gone, you’ll thank me for suggesting one of the most perfect things you’ve ever put in your mouth.

If you’re still afraid of this cheese, it has one of the highest levels of glutamates in almost any food. This is an amino acid important for learning and memory. Be smart. Eat your stinky, delicious cheese!

[Girl21]

Almagre Crianza Rioja 2001

Almagre Crianza Rioja 2001It’s clear that this wine was aged for a significant time in oak barrels. It is not shy about that. There is an undeniably masculine forwardness to the strength and depth of this flavor throughout this wine.

Alamgre produces this tempranillo in the infamous La Rioja region of Spain. It is a red crianza, meaning it is aged at least two years, one of them in oak barrels. This one tastes like it was born into the primordial soup in oak barrels and left to age since. Considering they’ve been making wine in this region since at least 873 A.D., it’s quite possible.

There’s a lot of emotion and effort being put into world foods these days, preserving a region’s food heritage by legally protecting the name. ‘Protected Geographical Status‘ means you can only buy Stilton in that name if it was made in one of three counties in England, and ouzo has to have been made in Greece or Cyprus. Rioja wine has to come from the La Rioja region of Spain. There’s a fancy label and authentication sticker on this bottle to verify this.

Alongside being of authentic origin, this Almagre is also certified organic. Not that I look for this specifically, but I like to have a bottle or two of organic wine on hand for those of my friends who feel very deeply about this topic. I would prefer to have organic food as a serious option in my life as well, but reality is much more stingy with me on time and money.

This 2001 Almagre was about $8 locally. The label looks like something designed in MS Word by someone who still uses a dial-up modem. But I don’t judge by the label, and neither should you. I take that back. I tend to shy away from the overly slick or kitschy labels for fear that money had been spent on marketing instead of wine-making.

If this wine was a cat, it would be an un-fixed male Tom cat. I find tempranillos tend to be mild, so this one threw me for a loop with its bold oak, dust, and leather flavors. A sparse but intense mood. It reminded me of when I lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas (that’s Cal-i-for-ni-ay or you Easterners). There was no rainfall in these hills through the summer, so by August everything had been dried and bleached the color of straw. Even the air. Outside at midday all you could smell was the dry grasses, the oak trees and the dusty earth. It permeated you until you felt like you were a dense, stoic, silent manzanita tree. This wine absolutely brought me back there, and this is what I imagine it would feel like to stand in the vineyard in Spain as well.

I enjoyed this wine on its own, over conversation with a friend. I did bring out some lovely green grapes that had been chilling in the fridge, and they seemed to balance out the masculinity of the wine. After a few grapes, a sip of wine tasted almost like frankincense–rich and dark and old. Next time I buy a bottle of this (yes there will be a next time), I will consider paring it with an equally bold dinner. Maybe even after dinner with a cigar.

Almagre Crianza Tempranillo
Rioja DOC 2001
12.5% ABV
About $7-8

[Girl21]

Beso de Vino, Seleccion 2007

Beso de Vino, Seleccion 2007How can you turn down a wine with a bull and his dangling testicles on the label? Antonio the Bull, to be precise.

The very-cute label and marketing of the wine makes it a great gift for non-wine-aficionados. Antonio the Bull is a cute doodle and there’s a cute story first thing you read on the front of the bottle. It’s a screw-top cap so there’s no messing about with cork screws or gadgets. And it’s very mild, so as not to shock or offend the palette of someone who likes to mix their jug-wine with a little ginger ale or carbonated water to jazz it up.

Despite the overflowing cuteness (yes, I am a cute aficionado as well but prefer to keep that separate from my wine), this is a nice little bottle of wine. We had the Selección 2007 which is a syrah. It seems like later years are mostly syrah with a 15% garnacha blend, so I’d be interested in trying one of these to see what the motivation for altering it was.

I generally lean towards Spanish wines for every-day occasions like week-day dinners, book club meetings, and parties where I know non-wine people will want to be adventurous and sniff the wine. This Beso de Vino is ideal because it’s a $6-9 bottle of decent wine that is mild with an underlying complexity of flavors. You’re not going to shock anyone with it, but you’ll probably not get bored of it quickly either.

It comes out of Aguaron, Spain, an area that is scattered with little towns of 300 people or less. This is in the province of Zaragoza, which has one of those histories where every other week someone else was conquering the place and swaggering around like they invented shoes. The locals generally went about their agricultural business, creating amazing foods and wines, and making up Jota.

The wine itself is deeply colored, almost purple, with an unremarkable fragrance. At first blush, the flavors are very subtle. You almost put the glass down and ask for something else. But like the quiet girl at work who wears glassed and hardly talks, if you give the wine a moment to relax, you start to feel these lovely hints of personality creep up. There are touches of cocoa and dried fruit, and then sweet olives, and maybe a jumble of spices. For just a moment you feel like you’ve been chewing honeysuckle blossoms. And then it’s gone and you want more.

Although the vineyard is well established, the brand is fairly new, and came to the US only a few years ago. A growing number of distributors are carrying this wine, probably because it has great eye-appeal for displays. But don’t let that put you off. The Selección is the highest rated of their offerings, but you might also find Old Vine Garnacha, Macabeo (a white varietal typically used in many Spanish blends), and Garnacha Rosé (um, Valentine’s Day hint hint).

Beso de Vino, Selección 2007
Spanish Syrah, 13.5% ABV
Usually about $6.00-$9.00
www.besodevino.com

[Girl21]