No Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off, 2011

No Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-offAs with most epic battles, it all started with two guys kicking dirt on each other. Somehow I got stuck in the middle, and innocent (okay, not so innocent) bystander.

I posted a link to a macaroni and cheese recipe to a friend on Google+ (the geeky version of Facebook). There was a bit of debate regarding the need for bacon, and amazement that Paula Deen’s recipe didn’t include mayonnaise (everything else she makes does). The Man got involved, being a back seat driver to my online conversation, and offering the opinion that his version was the best ever, end of story. That was the equivalent of a woman asking her friend to hold her purse and her earrings. The gloves were off.

Seeking further advice on the topic, I switched to Facebook and invited my foodie friends to weigh in on mac & cheese. I was surprised that everyone seemed to have the opinion that their mac & cheese was better than anyone else’s, and IT WAS ON!

Apparently there are very strong feelings about a dish that is basically noodles and cheese and a few other things. Screw politics and religion. Bring up mac & cheese among foodies and you’re going to have an argument on your hands. I suppose it’s because this is one of the most popular comfort foods in the US.

There are variations of macaroni and cheese around the world, including Switzerland (Älplermagronen, which includes potatoes), and the Caribbean (called macaroni pie). Even the French have a version, although they tend towards a traditional mornay sauce rather than our wacky cracky American cheesiness. And as always, the Italians take credit for inventing the whole concept.

Even among our friends, there was a vocal disagreement about what ‘real’ mac & cheese was. What shape pasta? What types of cheese? How many extra ingredients could go in before it was no longer mac & cheese? So many people were in on the pasta scuffle, we had to formalize the date and time, and fortunately friends at Loosey’s arranged for us to use the bar for neutral ground. The date was set for October 9th. A month of trash-talking, spying, comparing cheeses, and testing recipes gave way to the No-Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off.

Seventeen versions of macaroni and cheese arrived to fight it out. There were a few ‘classic’ styles, but the rest were an amazing variety of flavors and ingredients, proving it’s not just cheese and noodles. Once the judges had waded through them all and gone into a back room to deliberate (and possibly throw up from that much mac & cheese), they arrived at winners for the veggie category and the carnivore category. And the best-in-show overall crown went to a version that incorporated lobster bisque into the cheesiness.

Of course the feeding frenzy after the judges were done was just as much fun. Competitors and bystanders devoured the entries, sharing foodie notes, drinking beer, and slowly clogging their arteries in a convivial atmosphere. Eventually everyone had to sit down or go home for a nap. That’s a lot of carbs and dairy.

The casserole dishes were barely being scraped clean when conversation turned to the next cook-off. The what? Yep, the general populace wanted another food fight. Sometime around the holidays. So stay tuned to see what the next competition is about. I’m thinking pie. I like pie.

Many thanks to Loosey’s for becoming our Mac & Cheese Thunderdome. 🙂

[Girl21]

Stuffed Mushrooms, Easy Appetizer

Easy Stuffed Mushrooms

There’s that classic movie moment where a guy is shooting a gun and runs out of bullets. He looks at the gun as it goes ‘click’, and then proceeds to throw it at the guys rushing him. And we all know that is a stupid move. That is me with these stuffed mushrooms.

When The Man gets home from work late and he’s starving, I try to have something for him to snack on if dinner isn’t completely ready. I can hear his stomach rumble as he casually saunters into the kitchen under the guise of seeing what’s for dinner, his eye on the tortilla chips. I usually pull the mushrooms out of the oven and wave them at him with the same unrealistic hope as the guy that throws his gun when he runs out of ammo. It’s more nutritious than chips, and it keeps him busy trying to eat something delicious but super hot.

The fun thing about these mushrooms is that you can get creative and change the stuffing depending on what you have on hand. And you can make as many or as few as you need. And they are super easy to prepare.

I use baby bella mushrooms (immature portobello), but you could get away with any of the small capped mushrooms that have a thicker flesh and cup shape. Clean them and gently remove the stem. Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil into a baking dish, and sprinkle that with garlic powder, Italian seasonings, and black pepper. Carefully set the mushrooms top down in the oil so they are nestled together, then salt and pepper them again. I like to put a few drops of lemon juice into each cap, a sprinkle of more Italian seasonings, then a small chunk or sliver of fresh garlic.

If you have the pre-crumbled blue cheese, you can put a few good size chunks of soft cheese into each cap, or any kind of softer cheese would work nicely. Then on top of each little cup, lay a slice of melty cheese just to generally cover the top. Sharp cheddar is a standard, but if I have a gouda, I like that best. A little more garlic powder and pepper on top of the cheese, and maybe a dusting of parmigiana or pecorino. Pop that into a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and the caps look a bit wrinkled from the moisture baking off. Let them cool before tossing them at the hungry people rushing you for dinner.

Mushrooms are a good source of protein, as well as a few other vitamins and minerals. And then when you add good stuff like garlic, you’re practically a health-food nut when you eat these. (Keep telling yourself that!) Plus these are fast and easy but look great as an appetizer or finger food.

Instead of lemon juice and garlic, try a base of tomato sauce (great if you’re already making pasta for dinner), pesto, or even a touch of ginger and thinly sliced apple (omitting the Italian seasonings and garlic for more pepper and lemon juice). I’ve put in thinly sliced fresh spinach, olives, fresh basil, caramelized onions, or even a few drops of hot sauce or mustard depending on the flavors of the main dinner menu. And of course you can play with the cheese options. Because cheese is always welcome.

They do store and re-heat well but are best served fresh out of the oven to a hungry audience. Have a peak in the package when you’re buying them so you don’t get the huge ones that will cause some poor sod to look like a trout while trying to eat the whole thing though.

[Girl21]

Chèvre, a.k.a. Goat Cheese

Chevre, aka Goat Cheese

Leave it to the Welsh. Their version of goat cheese is called Pantysgawn. (Say it out loud if you have to.)

Chèvre is goat milk cheese. Many cultures have their own version of goats cheese because, let’s face it, humans and goats go back a long time. Because of the many different ways of turning the milk to cheese, there are many variations in consistency and flavor. Thus you have the above Welsh version of the cheese. Another cousin which is quite popular is feta, a Greek combination of goat and sheep milk made into a dense block.

Goat milk is much more popular worldwide than cows milk because it’s more accessible and keeps longer without refrigeration. It’s also closer to human milk than cow milk is, so easier to digest for children, the ill, and the elderly. And those of you with lactose intolerance make note of this because you’ll be much better off if you fall off the wagon with goat or sheep (milk products, I mean).

If the accent over the e didn’t give it away, chèvre is the French version of fresh goat cheese. It’s soft and bright white like cream cheese, but dry like a very smooth ricotta. Except for the mild furry, barnyard flavor that is the cornerstone of any goat cheese flavor curve, chèvre is quite mild. It is rich without being buttery, and has a fresh, grassy flavor profile that makes it ideal for including with other delicious foods rather than on its own. It is a pacifist in the cheese family. It just wants everyone to get along.

A favorite way to elevate chèvre is to mix it with seasonings and spread it on some lovely rosemary bread from Uppercrust. It’s handy that you can get just the right size slab of chèvre at Uppercrust (in fact you can get it pre-seasoned, but we prefer our version because it has so much flavor). It’s best to make this a few hours before you intend to use it so it can marinate and release the flavors. Take a lush slab of the chèvre (about 8 oz. give or take), and add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of a general Italian seasonings. And the key is at least four cloves of fresh garlic, pressed. Simply stir to combine well and refrigerate for a few hours.

Instead of just slathering it on bread with the finesse of a fifteen-year-old learning how to use cologne, try slicing the rosemary bread pretty thin and toasting it in the oven for a few minutes before spreading the chèvre on the warm bread. Try adding some marinated asparagus or very thinly sliced gouda.

You can also slice chèvre and bake it on the bread, with a sprinkling of oil and seasonings. It can be tricky since goat cheese doesn’t melt much, but it does get toasty and dry. Try it fresh and plain on a spinach walnut salad, or even with pears and apples. It compliments foods with mild but persistent flavors without overwhelming them.

It’s a lot of fun to experiment with chèvre as an alternative to cows milk cheeses. French chèvre is somewhat easy to find and is available under many names because there are many regionally protected varieties. Besides feta from Greek tradition, you could find goat cheese from several other origins such as Norway, China, and Australia… and of course the Welsh always have Pantysgawn.

[Girl21]

Vegetable Risotto, A Labor of Love

So much of the cooking I do is rushed, at the end of the day, tired, almost in a panic. A mad attempt to get a balanced meal together in the least amount of time. And it can’t taste too bad or be similar to anything else I’ve made in a week or so. This is the curse of two workaholic foodies living together.

It’s a very rare occasion I have the luxury of time and energy to focus on cooking. I fantasize about this while at work or rushing around on errands in the steaming sauna that is Florida. Not a mojito on the beach. Not a massage at an alpine resort. A few hours in my kitchen to actually cook at a normal pace. It is my meditation time. My yoga.

I recently committed to learning how to make risotto well and properly. The Man had been talking about it for weeks on end, and I his craving set off my craving. The style I am most drawn too includes a lot of ingredients and is filled with vegetables. It appeals to my fascination with one-pot meals. It’s not difficult, but it’s time consuming.

There are three stages of this, and it took me about two and a half hours last time I made it (two and a half lovely hours of peaceful meditation in my kitchen). Stage one is the broth. Stage two is the cutting and prepping of the ingredients. And stage three is cooking the rice.

Broth

You’re going to need about 4 cups of broth. If you don’t feel up to something fancy, you’re welcome to simply start with the prepackaged veggie bullion cubes. I usually add veggies to this broth, in a small pot on a back burner (it will simmer gently until you start making the rice, so keep it low and active).

Chop into big chunks an add to the broth: 1 big carrot, 3-4 stalks of celery, 1/2 onion, 3 cloves of minced or pressed garlic. I also add 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, black pepper, a touch of dried red pepper flakes, and a tablespoon of olive oil. Let this simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the large veggie chunks and leave on very low heat while you start on the rice.

Prepping Ingredients

There’s a lot of cutting, peeling, and dicing involved here. I like to do this all at once and then separate the ingredients by when they’ll be needed so I don’t get my timing off. The Man says this is my German side coming out–the need to be organized and punctual in the kitchen. I hate when I’m still dicing something while something on the stove is swiftly overcooking. So I’m listing the ingredients here and grouping them by when they need to go into your big sauce pan.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup rice (tradition calls for arborio, but valencia is much more affordable)
8 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup vermouth
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 cup mushrooms (baby bella preferred)

4 cups broth (from above)

1 cup kale, finely chopped into ribbons (about three big leaves, spine removed)
2 cup broccoli florets
1 large carrot, chopped small

1/3 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/3 cup grated hard cheese (pecarino romano suggested)
1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Cooking the Risotto

It seems so much more complicated than it actually is. I find it very relaxing if I’ve prepared all of the ingredients already, since it’s just a long process of being here now. Keep your eye on how it looks and you’ll be fine. Once you’ve done it the first time, you won’t even need the instructions to the recipe. Just the list of ingredients.

You’ll need a large sauce pan with a heavy bottom, or a wide, deep frying pan. (I adore my 12″ Green Pan for this. We got our single pan at Target to try out the new greener non-stick surface, and it’s been great to work with.) Heat up the oil, and toss in the onions and salt over a medium heat. Cover and stir occasionally until the onions are glassy but not browning yet. Then you’ll add in the rice, garlic and pepper. Stir this occasionally also until it is well mixed up and starts to get a little toasty brown color on the garlic and onions, but not the rice.

Pour in the vermouth (yes, you can use regular white wine if you like, but vermouth has a slightly earthier flavor to it usually), and the celery and mushrooms. You’ll want to stir this up until the moisture is evenly blended throughout. Lower the heat to a medium-low heat, and keep the rice stirring every few minutes until the liquid is cooked off. You’ll see the rice is starting to get a bit gummy.

Once your vermouth has cooked off, you’re going to pour a little more than 1 cup of the broth you made into your pan and stir it into the rice. Cover it and stir every few minutes until the liquid is absorbed. It’s going to be sticky now. Pour in another cup or more of the broth, and repeat the cover/stir treatment until the liquid has been absorbed again. This should take about 15 or 20 minutes each time.

Now one last time, pour the last of the broth (should be about a cup and a half) into the rice and stir. But before you cover it this time, cover the rice with the kale, broccoli and carrot. Now put the lid on and the veggies steam for a few minutes before stirring them into the rice and broth. You could use practically any veggies for this as long as they aren’t too soggy (like tomatoes), and are cut so they cook uniformly. There’s nothing like raw potatoes mixed with mushy broccoli, so chop your veggies with cooking speed in mind.

As soon as the last of the broth is being absorbed, and your green veggies look bright and just perfectly crunchy/cooked, turn off the burner and add in the finely chopped parsley and the cheese. Stir it all up and cover to give the cheese a minute to get friendly with the rice. Usually you would just use a hard cheese for this, like parmigiana or romano. (We used some Spanish roncal sheeps cheese, which is strong and delicious in risotto.) I think using just a little softer cheese adds a touch of richness and flavor, so I like to include feta or gorganzola as well. But you can easily leave this off. I don’t know why you would, but you could.

Risotto is a great side dish, but adding the veggies like this makes it a meal in itself. You could bring this to a pot luck dinner. Reheat it for leftovers. Or just stand there with a few friends and forks and eat the whole thing while talking in the kitchen. It pairs perfectly with wine, but choose a simple table red rather than something with a big flavor that will compete for attention. We also like to make a delicious spritzer of limeade, ginger ale, fresh mint, and muddled berries (from frozen) that goes well with this at dinner parties. With or without vodka, of course.

[Girl21]

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]

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]

Finger Meals Fast

Only Martha Stewart and other aliens are always prepared for guests. The rest of us get get caught off guard by last minute guests or find ourselves feeling inadequate in the kitchen. If you live close to a decent grocery store, you can always come up with a classy spread after a ten minute dash around the deli and produce sections.

I have to say I’m quite practiced at this by now. I host a book club at my house (much to The Man’s amusement on those nights he’s home to witness the ladies’ gathering) and twice a month have to rush through the store on the way home from the office. A couple sorts of cheese, some savory crunchy things, some seasonal fruits and veggies, and some sweet tidbits… you’re gold.

Keep in mind the crowd you’re entertaining when choosing you yummy little bits and pieces. People used to potato chips and orange cheddar cheese are just not going to be game to try the Roaring Forties blue cheese. On the other hand, fresh fruit is usually a good option for just about any group. And of course you’re limited by your local grocery store.

We’re lucky enough to live near a Publix and Ward’s. We went to Upstate New York last summer and I was introduced to Wegmans, so my world has never been quite the same. Never the less, I shop at Publix happily because you can get a decent selection of fresh deli and bakery things. Plus the added Greenwise sections mean some good healthfood options. And of course I like Ward’s because it’s a locally owned business that has great local produce, super-healthfood sections, and a fun selection of wine and beer (that I can spend too much time perusing). And they stock the best coffee in town, Sweetwater Organic Coffee.

Anyhow, two things to keep in mind in these situations, SIMPLE and FRESH. Wait … three things… YUMMY! For a base, try getting a loaf of herb bread or a whole grain baton (yes, the long bread), which you can slice up and pop in the oven. Try a jar of pre-made pesto to slather on the bread first, topped with some deli sliced gouda and crumbled gorganzola. Or just sprinkle the slices with salt, pepper, italian herbs, and garlic powered, then cheese. Just toast them in the oven long enough to melt the cheese and let some corners get a bit golden. A box of Triscuits or some other whole grain crackers are also good if you’re in a hurry or want a variety.

For savories, if you have an olive bar, absolutely go a little wild. Even toss in some garlic stuffed and blue cheese stuffed options with the usual oil cured and kalamata. If you can find some Castelvetrano Sicilian olives, these bright green beauties are delish. Or splash out on a few nice jars of olives off the shelf. Try a jar of asparagus and artichoke hearts for a little texture.

Fruits and veggies are great balance, and besides a little cutting and arranging, are very little work. I usually go for some Granny Smith apples and whatever is in season… peaches, cherries, grapes, or pears. And for veggies it’s a no-brainer to grab some carrots (always organic carrots!), celery, cauliflower, broccoli, and maybe a pretty sweet pepper or two. I’m biased against tomatoes, but feel free to get some little cherry or grape tomatoes if you see some nice ones.

I left cheese for last because it’s the best place to go completely berserk. I could go on and on about cheese, but there are some safe bets to please the most people. Cheddar–no not the orange variety–is possibly the most obvious choice because you can easily chop it into chunks, it has a good texture, and its sharp but not overpowering flavor can pair with just about anything on the table (go for the sharpest version you can find… we like the Racer’s Edge Cabot since you can find it easily). I also usually grab a block of swiss if I can find it (I like Amish swiss) or even some Mexican queso fresco.

If you’re feeling adventursome, try a round of brie (or even goat brie). Keep the brie simple by unwrapping it, slicing the rind off the top and putting it in a shallow glass or ceramic oven-safe dish, drizzling it with olive oil and baking it at 350 for ten minutes. [In the above picture we had some cheese curds, and a super yum Humbolt Fog goat cheese.]

Notice I didn’t go on about wine or other drinks here. That’s pages of rambling. For my book club ladies I usually go for a mild red wine, maybe a chard if I’m looking to change it up a bit. I love a nice tempranillo in the $7-10 range. Or my standard seems to be a bottle of Our Daily Red (fantastic at about $7 a bottle). Basically you want to go for something the most people will be comfortable drinking, and something you like.

A little chopping and slicing, and some attention to arranging the goodies, and you can set up a nice little spread in less than 30 minutes. It’s fresh food that’s also kind of healthy, and it’s fun and easy to eat while talking and drinking. And of course it’s tasty!

[Girl21]