Issue 30

The Power of Cheese

The Power of Cheese

I was raised on mild Cheddar cheese. It was omni-present. On burgers, sandwiches, nachos, salads, on damn near every meal. Now, there’s really nothing wrong with mild cheddar. It’s the Swiss army knife of cheeses. You can use it anywhere. And, until recently, there were few other cheeses to pick from at the local grocery store. Sure, you could find a block of Swiss or Monterey jack, but cheddar was the ruler of them all.

Times have, inevitably and dramatically, changed. Most grocery stores now offer a wide array of interesting cheeses. You’ll find your brie, chevre, blues and more. There are blocks of parmeggiano, Romano and asiago. Smoked and flavored farm cheeses are abundant. Overall, it’s a great time to be a cheese lover in America. The only problem now is navigating this wonderful world of artisan fromage. This large array can be not only confusing but downright intimidating.

My goal here is to provide a bit of a primer. An overview, if you will, of the grocery store cheese aisle. Before we get down to this, one caveat: As much as I do love the aforementioned selection, these cheeses are pre-cut and wrapped. Most are produced and pasteurized by large dairies. If you really want top-of-line cheese, you should find a local cheese shop or look online (I use The good stuff isn’t cut from the large blocks and wrapped until you order it. And yes, this does make a difference. But that is a story for another time.

For now, let’s take a walk through that grocery store cheese section. Here’s a very broad list of the most often stocked types: Cheddar, Swiss, Gouda, Farm Cheeses, Blue, Hard, Chevre and Mozzarella. (note: no these are not traditional varietals, remember, this is but a primer)

Cheddars – While cheddar can be laughably bland, there is a world of flavor within the genre. The Tillamook extra sharp and smoked varieties are great crowd pleasers. My personal favorite is Irish Cheddar. Its white (the traditional orange is an American invention) and quite hard, almost crumbly. Its sharp, strong flavor is unique and tasty.

Swiss – Emmanthaler is a well-known Swiss varietals. Semi-soft with a lively but not sharp flavor, it is silky smooth and another sure fire crowd pleaser.

Gouda – Very soft and smooth, available most commonly smoked or traditional. Great for snacking or melting (heavenly on a turkey sandwich). I love the smoked types. The smoke works wonders with the subtle Gouda flavor.

Farm Cheeses – Usually locally produced and flavored with herbs, garlic, horseradish etc. These are softer than cheddars. I’ve found most of the flavors overwhelm the cheese itself. Some can be great, but too often, I’ve been un-impressed.

Hard Cheeses – There are three popular types – parmesan, asiago and Romano. This class includes the finest, most versatile cheese on the planet. The undisputed king of them all, Parmigiano-Reggiano. Now, in the US anyone can produce and sell “parmesan”. We’ve all seen the green cans of grated “parmesan”. The less said about those cans, the better. There is but one Parmigiano-Reggiano. Produced only in specific regions of Italy under strict guidelines, there is little reason to accept anything but. I use the words “little reason”, because this stuff is not cheap. But a block can last a long time in your fridge. If you take only one thing out of this article, I hope it is this. No other parm can compete. Not even close. On pasta, meats, veggies, in sauces, by itself, there is virtually no food that doesn’t work. Spend the extra dollars. You will not be disappointed.

The asiagos and Romano’s are slightly stronger in flavor. The Romano is noticeable saltier. Try a little of either one on a pasta primavera. Any one of these cheeses will compliment most foods and add a nice touch of flavor.

Chevre – Chevre refers to goat cheese (it’s the French word for goat). Available in many forms, from very soft to hard. The most common type is soft and spreadable. I put some type of soft chevre on every cheese plate I prepare. Its simple yet sublime flavor is appealing to virtually everyone. It’s also a nice palette cleanser when exploring some of the other, more pungent varieties. Available with all sorts of spices and blends, I prefer the simple plain ones. One note: a few extra bucks will pay off nicely. The simplicity of chevre can be downright bland in the cheapest brands.

Mozzarella – You don’t see many cheeses packed in water. Just one, in fact, that I know of, Buffalo Mozzarella. Except for string cheese (ahhh… memories of childhood), the dry stuff is completely uninteresting. Made from the milk of water buffalo, this cheese is soft and lightly flavored. More interesting here is the texture. It is an essential ingredient in a caprese salad. Slices of fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozz and fresh basil topped with extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of balsamic. Simple cuisine gets no better.

Brie – A soft cheese with a white mold rind. They can range from lightly flavored to crazy pungent. Different types can be aged from just a few months to a year. Any yes, you are supposed to eat the rind. You’ll get a lot of flavor from that thin bit of mold. It’s usually served in an entire wheel. While you may be tempted to pick out the gooey middle and leave the ends behind, which is considered to be a significant breach of cheese etiquette.

Blues – Blue cheese can be downright scary to many people. Moldy and pungent, the blues pack a powerful aroma. Some of the funkier varieties are not for beginners. Maytag blue is produced right here in the US. It’s a great middle of the road blue. Serve it simply with a slice of granny smith apple, in pasta or on a burger. Gorgonzola and cambozola are other readily available and wonderful tasting types. I could devote an entire article (or more) to the wonderous, funky world that is blue cheese. Simply put, man up and try ‘em.

While we’ve but scratched the surface here, I hope this will help de-mystify artisan cheeses. There is arguably as much complexity and variety in cheese as there is in wines. You can approach them in much the same way. Do some research, invite some friends over and serve six, or eight different types. Talk about them. And above all, Enjoy!

Matt Biggins

Matt Biggins

Matt Biggins may have discovered his love for cheeses working the rice paddies in western China. He could have learned to write during his stay on MIR. If so, he's certainly happy to be living comfortably in the US and working with FSM Omaha.

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