Although I like to do my share of experimenting in the kitchen, you’ll never hear me claim to be on the cutting edge of cooking or food trends. Even still, I suffer a bit of pique when I finally get around to making something that many others have already blogged about, and it’s so good, and seems like the most obvious thing in the world that I wonder why the heck it took me so long to try it. I hesitated a bit to write about this salad since it’s kind of reaching a saturation point in the foodblogosphere. But then I figured if it’s new to me, it’s likely there are those among you who still haven’t had it, and it really is so worth trying, bandwagon be damned.
Although a current trend, shaved asparagus salad is far from cutting edge- I found a recipe for it in a Chez Panisse cookbook (I believe it was this one), so it dates at least from the ’90s if not before. But it certainly seems to be enjoying a bit of a moment right now. I think my initial pause, if you could call it that, was in the fact that I assumed (wrongly) that raw asparagus would have more of the slightly stinky, bitter edge than cooked asparagus does. I say this as an asparagus lover, mind you, and a fan of most all green vegetables. But I never felt a particular urge to try asparagus uncooked as a salad, any more so than I would, say, cauliflower or okra or green beans.
Until recently, that is, when we were on our third or fourth bunch of asparagus in just about as many days (I went a little nuts when the Michigan asparagus finally arrived, later than usual after the weeks of unseasonably chill weather). We’d had it roasted, steamed, stir fried and grilled, and it was time for something new. I got out my vegetable peeler and got to work.
When I had a bowl piled high with pale green tangles, I dressed it lightly with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. I crumbled ricotta salata on top, along with toasted, chopped pistachios whose hue echoed that of the asparagus ribbons. I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I hoovered the entire dish down in minutes, it was so good. The salad had a sweetness to it that I hadn’t expected, and none of the “raw-tasting” quality I’d subconsciously feared- at least not in a bad way. It tasted raw in the sense of fresh, light and healthy; just what you’d crave on a warm day. I made it again the next day and ate nothing besides that for my supper, polishing off the fat bunch of spears all by myself in what amounted to two oversize servings. Continue reading
I’m absolutely not fronting when I say that, in all that pertains to food and drink, I have the most amazing bunch of friends EVER. In a mere 6 months, we’ve gone from small, loosely organized gatherings, to cider and Bordeaux tastings, to full-on day-long bacon-and-bloody mary smorgasbords that get mentioned in the New York Times. Holla!
The inspiration for Bacon & Bloodies came when I received a package from the generous folks at Nueske’s which included, among other goodies, 3 different types of their bacon! I suggested to the gang that this might be a good excuse to throw a bacon-tasting, and because bacon is sort of a breakfasty morning item, why not throw some bloody marys in the mix? My friend and business partner Molly gamely agreed to host at her lovely Lafayette Park condo.
We sampled several varieties of bacon, including the aforementioned Nueske’s (regular, “uncured”*, and pepper bacon), Niman Ranch (2 kinds, I believe), Benton’s, Link 40, J&M (a local bacon), our friend Kim’s homemade bacon, and probably a couple more that I’m forgetting. Each had their own qualities to recommend them- some smokier, some meatier, some nutty and mild. We didn’t do anything as scientific as to take notes; the bacon was just passed around like hors d’oeuvres as it came off the grill (courtesy of Jarred the grill-meister, who had a couple cast-iron skillets going for a few solid hours).
*Megan, the lovely PR person from Nueske’s, explained to me that although the USDA requires them to label the naturally cured bacon as “uncured”, it actually is a cured product.
Because the party started at 1pm, it ended up being more of a grazing/potluck type thing rather than a brunch. I had little trouble deciding what to bring, based on a Twitter conversation with Todd in which he made fun of Molly and I for our nostalgic enjoyment of Win Schulers’ Bar-Scheeze. I remember loving the stuff as a kid, bright orange and fake as it was; while it certainly pales in comparison to real cheese, it tasted absolutely complex when Velveeta was your benchmark. I decided, naturally, to make a homemade cheese ball in homage to the Scheezeballs of my youth. The funniest thing was that although I used top notch, all natural ingredients, people at the party admitted that they had initially avoided it thinking it was fake cheese! Hehe, more for me.
How to sum up a gorgeous October day in a few words? I’ll let the photos do most of the talking, but some of the highlights were the homemade pickles several people brought for bloody mary garnish, Todd’s pan-fried Cajun chicken livers, a wonderful Georgian cheese tart made by our friend Megan, and the steaks Molly and Jarred busted out around hour 6 of the party, with a phenomenal chimichurri sauce Molly made (she lived in Argentina and I will definitely be getting that recipe to share with you all!). I also made a cinnamon-honey ice cream which I hope to post about soon. Meanwhile, scroll past the remaining photos for a cheese ball that will please even the scheeze-haters.
Win Schuler’s-inspired Scheeze Ball
1 lb good-quality sharp cheddar, shredded
8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature
2 Tbs prepared horseradish, or more to taste
few dashes hot sauce such as Cholula or Tabasco
few dashes Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup chopped pecans (other nuts may be substituted as desired), or a bit more if needed
5 strips bacon, cooked until crispy and crumbled (optional)
milk, as needed
Notes: This recipe is very loosely based on a Paula Deen recipe, but I modified it to taste more like Win Schuler’s. Paula calls for 1/2 cup milk; I didn’t find it necessary to achieve the texture I wanted, but if you feel the mixture is too firm, you can add milk a tablespoon or two at a time as you mix the cheeses. If not using the bacon, you may need more nuts to completely cover the cheese ball. The recipe yields a fairly large cheese ball, but can be halved if necessary.
Directions: Place all ingredients except the nuts and bacon into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix until completely smooth. Place the mixture onto a large piece of plastic wrap and form it into a ball. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.
About 15-20 minutes before you want to finish the cheese ball, prepare the coating: in a dry skillet, warm the nuts and bacon (if using) over low heat to gently toast the nuts and re-crisp the bacon. Transfer to a paper towel and let cool. Put the nuts and bacon in a bowl or pie plate and roll the cheese ball in the mixture, pressing it into the cheese until the ball is fully coated. If not serving immediately, wrap again in a clean piece of plastic wrap and chill up to 24 hours.
I’m getting to this point in my cooking career where I’ve begun to actually create my own recipes based on techniques I’ve learned from cookbooks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great feeling to make a recipe from a cookbook and have it turn out just right (especially if it’s something you’ve never attempted), but it’s a different level of satisfaction to conceive a recipe and have it turn out perfectly the first time. This is so exciting to me- kind of like when I first started writing songs after just playing other people’s for years. I’ve never had much problem making up recipes for simple things like soup, pasta, salad or salad dressing. But this past year I’ve been branching out and creating slightly more advanced recipes based on ideas I have for flavor combinations. One of the first times I did this was for these scrambled eggs with scallops & bacon (which, incidentally, would be a fabulous Valentine’s breakfast!). I did refer to another recipe, kind of like a musician refers to certain chord progressions to write a pop song, but the cool thing for me was that I thought up the idea independently and that it worked! Since then, I’ve written other recipes, each time getting a little more confident and feeling less like I need to consult a cookbook. Some are very simple, like this saffron-citrus risotto or this Chinese-style kale (probably my most popular recipe), while others, like this venison & porcini ragu, are a little more involved.
Last weekend I got together with some girlfriends for Soup Swap Mach II (you can go here to check out last year’s Soup Swap) and after flipping through tons of cookbooks for soup recipes, decided to just make one up. The flavors for this soup were inspired by an onion tart I made last year from the Chocolate & Zucchini cookbook which contained onions, cheese, and the somewhat unexpected element (for French cuisine, anyway) of cumin. I really loved these flavors together and thought they’d be wonderful in a soup. The depth and intensity of this soup was unlike any cheese soup I’ve ever had- I caramelized the onions for almost an hour until they reached a deep amber color, toasted the cumin seeds, and used a pound of cheese. Decadent, perhaps a bit, but this soup reaches a level of savory that makes it all worthwhile. Don’t be put off by its somewhat drab appearance- what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in taste. Serve it with a salad, some fruit (apples or pears would be good) and crusty bread or croutons.
Cheese Soup with Caramelized Onions & Cumin
6 cups diced yellow onions
3 Tbs butter
1 cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc
4-5 Tbs flour
2 cups chicken stock (substitute a mild vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)
2 cups lowfat milk
1 lb shredded cheese such as Cheddar or Emmenthaler (see notes)
1 rounded tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
kosher or sea salt
optional for serving: chopped parsley and croutons
Notes: If you’d like detailed instructions on caramelizing onions, I used the techniques described in this post, using wine to deglaze the pan instead of water. For the cheese, you can use whatever you like- Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Emmenthaler or another hard cheese like Comte… Just make sure whatever you choose is not going to have a funky flavor once melted, as some Swiss-style cheeses are prone to do. I used a mixture of 3/4 Wisconsin white Cheddar and 1/4 Emmenthaler (because I had some in the fridge to use up) but I think you could play with the proportions or try other cheeses. I wouldn’t use anything too strong or too mild unless you plan to mix two cheeses. The Emmenthaler on its own would be lovely, but it’s a bit spendy; the Cheddar is much more affordable.
Directions: Melt 2 Tbs of the butter over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a light-colored bottom so you can monitor the browning process. Most importantly, do NOT use a non-stick pan! When the butter has melted and the pan is hot, add the onions. Sprinkle them generously with salt- this will help to draw out the water, which is the first step to getting them browned. Stir often with a wooden spoon or spatula. Be patient- the caramelization process will take quite a long time (45 minutes to an hour), but it’s not difficult and the flavor is so worth it! Some cooks like to read while they stir… The hotter you keep the heat, the faster things will go, but the more you’ll have to be vigilant with your stirring. Towards the end, you may have to reduce the heat a little to keep things from scorching. After the water has started to cook out, the onions will become a pale brown and an amber-colored residue will gradually begin to build up on the bottom of the pan. When you can no longer scrape the browned part up with your spoon alone, start using the wine to deglaze the pan. To start off, you’ll want to deglaze every 45-60 seconds or so; as the onions cook, the intervals will become shorter. Every time a “crust” accumulates, add a SMALL splash of the wine (no more than a tablespoon; less if possible) and stir and scrape the pan to incorporate the browned bits into the onions. The sugars from the wine will assist the browning process and give you a gorgeous deep amber color.
When you’ve used up all the wine and the onions have become quite dark (see photos), reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 Tbs butter to the pot. When the butter has melted, sprinkle the flour over the onions 1 Tbs at a time, stirring to incorporate and making sure there are no lumps. Cook the floured onions for 2-3 minutes so that the flour loses its “raw” taste.
Increase the heat back to medium high, add the chicken stock, and bring to a low simmer; the soup will thicken slightly. Add the milk; when the soup comes back up to temperature, add the cheese. If you like, you can reserve a little of the cheese for garnish. Stir gently until the cheese has melted. Cover the soup and reduce the heat to low.
Toast the cumin seeds in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat until they are fragrant, being very careful not to burn them. (If they seem at all burned, toss them out and start over; burnt cumin is very bitter and will ruin your soup!) When they have cooled, crush them a bit in a mortar & pestle to release their flavor. Add the cumin to the soup along with the white pepper. Taste for salt, but it likely won’t need any.
If you want to leave your soup as-is, you’re done. If you want a smooth soup, transfer to a blender in 2 batches and puree until very smooth. Alternately (and I think I’d do this next time), puree half the soup and stir it back in- this will give you some body, but you’ll retain the texture of some of the onions.
Ladle into bowls and top with croutons, a little chopped parsley, and a pinch of grated cheese if desired.
As someone who has many interests but never a clear idea of what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, it’s a little hard not to envy Liz Thorpe. In 2002, she quit a corporate job to work behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York for minimum wage, because she decided on a romantic whim that she wanted to work in cheese (in her paraphrased words, the reason was something like “I thought it would sound cool at cocktail parties”). In seven short years her new career has skyrocketed: she is now Vice President of Murray’s, has traveled all over the U.S., advises chefs as reknowned as Thomas Keller on their cheese menus, and just recently appeared on Martha Stewart. Oh, and did I mention she wrote a book?
The Cheese Chronicles is Liz’s self-proclaimed attempt to trace and document the origins and history of cheesemaking in America. The chapters loosely group together various artisanal cheesemakers into somewhat arbitrary categories such as “Pastured”, “Farmers’ Markets” and “Restaurants”. Within each chapter, Liz describes her visits and experiences with the cheesemakers, their back stories, and of course their products. The cheese operations she features run the gamut from tiny creameries who only sell their cheese locally, to larger, nationally distributed companies such as Cypress Grove, and everything in between. Each chapter has several sidebars that are interesting and informative but tend to interrupt the book’s “flow”, requiring the reader to hop around a lot.
If the book’s organization is its biggest flaw (and it’s a minor one at that), its most shining quality is Liz’s ebullient prose. You can tell that, dammit, this is a woman who loves cheese! While her descriptors sometimes verge on wanky (think snooty wine critic), I can forgive her that because a) let’s face it, there are a limited amount of adjectives one can use when describing cheese flavors, and b) her willingness to go out on a limb just goes to show her enthusiasm. Rather than come across as pretentious or stuffy, Liz’s tasting notes convey the depth of her infatuation and continued excitement for her subject.
With its narrow subject matter, you may think The Cheese Chronicles would only be of interest to a very small minority of food-snob cheese fanatic types, but I think anyone who loves good food and who cares about artisanal production will find something of interest in this book. There are lots of “people stories” here too, so it’s a good balance of factual information and storytelling and never gets dull. Cheesemakers, as it turns out, are a colorful bunch.
I picked up The Cheese Chronicles in part because my burgeoning food curiosity has led me to want to explore whether there might be any feasible careers in food. Having worked in restaurants, I know the life of a chef is not for me, but what about producing and selling a food product? One of the great things about this book is that Liz goes into detail of how each and every producer got started. It’s reassuring and inspiring to know that there are success stories from those who had never had a whit of experience as well as from those who had dairy farming in their blood. I did attend a cheesemaking class at a goat farm recently and am investigating the possibilities of home cheesemaking, so who knows? Meanwhile, I’ve got a new list of must-try cheeses to get my hands on. Expensive, yes, but hey, it could end up being “market research”!
Follow Liz on Twitter: twitter/LizCheese