The following confession may come as a surprise from someone who makes her living as a food stylist and writer: I’m slightly intimidated by the cheese counter.
Or more accurately, I’m intimidated by the wealth of cheese behind said counter. I’ve tangled with homemade tagliatelle and faced off with offal, but when it comes to cooking with cheese, I find myself overwhelmed by the possibilities. On top of that, good cheese isn’t cheap, so even when I cook with a small wedge, I’d like to be able to anticipate how it will behave.
We all know how to crumble a blue on greens or shave Parmesan over pasta, but my goal was to integrate cheese into my daily cooking more often. For help, I turned to my friend Liz Thorpe, a New York cheesemonger and the author of the 2009 book “The Cheese Chronicles.”
Liz divides cheeses into six families – fresh, bloomy rind, washed rind, pressed, cooked and blue – each with its own appearance, aroma, flavor and texture. (There is no set number of families, and cheesemongers may define them slightly differently.) Once you absorb the basics of the six families, you can use cheeses from the same family interchangeably in a recipe with good results.
I decided to explore which ones work for smearing versus grating or shaving, melting and crumbling.
Cheeses like Brie, from the bloomy rind family (so-called because of the soft mold or yeast rind that “blooms” on the cheeses’ exterior), are ideal for smearing. They are also the best for emulsions, like salad dressings or dips, since the flavorful rind won’t gum up the final silken texture.
Liz and I decided to update the standard, ubiquitous blue cheese salad dressing to give it a more luscious consistency and a softer, milkier flavor, since I wanted to drizzle it over a bed of baby arugula, fresh figs and crisped prosciutto. She suggested the northern Italian three-milk La Tur, a cheese most commonly reserved for a special-occasion cheeseboard. It’s delicate enough not to overwhelm the figs, but with more than a mouthful of butter.
Firm pressed cheeses are good for grating or shaving, but you don’t have to limit them to garnishes. Liz chose a young Tuscan pecorino that I layered in gossamer-thin slices with tender, slightly charred ribbons of eggplant, zucchini and leeks. The result was a rustic room-temperature torte that preserved the fatty richness of the cheese. A manchego or a Pyrenees tomme would have worked just as well.
There are a lot of misconceptions about which cheeses melt well, like the notion that cheddar is a good melter. In fact, cheddar’s higher acidity (the reason for its so-called “sharp” flavor) means that it yields oily nubbins rather than the gooey smoothness we all desire. And sheep’s milk cheese may seem as if it might be good for melting, thanks to its semisoft or firm texture, but with twice the fat of cow or goat milk, it softens into a greasy slab when exposed to heat.
But the cooked, pressed cheeses originating in the mountains of Europe, like Gruyere or fontina Val d’Aosta, are great melters, as are the New World cheeses they’ve inspired, like Spring Brook Tarentaise and Consider Bardwell Pawlet. With melting on our minds, we turned to crostini, topping crusty bread with earthy, thyme-roasted wild mushrooms. All of these cheeses proved to be the perfect foil.
Then there are the fresh cheeses, often crumbled on salads. We decided to replace the cream in a sweet and spicy tomato bisque with a classic crumbler like Vermont Creamery’s fresh goat cheese. Mere topping no more, the cheese was swirled into the bisque just before serving, with the hope that it would enrich the soup while preserving the occasional lemony crumb. Ta-da, it worked.
So go and use cheese with confidence.
Arugula salad with La Tur dressing
Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 to 4 slices prosciutto di Parma
4 ounces La Tur cheese at room temperature
3 tablespoons buttermilk
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon champagne vinegar
Fine sea salt
One 7-ounce package baby arugula
6 to 8 fresh figs, quartered
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place prosciutto on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook until crisp, turning once, about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a blender, combine La Tur, buttermilk, olive oil, vinegar and 2 tablespoons water and purée until very smooth. Add a bit more water if needed to reach a pourable consistency. Season to taste with salt.
3. Mound the arugula on 4 salad plates. Divide figs and prosciutto evenly among plates and drizzle with dressing.