Cheese, glorious cheese! It’s “milk’s leap toward immortality,” according to writer Clifton Fadiman. With earliest known origins that date back to 5500 B.C., cheese has long been a source of protein in the human diet. Indeed, when eaten alongside fruits and vegetables, cheese is often touted as a “near-perfect food” for providing a concentration of healthy fats, protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Numerous independent studies have purported the health benefits of eating cheese. Strengthening bones and cartilage, assisting in weight loss, decreasing chances of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, preventing tooth decay, potentially preventing liver cancer, elongating life expectancy and benefiting intelligence are a handful of the findings from research into moderate consumption of various types of cheeses (noting that processed cheeses do not fall in this category). And for those potentially plagued by lactose intolerance, fear not. The process of making cheese involves converting the milk sugars (or lactose) into lactic acid. While some fresh or younger cheeses may retain some lactose, most aged cheeses have little—if any—lactose present at all. Stick with the firm to hard varietals. The moral of the story? Most of us, if we want, can have our cheese and eat it, too.
But what is truly magical about cheese is that a few simple ingredients of milk, salt and cultures can be combined to create diverse styles of cheese, resulting in an incredible array of flavors. The flavor of the milk (and what it will later develop in the cheese) is most influenced by the animal species, breed, diet and seasonality. From there, flavors in cheese are a result of the style of cheese—that is, the recipe, cultures, any additions (like herbs) and the degree of affinage (or cheese maturation) used to develop those flavors. To exemplify the flavor complexity in one wheel of cheese, one need look no further than Comté, a traditional French mountain cheese in which over 83 descriptors have been identified in the following six families: spicy, fruity, vegetal, roasted, lactic and animal. If we think of eating as the discovery and enjoyment of flavors (beyond simply feeding our bodies), then the vast array of textures and flavors that cheese provides is limitless.
In meal preparation, cheese can be used as a principal ingredient to serve as the main protein and add umami and a depth of flavor, like in a classic grilled cheese or cheese soufflé. Alternatively, cheese is often used as a garnish to provide salt and acid, like goat cheese on a salad or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on pasta. When choosing a cheese for a recipe, consider its intended purpose: Do you want to melt, grate, crumble, grill, fry, marinate or simply plate it? Keep in mind that the longer a cheese has aged, the less moisture it retains, which decreases the melt factor. Whether used as the hero of the dish or a supporting character, incorporating cheese into a recipe adds both health and flavor benefits.
While I admit that I opened a cheese and pairings shop because I wanted food I could put out on a table and eat (with little preparation), I do often bring cheese home to cook with. (Although it’s usually consumed on the ride home, whether by me or ravenous toddlers.) I reached out to our team of Antonelli’s cheesemongers, who also eat, live and love cheese most hours of the day, to ask for some of their favorite recipes. (Yes, we cheesemongers still eat cheese outside of work and no, we don’t get sick of it!) Too often folks think of cheese as only suitable for heavy, hearty cheese dishes to serve in the fall and winter months, like a gooey melted raclette scraped onto a plate of potatoes, cured meats and cornichon pickles. And while I’ll eat that year-round, we also love celebrating the spring with some of our Hill Country’s first seasonal goat cheeses and other fresh cheeses. Here’s our monger-choice lineup for a nice spring brunch. Long live the cheese!
By Kendall Antonelli • Photography by Casey Woods