Adventures with cheese: when moldy, stinky and crusty is delicious
Cheese, that wonderful food that we sprinkle, grate, melt, mix, and sometimes peel into strings, is something that almost every American eats almost every day. Cheese is so popular in the American diet that on average Americans consume 23 pounds per year. That may seem like a lot, but several European nations have that number beat by consuming upwards of 52 pounds per person each year. Cheese has found its way into everything from appetizers (think cheese balls) to dessert (think cheesecake) and everything in between.
There are also types of food that we think of as cheese, but which are actually a "cheese food." Cheese foods sometimes have cheese as an ingredient, but they also have other added products such as oils, stabilizers, and colorants. Examples are blocks of Velveeta brand cheese food, American slices (single slices of thin, bright orange squares packaged in plastic sleeves) and the liquid cheese food that is pumped over nachos at the baseball stadium. All of these are smooth, orange, and melt well, but they are not really cheese.
Cheese has a specific definition as a milk-based product that is produced using bacteria and/or a coagulant to form curds. With such a short ingredient list, cheese is a simple food product, but over hundreds of years human creativity has made cheese into a food of almost infinite varieties. Changing from cow's milk to sheep, camel or horse milk makes a different type of cheese. Using raw or pasteurized milk, leaving the cheese fresh or aging it for years, all make a different cheese. Some cheeses are made with a mold that covers the cheese wheel with a fluffy white rind and some cheese is stored in a cave so long that the rind becomes rock hard. Some cheeses are fermented at high temperatures and some are smoked, or aged, or coated with cedar fronds. The flavor profiles are endless. Cheese also lends itself to the idea of terroir, with the flavors being unique to where the product is produced. Even the time of year and the forage the animals eat will influence flavor. Cheese is a wonderful, dynamic product.
To explore and compare a variety of cheeses, a simple cheese board with classic accompaniments of toasted slices of rustic bread, some fruit, and perhaps some walnuts, can be a good place to start. Many grocery stores employ a cheesemonger and their input will be educational and likely to make selection easier. Even better, cheesemongers encourage customers to sample across a broad range of products. A cheese board is a nice way to try cheeses that are complex or unique because their flavors will stand on their own.
Another way to feature cheese with other foods is in a fondue. Lots of ingredients pair great with cheese. The classic, a chunk of hearty bread, works as a nice meal, but steamed vegetables and pre-cooked meats are delicious choices as well.
If strong flavored cheeses that usually show up on a cheese board are not interesting, or fondue is too much trouble, there is a whole class of cheeses known as table cheeses. They are mild-flavored and soft-textured. Almost every culture around the world has this type of cheese as part of their culinary identity. Many are so simple that they can be made at home. Some examples are farmer's cheese, feta, and paneer. Add chunks to salads or drizzle thin slices with olive oil, sprinkle with herbs and serve as a simple snack.
Cheese is such an ancient food that over the centuries various cultures have created so many different types of cheeses that the selection seems almost limitless. Availability of both imported cheese and domestic artisan cheese is at an all-time high. For the curious cheese consumer there are many more interesting choices beyond the basics of nachos and orange-colored macaroni.