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Saving money on cheese. December 1, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I was reading an article from Cook’s Illustrated comparing different brands of artisanal Cheddars. They were trying to see if they could find something that compared to a real English Cheddar, with a bite and a flaky texture, rather than those rubbery blocks of plastic-wrapped Cheddar we’re used to picking up in the dairy aisle. A Cheddar, in other words, that you could eat with crackers, fruit, crudites, or even ploughman’s lunch.

The problem with many of these artisanal Cheddars is that they can cost up to $25 a pound (not including shipping) and are often only available regionally, and not in groceries even where they are regional. (The one exception seemed to be a Cabot super-sharp white Cheddar, which the Cook’s Illustrated staff thought was the best grocery-store Cheddar.) The cheeses have another problem as far as I’m concerned: Many are aged in lard-soaked cloth, a definite no if you’re vegetarian like me.

So what do you do if you’re not up for shelling out $25 for a block of Cheddar and still want a flaky eating Cheddar that tastes great out of hand? I say, buy Asiago instead. Nothing beats an aged Asiago cut straight from the wheel at the cheese stand, but a mellow Asiago from the grocery (I believe the Cook’s Illustrated folks voted for Bel Gioioso the last time they compared grocery-store Asiagos, but please don’t quote me on that) will beat any grocery Cheddar hands down. Its delicious sharp but nutty flavor and flaky (but never crumbly) texture makes it a perfect accompaniment for dried and fresh fruit and nuts. Yum!

My fallbacks here are Black Diamond Cheddar (on the pricey side) and Cracker Barrel Reserve (in the black wrapper), which has great Cheddar flavor but that inescapable rubbery texture. When I was a child, before Kraft bought the Cracker Barrel cheese brand, my grandfather loved to buy his favorite, that day’s equivalent to Cracker Barrel Reserve. It was called Coon Cheese and featured a raccoon on the package, and we would eat it with apples. Ah, the good life! There was an even sharper Cracker Barrel cheese called Rat Trap, which was sold on the store shelves along with all the other Cheddars. My grandfather loved that, too (and it was quite good), but when Kraft bought the brand Rat Trap vanished. I guess their marketing department didn’t approve!

I’ve found that it’s easy enough to save money on Swiss cheese as well. Our favorite Swiss is Jarlsberg, with its smooth texture and rich, nutty flavor. It’s so delicious sliced and served on flatbread crackers with grapes, hazelnuts or almonds, and dried fruit like apricots and cranberries. (I prefer Swiss on crackers, unlike Cheddar, which I enjoy eating out of hand. Maybe it’s because those flatbread crackers, like Rye Crisps, add a satisfying crunch to complement the creaminess of the cheese.) But nobody ever said Jarlsberg was cheap! A chunk of it can eat a chunk out of your grocery budget.

What to do now? Easy. This time, Kraft has come through. I don’t know if it’s because the creamy texture of Swiss neutralizes the plastic packaging, but I’ve found that a block of Cracker Barrel Baby Swiss makes a perfectly good eating Swiss, and you can often find it on sale. You’re not going to end end up eating Jarlsberg, but you will be eating a nice table Swiss to enjoy with crackers, fresh and dried fruit, and nuts. You’ll enhance the experience if you add a little salt—but just a little sprinkle—over the cheese. And you will be saving lots of money while still enjoying Swiss cheese rather than something that tastes like stretchy plastic.

If you have other tips for saving money on cheese—but please, no tips about freezing cheese—please let us know!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Go West, young cheese. December 26, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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if you happen to be a fan of good (or even great) cheese, we recommend that you check out the cheeses made by the Trappist monks of Gethsemani in Kentucky on our earlier blog post, “Christmas Gifts That Count,” by entering the post title in the search bar at upper right. But today, we’d like to recommend another artisanal cheesemaker and purveyor that we happen to love.

These California cheesemakers, Cowgirl Creamery (http://www.cowgirlcreamery.com/), offer a wonderful range of incredible small-batch cheeses, from their signature Mt. Tam and seasonal cheeses to the pungent, award-winning Red Hawk (definitely not for the faint of heart). They also make other local small-batch, artisanal cheeses such as Bellwether Farms’ Carmody available in their stores and through their website.

Let us just say that their cheeses are beyond delicious. We would hesitate to buy them for ourselves, but mercifully, Silence Dogood’s brother and his family have been good enough to gift us with them at Christmas for several years. (They fortunately happen to have an outpost in Washington, DC.) What can we say but YUM?!!!

These cheeses are enough to make anyone who loves cheese simply swoon. If you don’t know Cowgirl Creamery, head to their website and check them out. And when you succumb to the descriprions of their luscious cheeses, don’t forget to order Mt. Tam! Unfortunately, it probably won’t last beyond one snacking session. Forget Pringles or whatever brand it was that trademarked the saying “Nobody can eat just one!” With Mt. Tam, it’s more like “Nobody can stop eating it until it’s gone!” And our friend Ben would certainly say the same about Carmody if Silence weren’t even now wrapping it up and hauling it off, with death threats if I go anywhere near the fridge. Heartaches, nothin’ but heartaches.

Anyway, check out the website. And if you’re ever moved to send me and Silence a gift, well, you have the address…

Cheese, glorious cheese. October 1, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s been a good week here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. First, we’ve finally gotten plenty of rain, several nice showers followed by 8 inches of rain in the past 24 hours! Because we’d had such a prolonged summer drought, even a deluge like that didn’t result in flooding here. And now our little stream, Hawk Run, is flowing again.

That’s nice, you may be thinking, but what does it have to do with cheese? Good point. This week has also been good because our friend Ben’s birthday is coming up, and this week we received three packages of treats from OFB’s brother: a torte, a big box of petits fours (one of OFB’s childhood faves), and a box of cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. We’re thrilled to have the desserts to serve up at OFB’s birthday bash, but we’re especially thrilled with the cheeses.

Cowgirl Creamery is not your ordinary cheesemaking operation, and there’s certainly nothing ordinary about the cheeses they make and import. Our three cheeses, Mahon Reserva, Garroxta, and Ombra, are from Spain. Here’s how the helpful fact sheet that accompanied them described these cheeses:

Mahon Reserva: “Ripened between six months and two years, cow milk Mahon is simultaneously sweet, nutty, sharp, and buttery with a light golden paste and a fiery orange rind.”

Garroxta: “Snow-white and firm with a soft suede-like rind, this aged goat cheese has a moist, yet almost flaky, texture that melts across your tongue. Garroxta is mildly herbal and tangy with the briefest whisper of hazelnuts in the aftertaste.”

Ombra: “This aged sheep milk cheese from Catalunya, Spain is mild, yet full-flavored. The finish is sweet and lingering with hints of caramel.” 

Yum! Which to try first?! We especially liked that the selection included cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk cheeses. And the cheeses arrived in perfect condition and were beautifully packaged. Digging through the wood-shaving “nest” to find the cheeses was as exciting as going on an Easter-egg hunt.

You can find these and many more great cheeses on Cowgirl Creamery’s website, www.cowgirlcreamery.com. They also feature an informative “Library of Cheese” section, fabulous cheese clubs (we must persuade somebody to sign us up!), and, of course, Cowgirl Creamery’s own artisanal cheeses, including Mt. Tam, Red Hawk, Pierce Pt., St. Pat, Wagon Wheel, and their new winter cheese, the wonderfully named Devil’s Gulch (who could resist trying that?!).

You can sign up for their newsletters online or register to take a tour if you’re lucky enough to live in California or be visiting the state. (They also sell cheese at eight CA farmers’ markets, two CA retail shops, and one shop in Washington, DC.) And of course, there are photos and mouthwatering descriptions of their own cheeses and all the cheeses they sell.

One other great thing about the package was that it included a “Care and Handling” fact sheet along with the descriptions of the cheeses and a lovely brochure about the company. We think everyone who enjoys cheese would benefit from Cowgirl Creamery’s advice, so we’ll share some with you here. I quote:

* Store it in the fridge. Cheese is a living, breathing food. The best place to store it is in the vegetable crisper area of the refrigerator where there is some humidity. Just keep the cheese wrapped in paper (the paper it arrives in or wax paper).

* Scrape the surface. Bacteria are essential components of cheese & contribute to its taste. Cheese may develop mold and surface oils when wrapped. Always take a knife & scrape the surface to remove. Some cheeses, like Stilton, have a natural rind with a variety of molds that contribute to its taste. Most rinds are edible but may not always be to your taste. Don’t be afraid to try the rind, but taste the paste or interior first.

* Serve at room temperature. Cheese tastes best at room temperature. Bring it out 2-3 hours before serving. While we are accustomed to refrigerating our cheeses here in the US, in Europe many cheese-loving people keep their cheeses out on the counter for daily eating.

The vegetable crisper, eh? Who’d’a thunk?! As if we could cram cheese in there with all those veggies… But do as they say, not as we do. Thanks, Cowgirl Creamery, for providing superb cheese and superb service. Thanks, OFB’s family, for giving us the chance to try some. And thanks, OFB, for having a birthday to create a cheese-giving occasion!

              ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

The big, bad, bandaged cheese. March 19, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is once again interrupting our week of “lucky posts” here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, much to the outrage of Silence Dogood, who has been waiting (and waiting) to post her piece about lucky and unlucky foods. But this post is actually about food, too. Well, about the language of food. And it’s a very lucky post for us, since it’s our 1,000th post. Thanks to all who read, comment on, and enjoy our posts! We love you.

But returning to the subject of food, our friend Ben was amazed to learn that Wisconsin hosts a World Championship of Cheese. The winners in 79 categories were announced Thursday and made today’s news, chosen from 2,300 entries. Cheesemakers from around the world and from all sorts of enterprises, family farms specializing in artisanal cheeses to cheesemaking “teams” from big companies, came away with awards in their various categories. The 2010 grand championship went to a Swiss Gruyere, just so you know.

But much as our friend Ben loves cheese (unless it’s brilliant orange or smells so bad that it’s practically begging for a hasty burial), it was not the winning cheese that attracted my attention. Instead, it was the language. I was still reeling from a salsa recipe in a recent edition of the New York Times that directed readers to boil paste tomatoes in water until they collapsed. (Silence, who shared that wording with me, thought it was, though graphic, extremely apt. But I confess that I failed to find the concept of collapsing tomatoes especially appetizing, since it reminds me of overripe tomatoes that must be oh-so-gingerly transferred to the compost heap while the hapless gardener prays they don’t burst. Trust me, there’s a reason why people throw rotten tomatoes.) And now cheese.

The first thing that struck me was that the actual name of the venerable contest, which has been held biennially for 28 years, is The World Cheese Championship Cheese Contest.* I have checked this several times, and it appears to really be the correct name. Clearly, the originator of the contest must have worked for the infamous Department of Redundancy Department.

The second thing that struck me is that the New York Times, a paper I generally respect, seems to have picked up the article on the cheese competition from AP (that’s the Associated Press, a newswriting corporation that supplies drop-in articles to news sources around the country). I checked numerous times, and the only thing that came up from the NYT was the AP story. Now, prior to this discovery, our friend Ben had assumed that all content in the New York Times was original. To see a generic food story on a topic that would have made a marvelous original food column was extremely disheartening. I wish the NYT had commissioned Peter Mayle to write it.

Returning to the contest itself, our friend Ben’s favorite cheese, if someone held a gun to my head and asked me to name it, would be a very dry, very sharp Cheddar.** Not that I don’t love a buttery Brie or an aged Asiago or a pungent feta or Gorgonzola or a locally made yogurt cheese with herbs and garlic, or, or, or. But I think Cheddar is genetically hardwired into my tastebuds.

I grew up with an adored grandfather who sliced his own preferred brand of sharp white Cheddar, Coon Cheese, with a pocket knife and ate it with crispy apple slices. (The cheese in question, which came in a distinctive black wrapper featuring a raccoon logo, has long since undergone a makeover, but can still be purchased as Cracker Barrel Aged Reserve Sharp Cheddar, still in the black wrapper but minus the raccoon.) Our friend Ben would add a crusty baguette and butter, a crisp Riesling, and a red bell pepper (cut in strips), with, perhaps, some hot, crunchy radishes on that buttered slab of baguette, and of course a healthy sprinkling of salt. I might even abandon Grandaddy’s beloved brand in favor of Black Diamond or a local aged Cheddar. But I still think the basic idea is comfort food at its finest.

But again returning to the contest, the third thing that struck me was a type of Cheddar that had two categories devoted specifically to it: bandaged Cheddar. Now, perhaps my attention was especially drawn to this because our friend Ben must be the most accident-prone human on earth. As I type, I have an inextractable piece of asphalt roofing tile lodged under my thumbnail, and am anxiously watching for signs of gangrene. Bandaged Is Us. But more to the point, even as a cheese, and especially Cheddar cheese, lover, our friend Ben has never before heard of bandaged Cheddar. Whazzat?!!

Rushing over to Wikipedia, I found the following: “Bandaged Cheddar is a raw cows [sic] milk cheese made in California. The cheese is aged for 16 months in a gauzy cheese cloth that reminds one of a bandage… Bandaged Cheddar tends to be dark straw in color on the inside and has a nutty, grassy aroma and taste.”

Not being a cow, a dark straw color and grassy aroma and taste don’t sound particularly appetizing to our friend Ben, but I thought that further research was called for. Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar from Modesto, California, which won the prestigious British Wyke Farms Trophy for “Extra Mature*** Traditional Cheddar” in 2007, the first time the award had ever gone to a Cheddar cheese not produced in England, has this to say about their cheese: “[It] is a true American farmstead cheddar [sic] and sings with a luxurious balance of buttery, grassy, and savory flavors.”

Well, geez. That grassy thing remains a bit too bovine for my taste. But buttery and savory sound very good. You can try it for yourself at www.artisanalcheese.com, or check out the competition: The winners of the 2010 bandaged Cheddar competition were, in the “Bandaged Cheddar, Mild to Medium” category, Kiel Cheesemakers, Land O’Lakes Inc., Kiel, Wisconsin, and in the “Bandaged Cheddar, Sharp to Aged” category, Dane Huebner, Flat Creek Lodge, Swainsboro, Georgia, in case you’re wondering.

Meanwhile, our friend Ben is going off to find a bandage to wrap up my remaining functional thumb, which was just lacerated by a sheet of metal screening. And then maybe I’ll head for some Aged Reserve Cheddar to enjoy with my baguette, butter, salt, and radishes…

* Mercifully, I’ve now found a few websites that simply list it as “The World Championship Cheese Contest.” Whew.

** Why are cheeses like Cheddar capped when others like feta aren’t, you ask? It’s all a question of place or person. Cheddar is the actual place name of a village in Somerset, England. That’s also why cheeses like Swiss, Brie, Camembert, Gouda, Gorgonzola, Havarti, American and Asiago are capped. (Ditto for Monterey as in Monterey Jack, both names capped since Jack is a person’s name, which is also why Cooper cheese is capped.) Generic cheeses, like blue cheese, sharp cheese, farmers’ cheese, cottage cheese, and cream cheese, aren’t capped because they don’t refer to place names or people’s names. Just FYI.

*** Uh, “extra mature”? This ranks right up there with “extra virgin.”