Cheese for Dinner

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It’s the season for Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, a gooey, buttery round of cheese from the Jura region of France. It’s made in the winter months when the cows come down from the high mountain pastures and don’t produce as much milk. During the spring and summer the milk is used to make Comte cheese but with the decrease in production volume in winter, the unpasteurised milk goes into the delicious washed rind wonder Vacherin.

I was introduced to this cheese by Jared Wybrow at the London Cheesemongers, where it was sitting in the midst of a table laden with cheeses for a progressive tasting. It looked intriguing – all wrinkly and white in it’s wooden box. The box is made from thin strips of spruce, which contributes a subtle piney flavor to the cheese, by the way.

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The exterior is squidgy and, when barely pushed with a spoon, reveals a lovely, golden paste that is fondue-like in texture. My first taste at London Cheesemongers was so luscious and captivating that I had to buy one to bring home.

IMG_3532It made for an indulgent dinner when paired with green salad, bread, crackers and a variety of dried and fresh fruit. That is how I enjoyed mine and I highly recommend it to you. I heated it briefly in the oven in it’s box, which made the inside even more delightfully runny.

IMG_3535Vacherin Mont D’or is the perfect cheese for autumnal and holiday celebrations. It partners wonderfully with sparkling and red wine, cider and seasonal craft beer and would be a worthy addition to a cheese board for Thanksgiving or the December holidays.

So put it down on your shopping list. If you are in London, by all means go visit Jared at London Cheesemongers for the cream of the crop of Vacherin. The season for this heavenly cheese runs all the way through spring so you have some time to get your hands on a lovely round of it.

 

 

 

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Figs galore

It’s fig time here in northern California and by all accounts, this is a banner year for them. The tree in my backyard is producing lots and I have them spread around the kitchen waiting to be grilled, put in salads, blended into smoothies, stuffed with cheese and popped in my mouth.

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The variety of my tree is supposedly a striped panache; and while they do have the telltale dark red interior of that variety, there are, so far, no stripes. I’m also picking black mission, brown turkey and some mystery types from trees around the neighborhood.

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The other morning I made a chunky fig jam, which didn’t take long at all to put together. I chopped the figs in bite-sized pieces and combined them with sugar, lemon juice and vanilla bean seeds. The aroma was heavenly!

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Before too long, the mixture reached a perfect gel and was ready for jars.

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I’m looking forward to baking newton style cookies with the jam and swirling it into a pan sauce for duck and chicken, and I can’t wait to serve it with cheese and charcuterie, like the fantastic burrata platter I had today at Il Davide restaurant in San Rafael, California. Molto delicioso!

Fig Vanilla Jam

1 quart of fresh figs, rinsed, stems removed and coarsely chopped

2 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean

Place all ingredients in a large, shallow, non-reactive pan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer over medium heat until jam forms a gel. Ladle into sterilized jars and process in a canner for 10 minutes.

Yield: 4-1/2 pints

A Mouthful of Sunshine

In walking through the San Rafael Farmers Market one recent Sunday, I was captivated by the overwhelming variety of honey carried at the Marshall Farm stall.

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After tasting several types, I settled on a jar of flowery orange blossom, which tasted like eating a warm, sweet ray of sunshine.

Returning home with my bounty, I turned to the book “At Taste of Honey” by Marie Simmons for inspiration. One of the most comprehensive tomes on the subject, Simmons has left no stone unturned in her quest for information on bees and honey. She gives special attention to the different varieties of honey, covering 40 types, and shares pairing notes for cheeses, which drew my attention since another item in my market basket was a large wedge of Pt. Reyes Farmstead’s Bay Blue. The partnership of blue cheese and honey is an uncanny one where the sum definitely exceeds the parts. I had the chance to ask Simmons about this.:

“The salt profile in the cheese perfectly balances the sweet notes in the honey. But layered on salt are the complex deep floral, caramel, mushroomy (umami) spice and a plethora of other flavors that pop up in honey. One important element is to seek out a varietal honey with robust flavor notes that will stand up to the big tastes in the aged (saltier like a Pecorino, Parmigiano, aged goat, blue veined etc.) cheese. My cheese honey epiphany occurred years ago on a trip through northern Italy when I was served a sliver of oozing gorgonzola dolce with a drizzle of chestnut honey and a couple of toasted walnuts on the side. To this day that is the benchmark for a perfect pairing of cheese and honey. Chestnut honey can be very tannic (typical of many tree blossom honey). It is almost bitter and not to everyone’s liking but with the right pairing it can be amazing. To this day 30 years later I keep a bottle of Italian chestnut honey (I have sourced it in CA as well) in my “honey library” for when I come across a perfect gorgonzola dolce”, she said.

With that in mind, I pulled the first fresh apricots of the season from my basket. Following Simmons’ advice and thoughts on what inspired “A Taste of Honey”, I stuffed the apricot halves with a hunk of the blue and wrapped each half with a strip of prosciutto, then finished the dish with a drizzle of honey, glazing the cheese, apricots and prosciutto before popping them in the oven to roast.

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“As a cook, exploring honey used in savory dishes has been most exciting. Ever try finishing a stir fry with a swirl of honey? It tempers the heat of the ginger and pepper and the salt of the soy and compliments the garlic. Gives the entire dish a lovely sheen. Honey balances the acid in a dish as in tomatoes. Try a drizzle on a salad dressed with a bold vinaigrette,” Simmons added.

So while the apricots were roasting, I threw together some fresh salad greens and made a dressing mellowed with more of the honey. The finished dish hit all the right notes with the salt from the cheese and the sweetness of the honey tap dancing on my palate with the tartness of the apricot and the porky, crispy prosciutto. The salad was the perfect backdrop with a zippy balsamic dressing tamed by the addition of honey.

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HONEY ROASTED APRICOTS STUFFED WITH BLUE CHEESE ON SPRING GREENS

Apricots:

3 fresh apricots, halved and pitted

6 walnut-sized nuggets of Bay Blue, or your favorite, semi-firm blue cheese

2 thin slices of Prosciutto di Parma, each cut lengthwise in 3– 1/2″ strips

1 tablespoon robust honey – I used orange blossom but something darker might compliment better – such as wildflower or avocado

Preheat oven to 400. Stuff each apricot cavity with a cheese nugget then wrap a prosciutto strip around the apricot. Place in a 8″ baking dish. Dab 1/2 teaspoon of honey on the cheese, top of the apricot and the prosciutto. Roast in the oven 5-7 minutes until chess is melty, prosciutto is crisped and apricot is jammy. Set aside to cool slightly.

Salad and dressing:

4 hefty handfuls of washed spring greens, spun dry

1/2 teaspoon of orange blossom or wildflower honey

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

Place salad greens in a medium mixing bowl. In a small bowl, mix the honey and vinegar together then gradually drizzle in the oil until a smooth dressing forms. season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss the greens with the dressing.

Assembly

Arrange dressed greens on a platter and place apricot halves decoratively on top. Serve immediately.

Yield: 3-4 salads

 

Cheese Please!

Cowgirl Creamery is a pioneer in the artisan cheese making movement. For more information and recipes for their fabulous cheeses, read my latest article on Zester Daily:

http://zesterdaily.com/?p=41668

Pics to whet your appetite taken at the Marin County farmers market:

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