Monday, May 2, 2011

Easy Chessy -- Artisanal Cheeses

This week is National Herb Week, deemed so by the International Herb Association back in 1995.  This week we will have a post everyday to help you explore herbs more fully.  I am going to start with how do you become familiar with cooking with the herbs.

I once planned to be a linguist, and I still have a fascination with words, especially those that come and go in popularity and roll off the tongue sounding unique.  One of the new phrases to say is easy peasy.  I think it is on par with peachy keen which was popular when I was in high school, much to my mother’s annoyance.  Another word that seems to be popular these days is “artisanal.”  That is just a fancy word for something in the food world that is out of the ordinary and considered upscale.  So today I took liberty with the both of these and create this post – Easy Cheesy Atrisanal Cheeses.

Cheese is one of the best ways to grasp the unique flavors of herbs and how they work blended together.  You can start with simple and easy to get cream cheese then expand to the more exotic and “artisanal” cheeses.

When I test an herb blend I first blend it in to cream cheese.  I actually use the low fat cream cheese called neufchatel. (doesn’t that sound “artisial?”)  Neufchatel, because it is lower in fat, is less likely to mask the flavors of the herbs so I can tell if a blend is right.  With more herb flavor you don’t miss the fat either which is a nice trade off.  If an herb blend tastes good in cream cheese it is simply impossible for it to taste bad when used elsewhere.  However keeping the following information I mind will help you not to make blends you dislike from the very first bite:

Strong flavors – I call these pungent and include herbs like rosemary, sage, cilantro, garlic and the like among the strong flavors.  These herbs can overpower anything if overused.  Never use two pungent herbs in one blend because they tend to fight one another.
Mild Herbs – I call these the savory herbs.  Savory herbs are the gentle flavors we expect when we say herb seasonings, these would include thyme, savory, oregano, parsley, basil, tarragon, onion, and so forth.
Sweet herbs – sweet is a relative term in relation to herbs, because we are not talking about a flavor that is sweet like sugar but something that takes away acidic tastes or leaves a lingering lightness on the palate.  These would include, dill, lemon balm, lemon and orange peels, fruit leaves like raspberry and blackberry, scented geranium leaves, and any lemon herbs.

When you start blending go for a combination that includes one of each category, or two savories and a sweet or two sweets and a savory. Or even 3 savories, although I do not recommend three sweets unless you are making a fruit dish.

If you just want to dive into crafting artisanal cheese, here are a few recipes that can be made with Herb Mixes from the Backyard Patch.

Fine Herb Soufflé

3 Tbls. dry bread crumbs
¼ cup milk
8 large eggs, separated
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
1 ¼ cups shredded Gruyere cheese
2 Tbls. unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In a large mixing bowl, stir bread crumbs into milk and soak until mixture becomes pasty, 10 to 15 minutes.  Whisk in egg yolks, herbs, salt and pepper.   Stir in ¾ cup of the cheese.
About 20 minutes before serving.  Beat egg whites with an electric mixer until they form very soft peaks.  Scoop whites into yolk mixture and quickly fold them in.  Heat a 12 inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat.  Add butter and swirl until melted and sizzling.  Pour batter into the pan and sprinkle with remaining cheese.  Immediately put skillet into middle rack of oven and back 15 to 17 minutes or until puffed and deeply browned.  Serve soufflé immediately, using a large spoon to scoop it onto warm plates.

Cheese Filled Pastry with Herbs

12 oz. feta cheese
4 Tbls. parmesan cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
Pinch nutmeg
2 Tbls. Mint, chopped
4 Tbls. Pine nuts, toasted
Salt & pepper
8 ounces phyllo dough
6 Tbls. butter, melted

Make the filling by mashing together cheeses, egg, butter, nutmeg and herbs with pine nuts, salt and pepper.  Set aside.  With scissors, cut phyllo into 3 inch wide 18 inch long strips.  Keep moist with a damp towel. Melt butter.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Place one strip of phyllo on a piece of parchment or wax paper and brush with butter.  Place another on top and brush with butter. Place one heaping teaspoon of cheese mixture in center of one edge and fold corner up to form a triangle. The fold the triangle over and over like folding a flag until the whole strip is folded into a small triangle. Brush the top with butter and place on baking sheet. Repeat until all phyllo and cheese is used. Bake triangles for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown and crisp.

Herbed Goat Cheese Pasta

1 Tbls. unsalted butter
½ cup ricotta cheese
3 ounces mild soft goat cheese (cherve)
½ tsp. salt
12 oz. fettuccini noodles
Fresh ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Put butter in a large stainless steel mixing bowl and set it on top of the boiling water.  When butter has melted, removed bowl and stir in ricotta, goat cheese, herbs and salt.  Boil pasta until tender and slightly firm, about 2 to 4 minutes for fresh or 8 to 10 minutes for dried.  Scoop a cup of the cooking water from the pot to thin the sauce, then drain the noodles.  Using tongs, toss pasta with ricotta and herbs along with as much of the reserved pasta water necessary to create a creamy sauce.  Grind black pepper on top and serve right away in warm bowls.

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