Ooey, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches are divine and loved by kids of any age. Cheese can take mashed potatoes from bland to grand. Cheese turns crackers into decadent afternoon snacks, makes macaroni marvelous and crumbled blue cheese on top of a sizzling steak is always a winning finish. When you get down to the basics, most people can agree that cheese makes everything better.
But the more you get to know about cheese, the more you realize what you’ve been missing. There are so many different cheeses to choose from, some with fancy names that are hard to pronounce – others that look downright intimidating. (Do I eat the rind? Is that mold? What is that blue line down the center?)
It’s time to break the mold and send your taste buds on a happy adventure. Oh yeah, and quit being afraid of the stinky cheeses, those are some of the best ones according to head cheesemonger Paige Lamb, who is the food services sales director for the area’s Metropolitan Market delis and specialty cheese departments. Part of her job includes traveling the world from Wisconsin to Italy, visiting farms, animals and of course, the cheesemakers.
Making cheese is “like art to them. It is like working with artists,” she said. Many of the handcrafted cheeses have been made for hundreds of years, recipes and methods passed down through generations. Other artisans are new to the scene, bringing creativity and experimentation to their craft.
In the ’90s chefs were turning into celebrities. Now the artisan cheesemakers’ stars are on the rise. “They are getting a ton of press and traveling the world,” Lamb said.
Cheese came about thousands of years ago simply as a way of extending the life of milk – especially helpful during long, cold winters. It is a great source of protein.
“Cheese is like wine, there is so much romance and history,” Lamb said, not to mention science. No two cheeses are the same (unless they are mass produced). Everything from the weather to the animals, the grasses and wildflowers the animals are eating affects the final product. “Specialty cheeses embrace the nuances,” Lamb said. “There are differences and seasonalities of cheeses. It’s just really cool.”
If you are lucky when you go to Metropolitan Market in Tacoma a cheesemonger will be pulling, stretching and forming soft warm balls of mozzarella cheese – and giving melt-in-your-mouth samples. Fresh cheeses are simply the ones that don’t need a lot of time to age and don’t have a rind. The common ones you probably know are ricotta, cream cheese and feta. Fresh cheeses can bring a creamy element to your cheese plate and pair well with herbs and sweet and salty foods. Expand your horizons and try sheep and goat’s milk feta, crottin with herbs or fromage blanc.
Tip» “If you like cream cheese, you’ll love fromage blanc,” Lamb said. It has a little more lactic milk flavor and is a little more savory (cream cheese is a bit sweeter). Use it how you would cream cheese. Try it spread on crackers, on a bagel with some smoked salmon and in your favorite recipes, too!
Great Pairings for Fresh Cheeses» Fresh basil and roasted tomatoes, Salumi mole salami, fresh herbs and Spanish candied Valencian almonds, grilled Pence peaches and honey and Lesley Stowe’s Cranberry Hazelnut Raincoast Crisps
The white pillowy flora on the outside of Brie, Camembert and other blooming rind cheeses not only makes them look pretty, but they are a treat to eat since the inside is so creamy. If you are new to the blooming rind cheese world, Lamb suggests the Humboldt Fog, a true blooming rind cheese with a layer of ash through the center. “At first it is a little chalky and then when it hits your tongue, it just melts in your mouth. People love it. Wows your guests every time.”
Tip» “If you like Brie then you’ll love a Camembert or a triple cream,” Lamb said. Brie tends to be milder but triple creams are more rich and creamy and tend to have a kick. The flavor in triple creams are more pronounced and sharper on the tongue. Camembert tends to be earthier, she added.
Great Pairings for Blooming Rind Cheeses» Raincoast Cinnamon Raisin Crisps, Duhaime’s Cranberry, Raspberry and Ginseng cheese spread, Salumi salami, pickled white asparagus, Spanish Valencian almonds, champagne grapes
Either you love blue cheese, or you hate it. If you are in the latter group, Lamb is convinced she can change your mind. “If people think that they don’t like blue cheese, it is probably because they had one with too much punch,” she said. Newcomers to the blue world should try Dolce Gorgonzola from Italy. “It is creamy and buttery with a salty finish,” she said. There is a blue cheese for everything – from some that are best crumbled on a salad to others that are savory spread on a cracker with a smear of sweet fig jam. If you are a blue lover already, try Shropshire or Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue on your next salad.
Tip» Lamb says don’t be afraid of blues. “Try it by itself first, and then pair it with fig spread, or honey and the flavors will meld into a salty sweet goodness. I’ve turned a lot of people into blue cheese eaters.”
Great Pairings for Blue Cheese» Spanish jumbo fig bread with nuts, The Fine Cheese Company infused pears and cherries, rhododendron honey, Mitica burnt caramel walnuts, Dalmatia fig spread, peanut brittle, foie gras, Petit Shiraz, Cabernet or Merlot
When food star Rachael Ray put Manchego cheese in her mashed potatoes, she caused a cheesy sensation. Manchego is one type of semi soft cheese that is traditionally made with 100 percent sheep’s milk. It’s mild and creamy. There are several varieties of semi soft cheeses to choose from made with goat, sheep or cow’s milk – some of the best contain all three, according to Lamb because you can taste all the different milk layers.
Tip» If you like Havarti, you would probably like a young Manchego, or try a three milk Iberico.
Great Pairings for Semi Soft Cheeses» Z-Crackers salt and pepper, Salumi lomo, Mitica rhododendron honey, Mitica fig and nut bread ,Iberico cured ham, Spanish cocktail mix, Pinot Noir
Gouda has come a long way since its plain red waxed paper days. Now Gouda is smoked, infused with hops and more. “It’s a really fun category,” Lamb said. Gouda is often overlooked in recipes. Next time you make homemade macaroni and cheese, blend Gouda with your sharp cheddar and watch the creamy factor go way up, thanks to its whole milk base.
Tip» “If you like Havarti or Monterey Jack you’re going to be a natural Gouda lover,” Lamb said. For something different try Pondhopper, the fresh curds are soaked in a local microbrew beer, which imparts a light, hoppy tang to the supple cheese. “Amazing,” she said.
Great Pairings with Gouda» Hearty bread, Salumi sweet coppa, Cap piquillo peppers, Spanish Valencian almonds and olives
Ahh, the Northwest loves its cheddar cheese. Perhaps, it’s because of the close proximity to local cheddar favorite Tillamook cheese (yum). But there are so many more cheddars to add to your repertoire! Cheddar is named after a process in cheese making called cheddaring. It’s the way the cheesemakers handle the curds before they’re hooped and formed. “If you like any kind of cheddar you can’t go wrong with Dubliner,” Lamb said. “It melts in your mouth. It has little salt bits. Cheese lovers look for that. You can’t go wrong with English cheddars, England is where cheddar originated.”
Tip» Lactose intolerant? Try lactose-free goat cheddar.
Great Pairings with Cheddar» Jambon ham, Granny Smith apple, apple pie, Duhaime-Crab Apple Bird Pepper and Nutmeg, The Girl and The Fig red onion confit, kettle corn, ale beer
Just say no to the green can of cheese. Once you try a 24-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano, you’ll never go back. Metropolitan Market buys 84-pound wheels and hand cracks them the traditional way using a special set of tools. Drizzle a chunk with some good, aged balsamic vinegar and create the easiest appetizer ever. “It will blow your guests minds away,” Lamb promises.
Tip» Don’t waste the rind! It is full of flavor, add it to your next stock or sauce.
Great Pairings for Parmesan» Cattani balsamic jam, balsamic vinegar, candied almonds, quince paste, cornichons, Salumi da Vino salami, Spanish rhododendron honey, ale beer, prosecco
Alpine & Washed Rind
One of the best cheeses to nibble on in fall are the Alpine cheeses like Emmentaler and Gruyere. They are not only good for snacking, but help make excellent fondue.
The most adventurous of all cheese eaters should also try washed rind cheeses. These cheeses are washed with a mixture of cultures, beer or wine. Hence the name washed rind. Aged in a warm damp environment on wooden planks, they’re hand washed on a regular basis giving these cheeses a reddish rind. They are often called the stinky cheeses — think Limburger and Morbier.
Tip» “If you like a nutty Swiss, like a Gruyere, then Morbier is right up your alley,” Lamb said. “It has a bit more flavor and a bit more earthiness and it is a great transition.”
Great Pairings for Washed Rind Cheeses» Raincoast Crisps original natural crackers, The Girl and The Fig red onion confit, Spanish Valencian Candied almonds, Basque Olives, venision pate and Wild Boar pate, with local stout from Pike Brewing Company
Great Pairings for Alpine Cheeses» Rustic rye bread, Pate de Campagne, Spanish Valencian almonds, rhododendron honey, fresh arugula, The Girl and The Fig red onion confit, cornichons, pickled onions