The "Grate" Guide to Cheese

All you need to navigate the yummy world of cheese
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Drunken Goat Cheese

Serves 8

This easy-to-assemble hors d'oeuvre is a luscious addition to any cheese board and makes a sweet Valentine's Day appetizer. The wine sauce is also delicious on an herbed cheese such as Boursin.

Reprinted from Vegetarian Times, November 2006

3 cups full-bodied red wine, such as Merlot

½ cup dark brown sugar

1 orange, sliced

1 cinnamon stick

¼ cup fruit pectin, such as Sure-Jell

1 8-oz. log goat cheese

1/3 cup chopped pistachios

  1. Combine wine, brown sugar, orange and cinnamon stick in saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low, and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, or until liquid has reduced to about 3/4 cup.
  2. Strain sauce into small bowl, discard orange slices and cinnamon stick; return to pan. Whisk in pectin, and simmer 1 minute, or until thickened. Cool.
  3. Place cheese on plate. Pour sauce over top, sprinkle with pistachios, and serve with crackers or slices of French bread.

PER SERVING: 173 CAL; 7 G PROT; 8 G TOTAL FAT (4 G SAT FAT); 17 G CARB; 13 MG CHOL; 177 MG SOD; 1 G FIBER;16 G SUGARS

Let's just get this out of the way: when it comes to nutrition, cheese is nothing to smile about. Yes, it contains protein and lots of calcium, but it's also loaded with calories, saturated fat, and sodium, and devoid of crucial fiber.

So why do we love it? Ah, here's the part where foodies wax poetic. The seductive creaminess of d'Affinois, the sassy smoothness of a ripe Camembert, a hard, crumbly pecorino with an edgy bite that's just strong enough to show you who's in charge. Who wouldn't come back for more?

And there's the problem: it's not the cheese itself that's harmful, it's the way we eat it. We slap thick slices on sandwiches, we layer inches of it in lasagna, we melt handfuls over pizza. Treated like butter-a thrilling condiment that's neither shunned nor feared, but used respectfully and in small quantities-cheese can elevate an ordinary meal to a higher realm.

Crumble a bit of Stilton into a wild mushroom and asparagus risotto, or scatter shaved Asiago over a salad of bitter greens and pomegranate seeds, and suddenly, an ordinary dish is divine. And a few well-selected cheeses make entertaining easy. Set out dishes of olives, Marcona almonds, asparagus wrapped in smoked salmon, and fresh figs. Then add plates of apple and pear slices, assorted baskets of breads, and a cheese board with five or six selections. Voila! A party can ensue.

So, try these varieties with the air of a connoisseur: in a discriminating fashion and as a cherished delicacy, not a gooey afterthought on a pile of pasta. Sample small amounts from each category-you'll say cheese after all.

The cheese board
Because it's such a trans-formative step, cheeses may be categorized by the length of time they're aged. Some typical classifications:

Fresh cheeses are eaten as soon as they're made, without aging. They're mild and soft, and taste faintly grassy and sweet, with creamy undertones. Favorite varieties include chèvre, a soft goat's milk cheese; feta, made from goat's and sheep's milk; cottage cheese, made from curds of skim milk; fresh mozzarella, traditionally served the day it's made; and burrata, made from mozzarella cheese and buttery cream.

Cheese board selections: Organic Valley Feta Cheese; Cypress Grove Fromage Blanc; Shepherd's Dairy Honey Smoked Fresh Cheese Curds.

Semisoft cheeses are mild and smooth, with a sliceable texture; the flavor ranges from fruity and nutty to sharp, even bitter. They melt under the slightest provocation; try them grated in small quantities over pasta or toasted black bread.

Cheese board selections: Bel Paese, brick, fontina, Edam, Havarti, Muenster, and Port-Salut; Kerrygold Duhallow; Mitica Drunken Goat; Ostenborg Havarti.

Soft-ripened cheese is ripened from the inside out, leaving a soft, even gooey or runny, interior. The surface of the cheese is sprayed with a special mold that hastens the ripening process and leaves a white, bloomy, edible rind. Surface-ripened cheeses are similar; both categories vary in flavor from mildly sweet to pungent and mushroomy. Favorite varieties include Brie, Camembert, and triple-cream.

Cheese board selections: Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog; Woolwich Dairy Goat Brie; MouCo Camembert.

Semihard cheeses include a wide variety, from mild Cheddar, Jack, and colby to Jarlsberg and Gouda. The firm, smooth texture melts uniformly. Flavors range from buttery and caramelly to sharp, earthy, even gamey. Cooked milk, bacteria, and enzymes are aged anywhere from a few months to a few years to develop flavors and aromas.

Cheese board selections: Mt. Sterling Co-op Raw Milk Mild Cheddar Style Goat Cheese; Meyenberg Valley Goat Cheddar, Aged; Alta Dena Pepper Jack; Cantarella Brothers Jarlsberg; Kerrygold Dubliner.

Hard cheese is usually firm, crumbly, and granular, with a sharp, salty flavor. A good cheese may be aged several years to fully develop the flavor. Favorites include Parmigiano-Reggiano, Asiago, aged Gouda, and queso de mano.

Cheese board selections: Haystack Mountain Queso de Mano; Kerrygold Ivernia; Organic Valley Parmesan Cheese; Mitica Asiago Stravecchio.

Did You Know?

You can use the rinds from Parmesan and Romano cheeses to help flavor stews and soups. Simmer it in the soup as you would a soup bone; discard before serving.

Blue cheese is characterized by veins of blue, gray-blue, or green mold. The texture may vary from creamy and moist to firm and dry. Favorite varieties include Roquefort, traditionally made from sheep's milk; Gorgonzola, a cow's milk cheese; Stilton, known for its heady aroma; and Cambozola, soft, triple-cream cheese combined with Gorgonzola.

Cheese board selections: Organic Valley Blue Cheese Crumbles; Kerrygold Blue Cheese; Saint Agur Blue; Champignon Cambozola.

Clean Cheese
You already know organic is the cleanest choice, especially for animal products. Pesticide residues are potentially concentrated in cow's, sheep's, and goat's milk, and the animals may be additionally treated with rBGH (bovine growth hormone), which may also pass into the milk. The bad news: only a small handful of organic cheeses are widely available. The good news: because rBGH is banned in the European Union, cheese from Europe is free of hormones.

Many American cheese makers now offer rBGH-free selections. Additionally, as artisan cheeses grow in popularity, you'll find an ever-increasing variety on your grocer's shelves. Local artisan cheeses are also more likely to come from grass-fed animals, and consequently are higher in vitamins, omega-3 fats, and conjugated linoleic acid, a hard-to-get healthful fat that may protect against cancer.

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