Sunday, August 21, 2011

More Ways to Serve Cheese


What cheeses should you get for a cheese course? 

Until a few years ago I’d answer that question with what I’d learned as an event caterer.  Go with a variety: a young soft cheese, an aged harder cheese, maybe a blue, maybe a goat or sheep’s milk option. Two ounces per person. That is still a safe and delicious way to go.

Spending time with cheese mongers and makers over the last decade, I’ve experienced a few other ways to serve a cheese course that are fun, educational and rather tasty.

Two or three versions of the same cheese aged for different lengths of time. For example, a young and extra-aged Comté. Or three different ages of Gouda. This is also great if you have different vintages of the wine from the same region.

Three goat cheeses: one fresh, one bloomy, one hard as a rock. Three blues. You get the idea. 

Old World, New World
Try two clothbound cheddars, like Cabot from Vermont and Montgomery’s from England. Or a classic Swiss Gruyère and a cheese inspired by it, like Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Gouda from Holland, Gouda from Wisconsin.

One Giant Piece
I don't know exactly why but big cheese is way more fun than small cheese. Splurge for a four pound hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and stab it with the old, weird knife you've had lurking in the drawer for all these years. (Bigger chunks last longer so you can continue to gnaw on it for weeks.)

Cheese as Aperitif
Cheese to start dinner, like the cocktail and cheese hour our parents knew, is a more American way to serve cheese than the formal, end-of-dinner French way. Try kicking the evening off with an unusual pairing, like cheese with a salty anchovy or a couple salt packed capers, where the cheese becomes the sweet part of the experience.

Cheese Dessert
A sliver of Raw Milk Stilton with shards of dark chocolate.  A small marble of aged gouda with a shot of espresso. If you’re serving dessert with sweet syrup, save some and drizzle it on the cheese.

This article appears in Zingerman's upcoming catalog Fall Food Buyer's Guide 2011.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New American Country Ham

The first hogs were brought to America via Virginia, raised on the appropriately named Hog Island in Surry County. Today, Virginia remains a center of American country ham.

To some extent Smithfield ham has become synonymous with Virginia country ham, but that’s more a case of branding than anything else. Smithfield is to Virginia ham as Kleenex is to tissues. They’re the most well known and the biggest. But they’re not the end of the story. There are many small smokehouses that create special hams. And in spite of Smithfield’s recent moves to eliminate confinement operations, commodity hogs remain at the core of their operation.

Sam Edwards’ family has been curing and selling ham from Surry since the 1920s. We’ve been selling it since the 1980s. He makes a classic Virginia ham, the same kind that was favored by Queen Victoria and sent to the French court for several hundred years. It's salted for three or four weeks, hung chilled for another month, smoked in hickory for up to a week at low temperatures,  then hung to age for a year or more. The smoke is key and its part of everything you taste and smell at the smokehouse. Sam's sister used to call it her dad's cologne.

This is classic American country ham. Compared to even the most robust Spanish hams Sam’s cured hogs have a more forward flavor, in part because of the smoke. Italian prosciutto and its American cousins, like Herb Eckhouse's outstanding hams from La Quercia, are even milder still. While it's still a southern tradition to boil country hams like this, there's really no difference between them and the cured hams of Spain and Italy so I like to eat them as they do: sliced thin straight off the ham, served at room temperature. They go well with Virginia Peanuts, apples and a cold beer.

Several years ago Sam made the move to begin curing hams from Berkshire hogs, a breed of pig that is known for its extensive fat marbling and big flavor. Partly this was a practical decision. Berkshire pork had become a hit among chefs. They demanded restaurant cuts like loins and chops. The hams were left looking for a buyer so the price was fair. In part, though, Sam saw this as a way to make his cured ham taste more like what it used to, before pigs had the fat bred out of them to become “the other white meat.” (It's also raised like it used to be, the hogs are not confined and not fed hormones or antibiotics.) Because he's blessed with a marvelously acute funny bone he called the ham "Surry-ano," a play on Jamon Serrano, the most common cured ham in Spain.

When I visited Edwards salting room this summer it was easy to spot the Berkshire hams. They're much bigger than standard breed hams with a thick ring of fat on the haunch. They take smoke better and age longer. Sam started by aging them 400 days. This fall we're going to have a ham aged over two years (its DNA tag is the first picture on this post). Standard breeds would dry out if aged that long, but the fat on the Berkshires keeps them going.

More notes and photos of Sam Edwards smokehouse.
This appears as an article in Zingerman's upcoming Fall Food Guide 2011.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Recent Reading

A fascinating look inside 36 people's refrigerators. Read the captions. 

Will that hot dog kill me? More on confusing "natural" nitrate meat labels. (You can read my notes on nitrates here.)

A new food journal from McSweeney's, Peter Meehan and David Chang.

One hell of a bullshit job.

The U.S. military has a $20 billion air conditioning bill for Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's why:
Free-standing tents equipped with air conditioners in 125 degree heat require a lot of fuel. To power an air conditioner at a remote outpost in land-locked Afghanistan, a gallon of fuel has to be shipped into Karachi, Pakistan, then driven 800 miles over 18 days to Afghanistan on roads that are sometimes little more than “improved goat trails,” Anderson says. He calculates more than 1,000 troops have died in fuel convoys, which remain prime targets for attack.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Final Art...Iowa White


Ryan's final art for Iowa White, the new pork spread from La Quercia. Coming in the fall catalogs.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Final Art...Fall Buyers Guide


Ian's final cover art for the September catalog.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Final Art...Earlybird


Ryan's final cover art for the October catalog.