Chefs and diners alike are discovering the joys of rich and creamy burrata, which needs little more than a drizzle of olive oil and a finish of cracked pepper. Photo courtesy of belgioioso cheese. Make your menu the boss with new cheese varieties and updated uses for old favorites
By Robin Schempp
With an upsurge in domestic cheese production and consumption, consumers have become increasingly savvy when it comes to quality, flavor and variety, requiring menu makers to meet the demand for more selections in all menu parts. Distinguished natural cheeses are entrenched in American dining culture, keeping cheddar, Jack, Swiss and mozzarella as top choices for sandwiches, snacks and melts. The appeal and craveability of creamy goat, crumbled blue and softened Brie in salads and appetizers endures. And more robust global cheeses are now the norm for topping and finishing, so keep grating and melting that Parmesan, Manchego and Asiago.
We know that cheese sells and, generally, more cheese sells more, so it’s about time to make some updates — as well as some simple and profitable menu applications — with a few of the newer and revived cheese categories.
FRESH, SOFT CHEESES
The meteoric rise in soft, fresh cheeses cannot go unnoticed. With the combined forces of cheesemakers interested in turning over inventory, a revolution in housemade mock and authentic versions, and chefs and diners geared toward fresh, sweet flavors, this group of cheeses appeals to even the most basic cheese eater and has a place on nearly every menu.
Ricotta was once restricted to a few traditional roles: perhaps hidden in pasta dishes or folded into fillings, pastries or cheesecakes, and rarely, if ever, mentioned on menus. Ricotta has had an honest-to-goodness coming-out party. Its creamy neutrality calms today’s high-flavored haute cuisine but is equally at home dolloped on rustic flatbreads. Now ricotta is often the central ingredient of toothsome pasta dishes, and global varieties (like Hispanic requesón) are whipped into updated global fare. Housemade sweet-milk ricotta can be employed to subdue a dish of bitter greens, while sharper sheep or goat milk ricotta quenelles may highlight savory appetizers and sweet desserts alike. Good ricotta needs little more than a drizzle of good oil and/or honey and a few corresponding accompaniments, yet it adds so much value and versatility to any menu.
Menu Inspirations: Ricotta
> Housemade Ricotta Fondue with oil-cured olive purée, roasted garlic toasts — Solace Moonlight Lounge, Encinitas, Calif.
> Bianco Verde Pizza with arugula, anchovies and prosciutto — Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix
> Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Gnudi with brown butter and crispy sage — The Spotted Pig, New York City
> Donas De Requesón (Mexican Ricotta Donuts) — Port Fonda, Westport, Mo.
> Crumpet with Lemon Curd and Ricotta — Crumpet Shop, Pike Place Market, Seattle
Similar to quark, fat-free fromage blanc is a mild, moist, smooth-textured cheese also made from fresh curd. Traditionally used as an ingredient in baking, in cooking or like yogurt to top fruit for breakfast or a light dessert, its uses have expanded to include the replacement of higher fat cheeses in everything from pasta to baked dishes, breakfasts and desserts.
Menu Inspirations: Fromage Blanc
> Salade de Betteraves: beets, fromage blanc, sunflower sprouts — Angele, Napa, Calif.
> Fromage Blanc Floating Island “Cheese Cake” — ChikaLicious Dessert Bar, New York City
Mascarpone, which at one time was primarily relegated to use in Italian desserts, has spread its whey-like wings into increasingly innovative sweets and super-creamy savories. Depending on the producer, it can be quite sweet or slightly salty, perfectly smooth or faintly curd-y — allowing for the right flavor and texture to complement a particular dish. Simply whipping mascarpone into cooked starch or veggies (potatoes, grits or spinach, for example) is just one way to transform simple to spectacular, but the options don’t stop there.
Menu Inspirations: Mascarpone
> Beer-Battered Fried Chicken and Waffles with Almond Butter and Bourbon — Mascarpone Delicatessen, New York City
> Prime Rib with Herb Truffle Butter over Creamy Mascarpone Polenta — The Lodge at Wilderness Ridge, Lincoln, Neb.
> Mascarpone Creamed Corn — Modern Steak, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Simple, curded, fresh farmer’s cheeses are becoming a staple on more menus. Specialty versions such as Italian crescenza or the regional comeback kid, Creole cream cheese, have made a real resurgence in cross-country cuisines. These super-fresh cheeses tone down high spice and bring a regional, farm-to-table and heritage connection to a range of menu items. Farmer’s cheeses are satisfying atop bread, pizza, pasta and side dishes, folded into hot dishes and gratin, or complementing breakfast or dessert fruits and pastries.
Menu Inspirations: Farmer’s Cheese
> Swiss Chard and Crescenza Ravioli, wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, aged pecorino — Boudin, New York City
> Rostini with Crescenza, Cannellini and Parsley — Barbrix, Los Angeles
> Creole Cream Cheese Chess Pie with fresh figs — High Hat Café, New Orleans
Certain cheeses take to high-heat applications particularly well. Here, a pan-seared queso fresco is topped with black olive mojo for a more culinary option to breaded-and-fried cheese sticks. Photo courtesy of wisconsin milk marketing board.
Hot cheese is hot, and a handful of mostly globally inspired cheeses are making a big splash on the menu these days served hot from the grill, griddle, stovetop or oven pan. A more wholesome option than breaded or deep-fried cheeses, these similarly soften and become stretchy but hold their shape even under fairly high heat, making their menu versatility endless.
Halloumi, or Greek cheese, has long been popular throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, where it is often cubed and threaded onto skewers for grilling. Wide thick slices or “cutlets” are great for a grill grate and rustic fired preps, but any cut or cube is quite easily sautéed and finished with a squeeze of citrus or splash of wine or liquor.
Also hailing from the Mediterranean, kasseri has similar but more tangy properties (classically made of sheep or mixed milks) as halloumi. Though its primary application is still the traditional, impressive saganaki (ouzo-flamed cheese), kasseri is delicious simply sautéed or broiled and served with a briny, spicy, citrusy or sweet accompaniment. Similarly, India’s Paneer, Italy’s scamorza, Mexico’s queso de freir (or queso blanco) and panela, and Norway’s juustoleipa (“bread cheese”) need not be relegated to their most classic shape-holding preparations either. Hot off the flame, caramelized brown and served with something savory or sweet or both (i.e., mushroom sauté, roasted stone fruit or a balsamic reduction) these grilling cheeses make for a simple small or shareable plate, salad, entrée or even sweet course.
Menu Inspirations: Grilling Cheeses
> Tacos de Rajas de Poblano: roasted poblano peppers, onions, oregano, crema, grilled queso de freir — Big Star, Chicago
> Pan-Seared Scamorza Cheese: grilled crostini, roasted Roma tomatoes, caramelized red onions, baby arugula and lemon-herb vinaigrette — Vino Italian Tapas, Honolulu
> Brandy-Seared Halloumi with seasonal fruit, red wine reduction, homemade crackers — Bittercreek Ale House, Boise
HERITAGE REVIVALS & RETRO REBIRTHS
Colby originated in its namesake Wisconsin town in 1885, but not until recent years has it come into its own in as a menu multi-tasker. Similar in flavor to yellow cheddar, Colby is typically more mild and has a softer and more lacy, elastic texture and higher moisture content, making it great for slicing, melting, snacking and adding to baked dishes like mac and cheese. Chefs often combine or extend Colby (in a marbled block or shred) with Jack, white cheddar or mozzarella, and with its color, high moisture and meltability, Colby makes an excellent alternative to processed American cheese.
Menu Inspirations: Colby
> The Pit Master: Beef Brisket, Colby Cheese — Jus Mac, Houston
> Cheezee Fries: Brew City fries smothered in Colby cheese and crispy bacon bits with ranch dressing — Uccello’s, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Edam & Gouda
Both Dutch cheeses Gouda and Edam are said to have originated more than 800 years ago and have a long tradition in U.S. cheese making as well. Characterized by their red wax and generally made of cow’s milk (whole and skim, respectively), they are both rich, creamy, buttery, and have a slightly sweet and nutty flavor that develops with aging. Overused in the ’80s as a cheese-platter stalwart, they fell out of favor, but are back with abandon in kitschy and chic dishes alike. Part of their newfound popularity may come not only from improved craftsmanship but from their compatability with microbrews.
Menu Inspirations: Edam & Gouda
> Red Pepper Gouda Bisque — Doc’s Deli, Mansfield, Ohio
> Warm Edam Cheese Soufflé with fromage blanc sorbet, crispy bacon, white sesame tuile — La Folie, San Francisco
> East of Edam Grilled Cheese: Edam, bacon, avocado and blue on sourdough — Hammontree’s Grilled Cheese, Fayetteville, Ark.
This French-German cheese was one of the first recipes immigrant cheesemakers brought with them to the U.S. in the late 1800s. They later Americanized it, eating it younger as a more mild and less aromatic version than the original. Like any washed-rind cheese, it starts neutral and creamy and can develop into a strong and pungent specimen preferred by cheese lovers. Always a beloved sandwich ingredient, Muenster is an incredible melter, explaining its newfound favor as an appetizer, in grilled cheese and saucy preparations. Muenster remains a classic companion to never-more-popular cured meats, mustards and big microbrews.
Menu Inspirations: Muenster
> The Ivory Bacon: Housemade boudin blanc sausage, bacon, Muenster and aïoli — The Blind Pig, Louisville, Ky.
> Umami Burger: Muenster Cheese, Pork Belly, Roasted Tomatoes, Wild Mushrooms Stack’d Burger Bar, Milwaukee
Beloved favorites like Brie build craveability; consider updated applications for menu innovations with strong customer appeal. Photo courtesy of LACTALIS FOOD SERVICE.
Traditional Alpine cheeses — those from or inspired by the mountainous regions of Switzerland, France and Italy — have always been appreciated, but they’ve never been as hot as they are now. Advances in importation and much higher quality domestic varieties have made Alpine cheeses the darlings of chefs and menu makers of late. There are soft varieties, but generally we are talking big-wheeled, hard or semi hard, cooked curd cheeses aged to caramelized nutty perfection. Very terroir-specific, these cheeses change not only by region but by season. They are almost always great melters which is why we turn to them for classic updated fondues and fondutas (as with Fontina, Gruyère or Emmentaler), but that doesn’t mean they should be restricted to just hot and saucy preparations. The complex qualities of Comté, Beaufort or Pleasant Ridge Reserve, for instance, can be better appreciated sliced for a sandwich or eaten from a cheese board, while raclette, Fontinella and Tarentaise may be better suited to quick melting or finishing from a sliced or shredded form. No matter the form, these cheeses deserve a place at the table.
Menu Inspirations: Alpine Cheese
> French Onion Dumplings with Melted Gruyère — Continental Midtown Restaurant, Philadelphia
> Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Celery Truffle Caponata, Almond — Goosefoot, Chicago
> Gruyère Emmentaler Beet Gratin with mache — Black Bottle, Seattle
> Truffled Egg Toast: Yard egg, brioche, Fontina, shaved asparagus — t’ino, New York City
Blue cheese has never been bigger, particularly among American consumers. And with an onslaught of new domestic blue cheeses in easy-to-use flavors and forms, the blue’s strength has become better and more accessible. There are smoked, “cheddared,” sliced, spreadable, powdered, encapsulated and encased blues. There are blue cheese chocolates, grapes, olives, croutons, and all manner of blue cheese flavorings. Blue cheese is still a sure bet on burgers or on a beet dish or wedge salad, but consider upgrading the blue variety or adding value to it — perhaps finding red hot and blue opportunities in other snacks, small plates, entrées and even desserts.
Menu Inspirations: Blue Cheese
> Blue Cheese-Bacon Popcorn — Currant Restaurant, San Diego
> Bacon-Wrapped Blue Cheese-Stuffed Dates — Firefly On Paradise, Las Vegas
> Pear & Blue Cheese Ice Cream — Salt & Straw, Portland, Ore.
With cheese, all it takes is a subtle difference in color, texture or flavor to alter a dish. The time is ripe for experimentation with the abundant varieties that have entered the scene — as well as those favorites that are ready for revival.