Delicious on its own or with just a sprinkle of olive oil, salt and pepper, burrata also adds a luxurious layer to this Roasted Lamb Sandwich with Mint Pesto. Photo courtesy of wisconsin milk marketing board. Perhaps no other ingredient offers such a simple way to add indulgent versatility to a menu
By Robin Schempp
Want to make a dish more appealing to diners? “Just add cheese” is the old adage — and perhaps rightly so. Americans ate about 31 pounds of cheese per person last year, with the largest share of that consumed while dining out. Diners love cheese on and in everything from Appetizers to Ziti, and they have proven willing to pay for it. For the chef or R&D professional, cheese needs very little intervention to make a difference in a dish. And, most importantly, cheese fits right in with nearly all the current food trends.
SMALL INDULGENCES, BIG PAYOFF
Bite-sized hors d’oeuvres, warm appetizer salads, sliders and amuse-bouché top the lists of 2012’s trendiest appetizers. And when it comes to bar food or small plates, cheese is often the tie that binds. Cheese increases perceived value and menu depth while also easing back-of-the-house pressures. And cheese is the most foolproof protein to portion, plate and finish; unlike with many meats, every ounce of cheese is utilized. A natural stability enhancer and complement to wine, beer and cocktails, cheese may also help boost beverage sales.
TAKE A DIP
Dips can be enjoyed by a crowd or a couple, and cheese is key to dips. Hot or cold cheese dips can be as unassuming as flavored pub or pimento cheese, as traditional as the tapa of goat cheese baked in tomato (Queso de Cabra con Tomate), as fun as queso fundido, or as indulgent as a warm fonduta of fontina and Gorgonzola with caramelized shallots and wine.
TAKE A COURSE
A cheese plate or board is a natural venue for highlighting place-based, artisanal cheese, breads, preserves and/or pickles. A cheese course can take a variety of forms: as a snack or starter; as a main meal which may include more substantial meats or antipasti or be combined with a salad; or as a sweeter ending served with preserved fruit and honey.
The same three to five cheeses — perhaps changed seasonally — can be paired with accompaniments that position the course where you wish. The cheese might be combined with ready-made condiments and spreads, meats and pâtés, prepared vegetable spreads, nuts, fresh fruit, bread or crackers.
Knowing that not every operation can handle the selection, storage and management of specialty cheeses, innovative suppliers offer kits or programs that pre-select and portion the cheese and even suggest accompaniments.
Creamy Gorgonzola adds a signature indulgence to small-plate sliders. Photo courtesy of BelGioioso cheese. AMERICAN & AUTHENTIC ETHNIC
Colby and Monterey Jack are as quintessentially American as Camembert is French and Parmesan is Italian. The latest movement is to bring authentic international techniques to our American cheese making, hybridizing Old World and New World.
While globally authentic cheeses are nothing new, there is an increase in the use of cuisine-specific styles. It’s no surprise that Italian and Mexican are the most extensively made international styles of cheese.
RAISE THE (TACO) BAR
Many small plates can benefit from the mozzarella-like qualities of high-melt Mexican cheeses like asadero and queso quesadilla. Manchego and queso blanco add a mild but uniquely Hispanic flavor to fillings or toppings. Crumbly queso fresco, panela, red spice-rubbed añejo and flavorful Cotija top trendy tacos and their small-plate brethren, lending a spike of salt, creamy coolness or seasoning to items like grilled jalapeños or cool sides and snacks like guacamole or escabèche.
Italian leads the list of ethnic cuisines favored by Millennials, according to Technomic research, and both authentic-regional Italian and Italian-American foods have appeal across segments. American cheesemakers now make or mimic most Italian varietals, from creamy yet crumbly Gorgonzola to peppery pepato. Hard American Grana for grating or shaving lends a subtle to tangy nutty flavor to almost any small or large plate. Sharp provolone, Asiago or Romano can bring flavor and authenticity to bruschetta, flatbread pizza or grilled vegetables and antipasti.
The new “old-school” kid on the block is burrata. Once a rare delicacy, this cheese could only be found in Italy’s Puglia region or in select secret stashes. Thanks to a few enterprising cheesemakers, luxurious creamy curd- or stracciatella-filled mozzarella is making a noteworthy revival. Little interference is required; serve burrata on its own with a splash of good olive oil, sea salt and rustic bread, or with tomatoes or antipasti.
As gastronomic regions continue to become more recognizable, consumers are embracing their appreciation for American flavors in all forms, including that of cheese. Drawing on classic recipes and heritage ingredients, we are reinvigorating regional specialties ranging from South Carolina cheese grits to Wisconsin cheese curds to Philly cheesesteak.
While local sourcing is becoming a big trend, not all concepts or localities have or can get local food, so where “local” doesn’t work, “locale” can be just as effective in establishing a place-based postmark on a dish. With limited perishability, good distribution and little waste, perhaps no product in our pantry is as capable of lending locale as cheese.
Though innovation remains the hallmark of success among independents and multi-units, consumers tend to be risk averse in difficult times. Rather than expensive ingredients or exotic cuisines, many eaters seek familiar fare and formats which still show the spirit of innovation, novelty and quality. Nostalgic offerings might include Mad Men-inspired cheese balls or Grandma’s gratinéed potatoes with bacon. With a little modern flair, these new twists can be playful and flavorful.
REINVIGORATE THE RETRO
> Revamp a Monte Cristo with Mimolette
> Renew Welsh Rarebit with Edam
> Rekindle Frito Pie with asadero
> Rejuvenate Cordon Bleu with smoked cheese
> Revitalize Tetrazzini with butterkase
> Restart Tamale Pie with chipotle cheddar
Sambal oelek chile paste adds a fiery kick to chef Michael Ransom’s “Angry” Mac & Cheese at Henry’s gastropub in the Hotel Durant, Berkeley, Calif. Photo courtesy of henry’s/joie de vivre. CHEESY-MAC COMFORT
Perhaps no dish exemplifies neo-classic comfort food better than macaroni and cheese. Showing up in even the highest-end restaurants, mac and cheese is certainly not just for kids anymore. Updates can use humble to fancy ingredients, and a combination of quality varietal cheeses can often make a dramatic impact. Up the indulgence by using a blend of three or four cheese varieties — choosing one for high flavor, one for superior melt and one as a creamy bridge.
MAXIMIZE THE MAC
> Al Italia: Asiago, fontina, Montasio and Gorgonzola
> Alpine: Comté, Gruyère, Emmentaler and Tarentaise
> American Farmstead: Brick, cheddar, colby and Jack
> Continental Divide: Muenster, Brie, double Gloucester and Havarti
> Dutch Treat: Gouda, Edam and aged goat
> Española: Queso quesadilla, Cotija, enchilado, manchego
In today’s burger revolution, the “same old burger” is becoming overshadowed by customized and premiumized interpretations. Cheese can give a routine burger place-based prominence by topping or stuffing it with the likes of California Jack, Vermont cheddar, Wisconsin colby, Oregon blue or Texas Cotija. What’s more, the whole package gets a postmark when combined with regionally associated bread (such as upstate New York’s kimmelweck) and identifiable add-ons (such as Vidalia onion jam, California avocados or New Mexican green chiles).
BUILD A BETTER BURGER
> The Atlanta: Peach BBQ sauce, Wicked Pimina cheese, grilled jalapeños and Vidalia coleslaw — Smashburger
> The BRU Burger: Taleggio cheese, bacon, tomato jam, porter-braised onion, chopped lettuce, mayo — BRU Burger Bar, Indianapolis
> The Italian: Mozzarella, arugula, balsamic-grilled tomato, basil aïoli, pickled peppers — Burger Bar 419, Toledo, Ohio
> The 5 Napkin: 10 oz. special blend with Gruyère, caramelized onions, rosemary aïoli — 5 Napkin Burger
We know a bit of cheese can sell a standard salad, changing its image from healthy to special. Since produce-rich salads are often seasonally or regionally selected, similar cheeses are a natural fit. Parmesan, blue and goat cheeses atop a salad already create value for the customer. Bumping up the value with even a small amount of place-based, farmstead or sustainably made cheese creates an even bigger impact. Crisps, crumbles, peels, shards, shreds and slices stuff and top all manner of vegetable matter with a hint of indulgence.
Used as a topping, a stuffing, an accent or a stand-alone item, cheese can be the difference between humdrum sustenance and craveable creation and is an essential cornerstone for any menu maker trying to satisfy and nourish today’s diners.