Food Uniform: Cheese
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If you’ve been following along on Instagram, you know about the recent misadventures with our oven. If you haven’t, the short version of the story is that our very old oven whose death I have eagerly anticipated finally died in a dramatic and dangerous fashion. Luckily, we’re all fine! The new one’s been delivered and installed, and we’re (literally) cooking with gas nowadays.

But the week-plus (!) in between ovens was… less than inspiring. Hurried attempts at soup in the slow cooker (not sure how I saw that working), a lot of frozen vegetables brought to life in the microwave, and more takeout than I’d care to admit.

The good news is that the whole ordeal reinvigorated my appreciation for the idea of a true, literal home and kitchen economy. Inputs and outputs; workflows, overflows, underflows. I promise I’m not really that technical of a person, but whatever fidgety, exacting juices I might have in my blood find their outlet in sewing down the buttons that keep everything hemmed in in the kitchen. There is, certainly, an unanalyzable alchemy to much of what happens in a nicely-humming kitchen. We can’t measure all the magic, only some of it. And what we can measure is often found in these simple feats of stocking our fridges and pantries.

In this spirit, I humbly submit for your pleasure and use a new series of posts I’m calling Food Uniforms. They’re the items that I have on hand at all times, and that kiss/anoint/hold together/find their way into almost anything that leaves my kitchen.

(Clockwise from top: grated domestic parmesan; fresh mozzarella ovolino; Gruyere; 24-month aged raw milk Parmigiano Reggiano; whole-milk ricotta; Cordobes; pecorino Romano in the middle.)

Cheese is one of those things that’s never not in my fridge, oven or no. My love for cheese as a snack, topping, ingredient, or a meal in itself (#snacksfordinner) is well-documented. So when my friend, Kristy, recently asked about my cheese staples, it was easy work to rattle off my top five, plus a couple of bonus tips.

Note: I mention a few brands here but am not being paid to name them. Just loyal to ingredients that work!

Fresh mozzarella: Mostly for Monday pizza night, and always ovoline (the large balls, about the size of a small apple). This also finds its way torn over simple salads or plays a starring role in dinner if we’ve found some really beautiful bread at the farmers market or elsewhere. I’m not super picky about brands, but if I can find Crave Brothers’ mozzarella, I’ll grab that first. Belgioioso also makes a lovely fresh mozzarella (and a very solid burrata, actually), as well as Whole Foods’ private label brand.

Whole milk ricotta: Also mostly for pizza night — small dollops of ricotta alongside the sliced mozzarella on a crust brushed with olive oil and flaky salt is basically the house recipe for a cheese pizza around here. Far too many ricottas can be chalky or plasticky tasting, but here again, Belgioioso is one that doesn’t let me down. Of course, you can also make your own, which is easier than most people think and yields a beautiful result.

Parmigiano Reggiano: “For fancy grating,” I told Kristy. I tend to use the real stuff when a dish is simple and there are no other ingredients to hide behind. Classic in Grandpa Salad:  greens with nice olive oil, salt, pepper, and a shower of super-aged Parmigiano. (In fact, 90% of the salads that come out of my kitchen are crowned with this Parmigiano. Consider it my salad-specific cheese uniform.) Maybe because I used to do it for a living, I have a preference for the hand-cut stuff at Whole Foods (it’s really a craft; you should ask to watch them do it sometime). The pre-packaged triangles tend to have a moisture level and synthetic-y flavor, probably from spending so much time en cryo, that I avoid. Though you’ll make a bit of an investment in a hunk of good parm, it’ll be a real workhorse and last you an inordinately long time if stored properly and used judiciously. I have a friend whose little son loves chunks of 24-month aged raw milk Parmigiano, and though I wish Jack felt the same way about the king of cheeses, I’m glad he doesn’t have expensive tastes just yet. We use a domestic grated parm for him and I ain’t sorry. Speaking of which…

Domestic grated Parmesan: This is still real cheese, not half mystery cheese and half cellulose fiber in a can; it’s just made stateside and pre-grated. It’s the Parm we all grew up with, more or less: savory and cheesy, melts ever so slightly, unthreatening to all. We use it for Jack if he wants some “sprinkle cheese” (classically found in his favorite brown rice & peas), and general weeknight pasta stuff if we’re trying to keep it quick and easy.

Don’t think I forgot about snacking cheese!

Now that it looks like we’re really and truly heading into fall, I’ll be stocking up on nutty, slightly barnyard-y Gruyere. It’s excellent with sturdy crackers (seeds, whole grains, even dried fruit, you name it), or just alongside apple slices and some walnuts. It’s practically transcendent in fall dishes or even in a simple omelette, but that’s another post. No shade to the folks who make it domestically — I think it’s a valiant attempt at a hard-to-replicate product — but I prefer the OGs in Europe. I think Emmi tends to distribute their Gruyere widely here. Another great cool-weather snacking cheese is Parrano — a semi-soft cross between a Parm and a young (not smoked, not aged) Gouda, beloved by all.

In warmer months, or if we’re looking for accessible-but-not-Cheddar cheeses to give to a crowd, I love Spanish cheeses like Cordobes or young Manchego (which will be milder and brighter than its 12-month aged siblings). They’re both relatively inexpensive and are best friends with pink and orange summer wines.

BONUS: I usually also have pecorino Romano around for cacio e pepe, or if I get a sudden craving for a super-intense bite of something. (Hey, some people like to eat lemons, this is my weird thing.) It’s very salty and very sheepy,so it, too, does a good job standing on its own as a statement condiment in things like pasta and shaved onto roasted vegetables or into soup.

What are your favorite cheeses? What’s in your fridge at all times?

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