Category Archives: Cheese

The best freakin’ cheese sauce ever!

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The day I moved in with my grad-school roommates, we discovered a butter compartment in the refrigerator door. Young and foolish, I complained, “why do they still put these in? Who still uses butter?”*  My roommate replied, “It’s the perfect place to store your Velveeta.”

Nodding, while grinding my back teeth in horror, I thought, “That statement pre-supposes Velveeta is always on hand, like a pantry staple.”I have since learned that one’s taste in gooey, drippy, hot, rich, velvety cheese sauce is highly personal. So, when someone asked what makes this cheese sauce the best ever, I ventured forth gingerly.

Classic Mornay is built on a creamy, smooth Béchamel. It gets cheesy richness from sharp cheddar and balance from sharper gruyère. A splash of sherry (not cooking sherry, please) is everything you loved about the ’70’s, while nutmeg, cayenne, white pepper and salt lend subtle complexity.

Unlike Velveeta, there aren’t many ingredients here, so please remember that good butter, fresh milk, and the best cheese you can afford, really count. No offense to Velveeta. (Or my grad school roommate.)

*I know, I know, I may be the most passionate butter evangelist you have ever encountered. I actually refer to my conversion as “the butter story.”

The Best Cheese Sauce You’ve Ever Tasted!

Ingredients:

  • 3 tbs/ 1.5 oz. butter
  • 3 tbs flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • Nutmeg
  • White pepper
  • Salt
  • 1 cup cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup Gruyère
  • Dry sherry
  • Cayenne

Directions:

  • Melt butter over low heat in a 1 qt saucepan. Stir in flour and cook for 2-3 minutes being careful not to brown.
  • Pour in milk, whisking briskly to avoid lumps.*
  • Cook an additional 15-20 minutes, stirring often, until thickened.
  • Season to taste with nutmeg, white pepper and salt. Go easy on the salt. You will add more from the cheese.
  • Stir in cheese until smooth.
  • Season to taste with dry sherry and cayenne.

*Warming the milk first reduces the risk of lumpy Béchamel.

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Plato tradicional.

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I love quesadillas, that authentic Mexican treat that I first enjoyed overlooking Boothbay Harbor in Maine. It was the day before my 21st birthday and Sandy Larsen née Bugbee took me out to dinner. I believe that evening’s special involved crab and brie. Authenticity aside, it was delicious, and certainly freed me to think beyond chicken and cheese.

Just about anything tastes good grilled between two tortillas with hot melted cheese, including, it turns out, peaches. Sounds funny, right, but think about the joy of peach salsa over grilled chicken or with salty tortilla chips. Peaches are a natural with sharp Amish cheddar, mild Asian Barbecue sausage from Canales Quality Meats, warm cumin and bright red onion between hearty corn tortillas.

I cook the sausage and onions and assemble these ahead of time for entertaining. Stack them in the fridge, pull them out and fry them right up. A pizza cutter is your best friend for slicing these without pushing all the filling out. No salsa is needed, but this smoky peach salsa would gild the lily* beautifully.

*We don’t us phrases like “gild the lily” nearly often enough anymore. “Right as rabbits” is a bit neglected too.

Peach Quesadillas

Ingredients:

  • 3 Asian Barbecue sausages*
  • 1 red onion, diced and sautéed
  • 1/4 tsp cumin
  • 8-10 6” corn tortillas
  • 2 – 3 cups grated Cheddar cheese
  • 3 peaches, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup chopped basil
  • Olive oil

*No Asian Barbecue sausages on hand? Sauté any good pork sausage and add a tsp of Chinese 5 Spice powder and a tablespoon of soy while cooking.

Directions:

  • Squeeze the sausage from the casings and sauté over medium heat, breaking them up with a spoon until crumbled, browned and cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
  • Add 1 tbs olive oil to pan and sauté onion until softened and edges begin to brown. Season with cumin, salt and pepper.
  • Layer one corn tortilla with cheese, cooked sausage, peach slices, onions and basil. Top with more cheese and a second tortilla.
  • Fry quesadillas in 1 tbs oil over medium heat, about 3 minutes per side, turning once when the tortilla begins to brown in spots.
  • With a pizza cutter, slice into wedges and serve.

So, this happened…

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We grew up eating a lot of corn. A summer staple, we always ate it the way God made it – fresh from the cob. A quick roll in a stick of salted butter was the only addition. So, a little short on experience, I hatched a plan to serve corn fritters during this week’s Saturday morning Eastern Market demo. Fortunately God smiled on me just like he smiles on the corn.

Now, I make a mean zucchini pancake, so I had a few of the basics down, but I was certainly ready to accept some expert advice, which arrived in the form of Art Smith, Chef/Owner of DC’s Art and Soul and a return contestant on the current season on Top Chef Masters. It was test night, and once we had nailed down the recipes for a fresh plum soup and cold peanut-sauced soba noodles, I stepped out of the way.

If you have any doubts, Chef Art’s reputation as a top chef is well earned. It was a wonderful experience watching him bring the recipe together, instinctively finding the right texture and flavor. After a quick test batch he settled on a slightly thick batter, lots of corn and just a couple tablespoons of oil in the pan.

Thank you Art for a wonderful night! My kitchen definitely feels a bit hipper.

Corn Fritters

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 tbs salt
  • 1 tbs baking powder
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup corn meal
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1 tbs honey
  • 4 ears corn, kernels removed
  • 1/2 cup cheddar cheese
  • Olive oil for frying

Directions:

  • Mix together dry ingredients – salt, baking powder, flour and corn meal – in a large bowl.
  • Mix together wet ingredients – eggs, 1 cup buttermilk, butter and honey – in a second bowl.
  • Purée one cup of corn in a food processor and add to wet ingredients along with cheddar cheese.
  • Stir the remaining corn into the dry ingredients.
  • Add the wet ingredients to the dry and fold in gently just until mixed. The less you work it the better. Add additional buttermilk to get a wet, thick batter.*
  • Heat 2 tbs olive oil in a 12” skillet and fry batter in 1/4 cup cakes.
  • When solid enough, flip cakes and serve with syrup, fresh berries or salsa.

*Baking may be an exact science, but recipes aren’t. The moisture level of your dry ingredients can change the amount of liquid you need to add. The size of your eggs and the moisture in the corn will affect how much buttermilk you need. Don’t be afraid to play around with the amounts listed above, one tablespoon at a time.

High as an elephant’s eye.

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My Dad did his PhD thesis on corn. At night my Mom typed out page after page, over 100, on a typewriter. Corn expertise was highly regarded in our home. Dad taught us that all vegetables have sugars which, once harvested, convert to starch. This happens faster in some vegetables than others. Corn is one of the fastest.

As a kid, when corn was on the dinner menu, Dad and I would stop by Sapowsky’s on the way home and wait in their dirt driveway, outside the farm stand, for the next cartload of corn to come in from the fields. We would grab a dozen and head home, where Mom already had water boiling. As soon as we pulled into the driveway I would get out, shuck the corn, Mom would boil it for a couple of minutes and we would eat it, hot and fresh, usually without any butter or salt.

Today’s cultivars of corn have more stable sugars, but corn is still best picked during the cool hours of the morning, quickly refrigerated and eaten as soon as possible. These salads celebrate the light, sugary sweetness of raw corn and should be made with the freshest corn you can find.

Southwest and Herbed Goat Cheese Raw Corn Salads

This Southwest salad is just dying to be served over carnitas tacos! The Herbed Goat Cheese version is a perfect, light summer picnic salad. Serve it alongside herb and wine poached chicken and a perfect loaf of crusty country bread slathered in farm-fresh butter. Just a thought.

For Salad:

  • 2 ears fresh corn, husked
  • 1/2 red onion, diced

Slice the kernels from the corn, mix with the red onion and toss with one of the following dressings.

For Southwest dressing:

  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tbs goat cheese
  • 1 tbs finely chopped basil
  • 1/2 lime, juiced – about 2-3 tbs
  • 1/4 tsp cumin
  • 1/3 cup Red Merken Chili Oil*

*Red Merken is a spicy chili oil with nice depth. Substitute another chili oil or order online from Sapore.

Directions:

  • Mash garlic into a paste with coarse salt.
  • Stir together cheese, garlic paste, basil, lime juice and cumin.
  • Whisk in Red Merken Chili Oil.
  • Lightly dress corn and onions.

For Herbed Goat Cheese dressing:

  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tbs goat cheese
  • 1 tbs finely chopped tarragon
  • 1 tbs lemon juice.
  • 1/4 cup Champagne Mimosa Vinegar*
  • 1/2 cup Mission Olive Oil*

*The Champagne Mimosa Vinegar is light with a hint of fruit. Substitute any light white wine vinegar. Mission olive oil is light and grassy. They can both be ordered online from Sapore.

Directions:

  • Slice kernels from the corn. Toss with onion in a medium bowl.
  • Mash garlic into a paste with coarse salt.
  • Stir together cheese, garlic paste, tarragon, lemon juice and Champagne Mimosa Vinegar.
  • Whisk in Mission Olive Oil.
  • Lightly dress corn and onions.

“Tomatoes and zucchini again?!”

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Boredom is an occupational hazard of seasonal cooking. By the end of July you have served summer squash and tomatoes exactly 47 1/2 times and the season is just approaching its peak. This week when I mentioned tomatoes and summer squash to Nancy, a weekly attendee at my Eastern Market demos, she asked pointedly, “how are you going to make it different from the other tomato and zucchini recipes you’ve made over the past 8 weeks?”

She had me. I had combined tomatoes and squash in meatloaf and goulash. Sautéing them and tossing them together with fresh herbs is a treat in early summer, but it doesn’t cut it as we head into August. Somewhere between fried zucchini and a cherry tomato sauce Nancy said, “This sounds like Zucchini Parmesan.” And so it is. Stovetop style.

The zucchini is breaded with Panko and Herbes de Provence making it crisp and light. The fresh cherry tomato sauce gets depth from anchovy paste and brightness from a nicely acidic Late Harvest Zinfandel Vinegar. The flavor is rich like a winter braise and light like a summer sauté. It’s anything but boring and everything that summer veggies at their peak are meant to be.

Summer Squash Parmesan

I’m going to beat you to the punch. Yes, you need to fry the summer squash in plenty of olive oil. I tried going light with a tablespoon or two, there wasn’t enough depth to reach in between the Panko crumbs and make the squash really crispy. You want healthy, try this zucchini meatloaf. Otherwise, go right on ahead and indulge yourself. You deserve it!

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbs milk
  • 2 tbs Herbes de Provence
  • 2 cups Panko bread crumbs
  • 1 medium summer squash or zucchini, sliced in 1/3” inch rounds
  • 4 -6 tbs olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp anchovy paste
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tbs Late Harvest Zinfandel Vinegar**
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

**I don’t know how Renee found a red wine vinegar that has this much acidity while still maintaining balance. It packs a punch without being overbearing. Buy some online at DC’s Sapore  or use a good red wine vinegar from your home pantry.

Directions:

  • Whisk together eggs and milk in a shallow bowl, season with salt and pepper.
  • Mix Herbes de Provence and bread crumbs in a bowl. Put half in a pie plate.
  • Dip squash in the egg wash and then in the bread crumbs. Press the crumbs onto squash. When the Panko in the plate gets wet and clumpy, discard it and add the reserved half of the mix.
  • Fry squash over medium heat in 2-3 tbs olive oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
  • In a separate pan sauté garlic over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add anchovy paste and cook another 30 seconds until fragrant.
  • Add tomatoes and cook 5-6 min until softened.
  • Add the vinegar to the pan and scrape up all the tasty brown bits in the bottom. Let the vinegar reduce to coat the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Serve the fried squash topped with the tomato sauce and sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Reflect on how good life is.

This is what you taught me Mom.

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If I were forced to identify only one dish that summed up my Mom’s cooking, one dish that burned bright in my memory and lingered on my palate years later, it would be – no, not apple pie, meatloaf or lasagna – zucchini pancakes. Amidst her Dilly Beans and mac and cheese, the Christmas Eve cheesecake and barbecued spareribs with artichokes, zucchini pancakes are the quintessential summation of Mom’s work in the kitchen.

They were born out of both creativity and desperation. They appeared late each summer when zucchini exhaustion set in and the dark green squashes grew larger and larger. With the din of dinner complaints rising, Mom found an exciting new way to put zucchini on the table. And could a recipe be any cooler? As anyone who has eaten zucchini bread knows, it is equally comfortable being both sweet and savory. We would joyfully sit down to a plateful, dripping in real maple syrup. They were practical, delicious, inventive and comforting. Stepping way out of the late 70’s comfort zone she created a family classic. That’s what you taught me in the kitchen Mom. That’s what I carry with me today.

I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit over the years. Bisquick gave way to potato starch whose flavor sits happily in the background. Fresh basil – and tarragon, when I have it – replace parsley. The ratio of zucchini to batter  is much higher. Less like breakfast cakes, the ones I make today are cooked over medium low heat, getting brown and crisp on the outside while remaining wet and gooey inside. These days I usually serve them with a yogurt sauce, bright and fresh with mint and paprika or cayenne. But I have to admit, maple syrup is still my favorite.

Mom’s Zucchini Pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups grated zucchini, about 2 medium
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 tbs fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
  • 1/4 tsp Spanish Paprika
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup potato starch
  • Cream, as needed

For sauce:

  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 2 tbs chopped mint
  • Paprika or cayenne

Directions:

  • Place grated zucchini in colander, sprinkle with 1 tsp salt and leave for 15-20 minutes.
  • Squeeze water from zucchini with your hands and place in large bowl with egg, basil, garlic, parmesan, paprika, pepper and potato starch. Mix. If the batter is too dry, stir for a minute and then add a tablespoon or two of cream as needed. This is pretty thick batter.
  • Mix together the yogurt, mint and paprika or cayenne to taste.
  • Cook one small pancake to check seasoning and adjust with additional salt and pepper, fresh basil and cheese, as needed.
  • Cook over medium-low heat in 2-3 tbs pancakes, turning once. The low heat allows the outsides to get crispy and brown, while the centers remain creamy.
  • Serve pancakes with a dollop of the yogurt sauce.

Because life should be beautiful.

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Tony, this is for you. No, not for my cousin, Tony, who nearly demanded a standing ovation when he first added lettuce to his tacos (today he has a highly sophisticated palate). This for the Tony who came to dinner two years ago and warily picked up a stuffed, fried zucchini blossom. “It’s a what?!” you asked. “A zucchini flower,” I replied. I think I noticed you scoping out the exits, but you bravely took a bite. I think you enjoyed it.

And how could you not? Zucchini blossoms taste mildly and sweetly of zucchini. Stuffed with a mild goat cheese, fresh herbs, salt and pepper, they are beer battered and fried. Think of it as a zucchini popper! This is Italian bar food, crisp and sprinkled with sharp flakes of sea salt. An indulgence to be sure, but pure gastronomic pleasure!

For those of you worried about a lost generation of zucchini, pinched off the vine at the start of their lives, sleep soundly. We only harvest the male flowers. The female ones go onto produce beautiful summer squashes. We’ll slice, bread and fry those later.

Fried Zucchini Blossoms

The best way to remove food from hot fat is with a spider. Seriously, go into a cooking store and ask for one. They won’t laugh at you. If they do, tell them that your big brother is going to beat them up. Then give me a call.

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil for frying*
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 12 ounce chilled beer or club soda
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 cup mild goat cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh cream
  • 2-3 tbs fresh herbs – tarragon, mint and parsley are wonderful
  • 24-ish Zucchini blossoms
  • Sea salt

*Look for cooking grade olive oil in the grocery store. I wouldn’t touch it for sautéing, but it’s perfect, and cheaper, for deep frying.

Directions:

  • Heat 2″ oil to 350 degrees in a 6 qt pot. Check temperature with a deep frying or candy thermometer.
  • Mix together goat cheese and enough cream to make it pipeable from a pastry bag. Stir in fresh herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Whisk egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add a pinch of cream of tartar, is needed, to get them started.
  • Using a pastry bag or ziplock bag with a corner cut off, pipe the cheese into the zucchini blossoms. Gently twist the filled flowers closed at the top. This will be immensely frustrating the first time. Forgive your inexperience, drink the rest of the opened beer, and keep going.
  • Mix flour and salt together in a large bowl. Whisk in beer just until smooth. Don’t overwork. Gently fold eggwhites into batter.
  • Roll a few flowers in the batter and gently shake off excess. Place them in the hot oil, being sure not to overcrowd. Cook them until golden, flipping once. Be careful not to burn.
  • Remove them to a plate lined with paper towels and sprinkle with sea salt.
  • Return the oil to 350 and fry the remaining flowers in batches.
  • Eat them while nice and hot. Drink lots of chilled Prosecco. Or rosé. Discuss how fabulous and blessed your life is.