September 15, 2017   - Vol. IX No. 19
Cooking with Cheese
We wrote in a Fresh Friday post in June 2015 that “Before chocolate, before bread, and before butter, there was cheese. There is evidence of cheesemaking at cow and sheep dairies in ancient Mesopotamia (c. 7000 B.C.E.), cheese remnants in an ancient Egyptian tomb (c. 3000 B.C.E.), and cheese trade in ancient Rome and Greece. Cheese was a source of protein and other nutrients that helped these civilizations make it through the winter months. Today, cheese is still an important part of the Mediterranean diet.” Our flag is still firmly planted in the fact that real cheese is an important and delicious component of a healthy, balanced diet.

As the culinary superstar it is, a good piece of cheese is well-honored when surrounded by dried fruits and nuts on a cheeseboard. However, its real culinary superpowers become apparent when cheese is used sparingly as a binder of ingredients or better yet as a flavor enhancer. Consider the myriad of dishes that are transformed by the addition of a few ounces of cheese. As a go-between in a simple sandwich, for example: the before and after of both flavor and texture is remarkable when a smear of goat cheese is added to a few slices of tomato and basil between pieces of toasted country bread. Or the “ah-hah” moment of the simplest bowl of pasta with olive oil and garlic, after a dusting of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. In countless dishes throughout the Mediterranean region, a light hand with well-made cheese raises the volume of a dish’s flavor without overpowering its fellow ingredients.

Quite often when the preparation of a dish is completed, a cook’s knee-jerk reaction is to add a dash of salt to boost flavor. Instead, a few ounces of the king of cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano, can add a subtle perceived saltiness in that simple pasta dish. The flavor boost is more than just sodium; it’s more complex thanks to a slight acidic note and nuttiness. Blue cheeses often have a pleasant sour taste, even some heat, which can also lift and enhance contrary flavors as when opposites attract with intensely sweet dried fruit and a piquant blue cheese. Depending on what an animal ate, its milk and therefore its cheese can add herbaceous and grassy notes to food, as well as fruit and nut flavors. And then there’s umami; cheese could be the ambassador for this ever-difficult-to-describe savory flavor. Finally, cheese can also flex its muscles when acting as a delicious thickener or binder for sauces and doughs.

Cheese is jam-packed with prized nutrients, and our bodies get more benefit from eating whole foods than from popping supplements. While it’s widely known that cheese is a good source of protein and calcium, science is only now documenting the wealth of beneficial microbes traditional cheeses provide and how these bacteria support gut health. As we learn more about how a healthy gut microbiome can contribute to our overall health, additional links between traditional cheese and health are likely to be uncovered.

And let’s be clear. When we praise the flavor and health benefits of cheese, we’re talking about real, minimally processed milk with natural cultures, prepared and aged using traditional methods not over-processed “cheese products” laden with emulsifiers, chemicals, preservatives, wacky flavorings, and hydrogenated oils. According to Max McCalman in his book Mastering Cheese , "real cheeses are a holistic, integral reflection of local history, geography, and social structure." Try the recipes below to explore the great contributions cheese makes to Mediterranean meals.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

This impressive looking appetizer is surprisingly simple to pull together. It’s also a great afternoon snack.

An Oldways recipe courtesy of Kelly Toups.

A slab of salty and sour Greek feta cheese may be overpowering on its own, but paired with the cooling crunch of cucumber, sweet and juicy watermelon, herbs, and a drizzle of honey, you’ve got summer on a plate. Add some chopped dried fruits, olives, capers, or whatever you like to make this a signature salad.

Recipe courtesy of Annie Copps; an iStock photo.

Making even the simplest of cheeses is a fun, delicious, and surprisingly quick and easy kitchen experiment, but good quality store-bought ricotta will make beautiful dough as well. For light gnocchi, be careful not to overmix the dough.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Annie Copps.
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.