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R&IEditorial Archives2005August 1 — Food

Big Cheese
Versatile, valuable and appealing, cheese takes on recipes both familiar and exotic.

Penne pasta folded into a rich, creamy sauce showcases proprietary cheeses at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle.

Aged goat cheese takes center stage in a nontraditional, deconstructed bruschetta at Two Chefs in South Miami, Fla.

Smoked Gouda, grilled chicken and cavatappi pasta jazz up comfort-food classic mac and cheese in a noncommercial kitchen-friendly recipe at Aramark Corp.

Asparagus Flan With Fontina-Asiago Fonduta

Whatever the menu question, chefs are confident they can turn to cheese as a go-to solution.

Need a creative starter beyond standard hot appetizers, soups and salads? Roasted artichokes stuffed with a four-cheese mixture starring Crotonese, a sharp Italian sheep’s milk variety, do the trick for Chef-manager Chris Kozlowski at Aqua East in Montauk, N.Y.

Looking for a substantial but simple entrée that evokes childhood comfort? A promotion featuring eight varieties of macaroni and cheese from fontina with andouille sausage to Gorgonzola with roast pork fits the bill for Francesco Esposito, senior development chef for Aramark in Philadelphia.

How about a savory signature that conveys a menu’s multiple influences? Seared Greek haloumi, a sweet, mint-tinged sheep-and-goat-milk blend, plated atop grilled eggplant, roasted bell peppers and arugula with caper-berry vinaigrette helps Executive Sous-Chef Jeff Perin evoke the cuisines of the Mediterranean at socca in Chicago.

Given cheese’s role as one of the most varied and adaptable foods in the kitchen, it’s no wonder it is rare to find a menu without it. The versatile ingredient expands options across all courses, lending richness, flavor and texture in guises melted or grated, sliced or crumbled.

In the Beginning...
Cheese-laced starters encourage diners to kick off meals with wine, a natural pairing helped by guidance from servers or sommeliers, says Aqua East’s Kozlowski. Beyond beverage choices, chefs find an abundance of reasons to bring the product into play early and often.

Chef-owner Jan Jorgensen of Two Chefs in South Miami, Fla., thinks cheese is a classic but underutilized ingredient. “There are so many wonderful cheese producers today, and it’s a part of many cultures,” says Jorgensen, whose desire to showcase goat cheese in a unique way inspired him to match a tangy aged variety with roasted red peppers; truffle-oil-marinated baby artichokes (wholly edible artichokes from Italy); and crisp bacon alongside crostini toasts.

For each order, the chef briefly warms a goat-cheese log in front of a wood-burning oven so guests can cut neat slices to pile on crostini along with the other components.

Creative cheese applications also jazz up standard appetizers at Granite City Food & Brewery, a nine-unit casual concept based in St Louis Park, Minn. Melted Cheddar enlivens otherwise traditional crab cakes that are served atop fresh greens. In another crab-and-cheese pairing, shredded Monterey Jack teams with cream cheese, crab meat and spices in lightly fried won ton wrappers for a take on the Chinese takeout favorite.

At Beacon Restaurant in Sag Harbor, N.Y., Executive Chef and Partner Sam McClelland recruits smoked mozzarella to create a summery appetizer with portobello mushrooms and roasted peppers. Grilled portobellos are dredged in flour, egg and panko crumbs and briefly fried; the chef then layers the crisp mushrooms with roasted red peppers and sautéed spinach and tops them with mozzarella. To finish, he browns the dish under a salamander and plates it with lemon-caper butter and tender mâche.

Back in Time
Comfort food’s hold on American appetites shows few signs of weakening, and nothing conveys it quite like warm, melted cheese, whether it shows up between slices of toasted bread, suspended above low heat for fondue-style dipping, or clinging to noodles.

“It conjures up the good old days and brings back fun memories,” says restaurateur Glenn Susser of the grilled cheese-centered menu at Melt, a 20-seat casual eatery in Jersey City, N.J., where customers build innumerable incarnations of the classic sandwich.

Each day, 12 to 15 cheeses and at least a dozen toppings are on hand to construct sandwiches on generously buttered, extra-thick pain de mie (white bread) or multigrain bread from an artisan bakery in New York City. Sandwiches are cooked to order on French-made panini grills. Patrons can play it safe with simple pairings such as American cheese, bacon and tomatoes, or branch out with inventive combinations such as horseradish Havarti with smoked turkey and peach chutney; morel-and-leek Monterey Jack with tomato and creamy peppercorn dressing; or brandy manchego with quince preserves.

Aramark’s Esposito, who developed eight versions of grilled cheese for a late spring promotion, says rising awareness of the different types of cheese has increased demand for less-common varieties.

Built on white bread, wheat, wheatberry or marble rye and cooked on flat-top griddles, his selections include Fiery Frutti (pepper Jack with mango salsa and a dash of curry), Popeye Pizazz (dill Havarti with baby spinach and plum tomatoes) and Nutty Gonzo (Gorgonzola and mozzarella with walnuts, plum tomatoes and watercress).

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, hotspot Luna Park not only doles out its own style of grilled cheese on rye (paired with tomato-and-red-pepper soup), but Chef JJ Needham takes menu kitsch a step further with an appetizer of warm goat-cheese fondue, served with grilled bread and sliced apples. Cardwell’s at the Plaza in St. Louis spins its own brand of retro fare in the form of baked macaroni and white Cheddar cheese casserole, inspired by Chef-owner Bill Cardwell’s childhood in Vermont.

Cheese, Please
“I like to cook what I like to eat, and I love cheese. It rounds out the whole menu,” says Cardwell, who favors farmstand and artisanal varieties at his American-themed, 180-seat restaurant.

The chef uses ricotta and Bel Paese, a mild, semi-soft Italian cheese infused with herbs and dried tomatoes, to lend Mediterranean flair to wood-oven-roasted portobello stuffed with spinach, a dish menued as both starter and entrée. For a warm torte he likens to a savory cheesecake, Cardwell chooses goat cheese for its creaminess and acidity, baking it in a Parmigiano-Reggiano-and-cornmeal crust with herbs and roasted onions. The dish is plated with field greens, roasted vegetables and light citrus balsamic vinaigrette.

At bistro steakhouse River Oaks Grill in Houston, heavy emphasis on wine makes cheese an easy fit across the menu. As part of a recent tasting menu, Executive Chef Michael Frietsch matched fleur de maquis, a soft, French sheep’s milk variety whose natural rind is usually covered with herbs, chile peppers and juniper berries, with beef carpaccio, yellow tomatoes and truffle oil. For an appetizer on the regular menu, he fries oysters dusted in seasoned cornmeal and tops them with Saint André, a velvety French cow’s milk cheese comparable to Brie or Camembert. He briefly melts the cheese under a broiler before topping the oysters with Creole hollandaise and bits of prosciutto.

Cheese serves as “another piece in the arsenal, a choice in the palette of colors” for Chef-owner Christian Shaffer’s monthly changing menus at Avenue in Manhattan Beach, Calif. He layers burrata, a higher-fat, cow’s milk mozzarella with a soft, buttery center, with roasted eggplant marinated in olive oil, red-pepper flakes and garlic, garnishing the classic southern Italian dish with aromatic arugula.

“Cheese is a favorite of mine, but the hard part for any chef is simple—using it too often,” he says.

  • Asparagus Flan With Fontina-Asiago Fonduta

Mozzarella's Makeover
Expanding its social circle beyond the company of pizza or tomatoes and basil, moist, creamy mozzarella is grabbing the menu spotlight from coast to coast.

High-profile partners Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton have reimagined their planned Mozza Bar concept and will instead open Osteria dell Latte, described by Batali as “a pizzeria, Venetian-style snack area and real trattoria under one roof” this fall in Los Angeles. Although recipe planning is in the early stages, the trattoria menu will feature three types of mozzarella—one each from the Campania and Lazio regions of Italy and one from California—in appetizers and entrées. Burrata from Puglia and scamorza from Basilicata also will be highlighted, Batali says.

Amid pre-opening preparations for the restaurant, Silverton continues her stint as guest chef of Mozzarella Mondays at Chef-owner Suzanne Tracht’s restaurant Jar in Los Angeles. Each week, Silverton showcases locally made cheeses in moderately priced plates such as burrata ricotta with braised artichoke hearts, pine nuts and currants, or mozzarella with radicchio, garlic confit and mint pesto.

Executive Chef Antonio Prontelli’s Mozzarella Nights on Mondays at New York City’s Rock Center Café began as a bar promotion to boost post-holiday business in January. The program’s popularity has kept it going ever since, with Prontelli making the cheese in house prior to service each week for dishes such as mozzarella, basil and prosciutto pinwheels, crispy mozzarella and sausage purses, and mozzarella in carrozza with essence of anchovy and roasted tomato coulis.

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