American Cheese Society 2011: My Voyage for Fromage

Aaron Foster works in the Buying Department at Murray’s Cheese and is always on the hunt for the next delicious experience to share with our customers. This year Aaron attended the American Cheese Society conference to learn about what it takes to make the nation’s best cheese, and to taste a few dozen himself.

As a first-time American Cheese Society Conference attendee, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve worked in cheese for over 9 years, but somehow I’d never actually made it to the main event. The conference is a moving target, one year in Louisville, another in Chicago, the next in Seattle, and so on. Having resolved to finally attend, as a representative of Murray’s Cheese, I lucked out with this year’s destination: Montreal. Now, I hear you say… isn’t it called the American Cheese Society? Indeed, it is. This is the first year that the conference was held outside of the continental US. I’m guessing Canada gets a pass because of a parenthetical “north”, as in (North) American Cheese Society.

Harbison aging in the Cellars at Jasper Hill

In any case, I was excited to travel to Montreal to meet some of the great minds of our industry, and to introduce myself to the cheese luminaries whose books I read and whose names have been synonymous with American dairy since before I was born. I arrived in Montreal late in the evening on my birthday, August 3rd, and joined the crew from the Cellars at Jasper Hill for dinner. Part of what is so amazing about the conference is that it pools together cheesemakers, retailers, distributors and enthusiasts, to share their views and insights with one another. Dining with the cheesemakers from the Cellars, I was able to explain how their cheeses are received by actual people, customers who buy Bayley Hazen Blue or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from our cheese counter. It’s almost silly to imagine, but cheesemakers rarely interact with the people who are eating their cheese most of the time. On the flip side, we as retailers and cheese consumers often don’t fully understand the challenges and work that happens at the farm.

The American Cheese Society conference is made up primarily of lectures, seminars and panel discussions which happen throughout the day. Some are very technical, geared towards cheesemaking minutiae. Others are historical or cultural, say – the history of monastic cheese in the US. And still others concern themselves with issues of regulation and safety. As a retailer and a diehard cheese-lover, I made sure to attend as many different seminars as possible.

I started with a lecture on starter cultures… the beneficial microorganisms added early in the cheesemaking process to help acidify the milk and develop flavor in the cheese. Suffice it to say the bulk of this talk was way over my head, but I took away two points – that cheesemaking is usually more science than art, and that even small variations or inconsistencies can make for wild variations in the end product. Cheesemakers need to keep extraordinarily detailed records of their process, and need to replicate that process to the T; a make at 92 degrees F might yield a cheese with perfect texture and depth of flavor, whereas a make at 88 F could result in a cheese that’s barely recognizable. I don’t envy cheesemakers – that’s a pretty narrow margin for error.

I attended another talk on food safety from farm to fork. From a food safety perspective, cheese is a relatively safe, although perishable, product. But from cow to cheese vat to aging room to distributor to wholesaler to retailer to consumer, a given piece of cheese passes through many hands. We all have a duty to take every precaution to ensure the safety and preserve the quality of the cheese.

My next seminar was a tasting workshop, on identifying flavor in cheese. It’s not as easy as you think! We practiced by tasting candy while holding our nose. What tasted only sour and sweet with our noses pinched was actually a very strong mint once we could smell again. This exercise was meant to demonstrate how much taste is actually a function of smell. We also smelled covered containers of six different scents, and had to guess what they were. I got three out of six (butter cookies, black pepper, onion powder), but missed a gimme like sauteed mushrooms. The point is that we unwittingly depend on visual cues to help categorize what we’re smelling and tasting, and to be more conscious of this when evaluating flavor in cheese.

Aaron Foster with Sister Noella, “The Cheese Nun”

But the best talk I attended was on the microbiology of cheese rinds, called Growing Mold Gracefully. Led by cheese rockstar Sister Noella Marcellino of Connecticut’s Abbey of Regina Laudis and Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton, the panel treated the diversity and complexity of micro-biomes in cheese rinds. The rind of a cheese is an exceedingly complex conglomeration on molds and bacteria that exist in a delicate and unique symbiosis. Every cheese in every batch is different; and while cultures may be added to guide rind development, Rachel and Sister Noella agree that the influence of indigenous microrganisms is far more important. Rachel is using state of the art gene sequencing techniques to develop a taxonomy of organisms found in cheese rinds. She has already discovered that cheese rinds exhibit some species that have also been found in Arctic sea ice, Norwegian fjords, and Etruscan tombs!

The conference ends, as always, with a tense announcement of the winners of the cheese contest, punctuated by the Best in Show award. This year, there were 1,676 entries across 99 different cheese categories. I certainly don’t envy the judges for their tasting duties… the judge who tasted the least amount of cheese still tasted nearly 100 varieties. This year, Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon took Best in Show. A lovely leaf-wrapped, raw milk blue, this seasonal beaut of a cheese will be available from Murray’s in a few short weeks. And finally, comes the Festival of Cheese – the attendees’ opportunity to taste the myriad entries, and to get a true lay of the land for the American cheese industry. I probably made it through 50 different cheeses before giving up… perhaps I’m not quite fit to be a judge yet.

All in all, the American Cheese Society conference was a fascinating and rewarding experience, enormously valuable to cheese professionals and enthusiasts alike. I won’t miss another one any time soon.

 

 

James Is Not A Chef: Meatless Mondays

James Stahl is a cheesemonger and may or may not have a thing for the original male cast members of ER. This blog invites you to take a peek at his most recent creation and dares you to try this at home.

Beef-Free Beefish Mushroom Bolognese

For one teenage year I was a vegetarian. This decision was not motivated by ethical or health concerns; I stopped eating meat for approximately three hundred and sixty five days because I wanted to be as cool as my older brother. I’ll give you one guess as to how that worked out for me. But because my father is a compassionate man, he developed a vegetarian red sauce that tasted like it had meat in it for me and my brother to eat. Desperate for anything that tasted vaguely beefish (and no, fake beef doesn’t taste even remotely beefish), I consistently finished my first, second, third fourteenth plate whenever he made it. I even loved that sauce after I stopped being a bad vegetarian (Cheetos don’t have meat in them, right?). Now I’m sure my dad has the recipe floating around somewhere, but I decided that I’d rather try to recreate it myself and see what happens. The results are below.

The Recipe

1 pound cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
1 28 oz can peeled tomatoes, diced and sauce saved
1 large white onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup vegetarian broth
2 tbsp aged balsamic vinegar
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried basil
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano , for topping
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil to smoking. Drop garlic into olive oil and cook until browned, only about 90 seconds. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook for about 6 minutes.

Add tomatoes and sauce, paste, broth, vinegar, oregano, basil and cayenne into pot and stir until thoroughly mixed. Salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

Spoon over cooked pasta of your choice, garnish with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve.

mmmm… beefish….

What Went Well

Quote The Girlfriend: “If you make this again and change the recipe I’ll break up with you, kick you out of the apartment and keep both cats. Yes, even the one you’ve had since you’ve been twelve.”

So yeah, I think she liked it.

Broth. Again, a good broth comes through and balances out a dish. This time it added a real depth and heartiness that, in tandem with the mushrooms, provided the meaty flavor that I was looking for.

What Went Less Well

Wait, did you say DRIED basil? Unfortunately, I did and I apologize to every Italian mother in the city, but the local grocery store was not carrying fresh basil and I had to make do with dried. While I don’t think the sauce was ruined or anything, the pop of fresh basil would only have helped.

Olives. In retrospect, I think adding a 1/3 to a 1/2 cup of chopped kalamata olives* would’ve really helped the dish. I have no rational explanation as to why I feel that way, but I do. (Girlfriend politely disagrees.)

The Verdict

It was really good and really easy to make. I stopped using jarred tomato sauce a long time ago and haven’t looked back. I’ll definitely make this again.

Best Song Played by Internet Radio While Cooking

November Rain by Guns ‘N Roses. The live 12 minute version that starts off with a completely superfluous 3 minute Axl Rose piano solo that has no real connection to the actual song other than to prove that Axl Rose can, in fact, play the piano.

Embarrassing That’s What She Said

The girlfriend and I are watching the Falling Skies premier and it’s pretty good. It’s basically the Revolutionary War with aliens taking the place of the British. Lest you forget that Steven Spielberg produces the show, at the end of the first episode they celebrate a little kid’s birthday despite the fact that two thirds of the human race has been wiped out. I direct an eye-roll towards the girlfriend only to find that she’s tearing up. She notices my look and blurts out, “I know! I’m easily manipulated!”

Embarrassing That’s What I Said

The girlfriend: You and my best friend, Vicki, share a lot of the same celebrity crushes.

Me: Noah Wylie (main star of Falling Skies) and who else?

The girlfriend: George Clooney.

Me: [shockingly defensive] What’s not to like about George Clooney?

Everyone’s A Winner At The Vermont Cheesemakers Festival

Stephanie Butler was the grand prize winner of our Facebook contest for a trip to Vermont to attend the VT Cheesemakers Festival. She was gracious enough to contribute this blog post about her experience on the trip. Thank you, Stephanie – we’re glad you had such a great time!

If you’ve never eaten a half-pound of cheese on a tour bus in a McDonald’s parking lot in Nowheresville, Massachusetts, then obviously you’ve never gone on a trip with the Murray’s Cheese crew. I was lucky enough to win two tickets to the Vermont Whey-cation, and my boyfriend and I spent a whirlwind 40 hours tasting cheese, smelling cheese – by Sunday night I think we were even exuding the stuff through our pores.

Aging facility at Spring Brook Farm

Our trip started with a tour of Spring Brook Farm’s Cheese House. Lead cheese maker Jeremy Stephenson took the time to guide us through each aspect of the 18-month-long process it takes to create one wheel of their tasty Tarentaise. Their cheese caves were something to see: twelve rows of wooden shelves with hundreds of cheeses waiting their turn to be washed and rotated. After the tour we got some time to sightsee around the beautiful grounds, where I met and fell in love with a sweet Jersey named Daisy.

Stephanie at the farm!

On to dinner at Bluebird Tavern, where we were treated to a feast of Vermont’s finest foods. Allison Hooper, the founder of the Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, joined us for the meal, where each dish included one of her cheeses as an ingredient. My favorite had to be the whole roast pig on grilled bread with baked goat cheese and pickled blueberries, but the heirloom tomatoes with basil and mascarpone were certainly a close second. I washed everything down with pints of Hill Farmstead Brewery’s Edward, an American Pale Ale I can’t wait to try to track down here in Brooklyn. Add some banana pudding with whipped goat cheese in individual jelly jars for dessert, and I slept that night like a bump on a Vermont log.

Approaching Shelbourne Farm

We awoke the next morning eager to truck off to our ultimate destination: the Vermont Cheesemakers’ Festival at Shelburne Farms. I expected the festival grounds to be gorgeous (it was originally a summer home for the Vanderbilts), but I really didn’t have any idea just how beautiful it would be. Right on the shores of Lake Champlain, with the hazy Adirondacks across the water, I was ready to make plans to move to Burlington right then and there. The festival more than lived up to the setting, with cheese makers sampling their wares next to truffle makers, beer brewers, picklers, and bakers. Non-cheese highlights for me were the Vermont Smoke and Cure booth,  which gave away generous samples of delicious pepperoni (available at Murray’s!), Red Hen Baking Company’s yummy wholegrain loaf (we bought the last one), and the kind ladies at the Vermont Maple Foundation booth who gave us tastes of maple cheesecake. As for cheeses, I loved the creamy ricotta from Narragansett Creamery, Vermont Shepherd’s rich and tangy sheep cheeses (ed. note: Vermont Shepherd cheeses will be available this fall), and just about everything from the Cellars at Jasper Hill.

So much cheese!

After taking in the festival barn, we adjoined to the huge waterfront lawn, where fellow picnickers had set up blankets, wine buckets, and hiking chairs. It was an idyllic scene, for sure, with barefoot children running around, 4-H teenagers showing off their baby goats, and a gentle breeze floating over our heads. I lunched on some Vermont pizza while my boyfriend chowed on a grass fed hamburger, and we toasted our sample wine glasses full of local rosé. “To the good life!” we said, and, for two days in Vermont, it certainly was.

Beth Ann from Murray’s Wholesale department makes friends with a goat.

To stay up to date on the latest news from Murray’s Cheese and hear about contests like the Vermont Wheycation Giveaway that Stephanie won, be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!


baby cow!

Who You Callin’ A Hooligan?

by Anuradha Jayakrishnan, Head Cheesemonger at Murray’s Cheese in Grand Central Terminal

Have you ever wanted to get your hands on a Hooligan? No, I don’t mean one of us cheesemongers behind the counter, I mean a REAL Hooligan, like the ones we made at Cato Corner Farm on a recent Thursday.  If you love cheese as much as we do at Murray’s, you’ve got to know a cheese’s ins and outs, its story, it’s SOURCE. So, sinking our hands right into the cheesemaking process was, in fact, wonderfully appropriate.

The Murray’s crew and I departed Bleecker Street and headed across state lines to farm country, also known as Connecticut. We arrived at Cato Corner Farm just after noon that Bloomsday and a small gang of friendly but boisterous dogs heralded our arrival. As we poured out of the mini-van, the smell of hay, barn and warm sunshine welcomed us without words; it was going to be a good day.

The cows at Cato Corner gave a warm welcome.

Liz, owner of the farm, greeted us with a grin, and a laugh, “You must be from Murray’s.” I was sure my Ray Bans, beat-up Beatles t-shirt, and red cut-offs would make me look farm chic, but alas, I fear my oversized flower tote containing bronzer and sunscreen gave me away. We freshened up and then met Mark, Liz’s son who oversees the farm’s cheesemaking. He took us underground to see affinage at work in their aging facility, which was not unlike the cheese caves beneath our Bleecker Street store. I was amazed by the sheer number of cheeses being aged at one time in the small farm’s complex. Shelves of old and young wheels formed passageways that towered over us like halls of an antique library (and the smell wasn’t that dissimilar either). Incredibly enough, the thick, dull brown rinds on the large wheels and the (almost cute) furry blue and grey rinds on the smaller wheels were derived from ambient molds that occur naturally in the caves themselves (local mold makes local gold! Ha!).

Yours truly, in good company!

Next up on the docket was cheesemaking. Now, if you’re as big of a cheese nerd as I am, you’d understand why I was giggling through the whole sanitizing process. There I was, every appendage covered in plastic yet I couldn’t help but clap with joy in a ruffled frenzy at the thought of molding curd with my own fingers. We surrounded the enormous bath tub (at least it look like one) filled half way with what looked like an untouched layer of plain yogurt. Having added the rennet an hour before, Mark said, the milk  should be firm enough to cut by now – and with that, he pierced the creamy film, and to my amazement, it didn’t blob into a soft creamy mess, but yielded to the knife like a limber slice of tofu. The curd was ready. He began slicing the curd into half inch pieces using a large wire cutter. Then we took turns dipping our hands into the vat and milling the curds into finer, more even bits. The curd itself tasted like sweet, warm milk Jell-o, but in the best way. After draining the whey, we scooped the curds into baskets, piling the milled bits into heaping snow cone-esque forms for further drainage and shaping. Minutes later, we popped the curds out of the molds and voila – curds in their perfect form, ready to join their comrades in the aging room, but with the added touch of Murray’s handiwork; hooligans indeed.

Stirring the curd that will later be molded into Hooligan.

We concluded our cheese-making escapade with a picnic lunch outside where we all enjoyed sandwiches, charcuterie, pickles, farm fresh fruits and veggies, and of course, cheese. We tried a very special cheese only available at the farm, the 1 year aged Anniversary Bloomsday, made a year ago to the day! It was nutty and sharp with crystalline pops of sweetness and a pale, custard yellow paste that sang of summer sun and happy cows.  Naturally, we also sampled Hooligan, a large muffin shaped cheese with a dense, flaky center and mildly pungent rind. We finished with Misty Morning, a creamy, earthy blue that was lovely with bites of freshly picked strawberries.

The finished product, after aging: Funky funky hooligan

After touring the farm and thanking the cows for their generous bounties, we climbed back into the mini-van, ripe Hooligans in tow (think ripe plus hot cramped car… serious funky town), and headed back to the West Village. Great cheese and great people; I could not have asked for a better Bloomsday.

James Is Not A Chef: Spicy BBQ Shrimp Quesadillas

James Stahl is a cheesemonger, a melt-master and an all-around crazy dude in the kitchen. This blog invites you to take a peek at his most recent creations and dares you to try this at home.

Important Disclaimer: While I assume that this will be readily apparent, I am not a professional chef. I am simply someone who loves to cook. My desire is to expand my ability to create amazing dishes and, with access to the best quality ingredients in New York City courtesy of Murray’s Cheese (not to mention a pretty sweet discount), I intend to share that experience with you.  Okay, that was far too serious. It won’t happen again, pinky swear. On to the food!

Spicy Barbecue Shrimp Quesadillas

Note: The recipe shown is how I executed the dish that is pictured, not necessarily how I conceived of the dish or how I would make it again.

Ingredients:

1 pound uncooked large shrimp, cleaned
3/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 cup spicy ketchup
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
3/4 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup dark beer
1/2 cup shredded jalapeno jack
1/2 red onion, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
5 tablespoons butter
1/2 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large flour tortillas

In a large skillet under medium-low heat melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Add garlic, cook until browned. Add onions, sauté until soft and translucent, about 5-6 minutes.

Pour in vinegar, beer and chicken broth, raise heat to a boil. Add ketchup, mustard, cumin and cayenne pepper. Stir until fully mixed. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until reduced by about a quarter.

In a separate pan, heat up olive oil until just before smoking and add shrimp. Sear each side a nice golden brown, just over a minute each side, so pay close attention.

Heat tortillas in a microwave for about 30 seconds, add half of the shrimp on each tortilla, cover with sauce and half of the cheese. Fold tortilla on top of itself.

On a grill pan, over medium high heat, melt a tablespoon of butter, place quesadilla on pan and brown each side, a couple minutes for each side. Cut in half and serve with sour cream.

What Went Well

The Sauce. Hot damn that sauce turned out great. I was aiming for a pulled pork vinegar-style and I think I nailed it. The chicken broth balanced everything out nicely despite the fact that I hadn’t originally planned on using any. The importance of good chicken broth cannot be understated.

Could it have been spicier? I think it was plenty hot for a mixed crowd, but I wouldn’t turn down the option of chopping up a serrano pepper and cooking it with the onions.

The Shrimp. I had tossed around the idea of using a pre-roasted chicken and shredding the breast into the sauce and letting it simmer for a good long time, but shrimp really turned out to be the better option. The chicken would’ve gotten lost in the sauce while the texture of the shrimp really stood out.

What Went Less Well

My Impending Senility. So the plan was to finely chop up some chorizo, fry it crisply and add to the sauce. I bought it. It was in the fridge and everything, but I just flat out forgot about it.

The Tortillas. The large tortillas were rather unwieldy and it was difficult to get an even browning on my fry pan. I would definitely use smaller tortillas next time.

The Definition of “Cleaned” Shrimp. Apparently mine is different than the seafood shop’s. De-veining the shrimp wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had imagined, but it wasn’t particularly fun either.

That’s What She Said

The Girlfriend: “Pretty awesome but perhaps a tad too saucy, the tortillas ended up a bit soggy as a result. But I’d definitely eat that again.”

The Verdict

I definitely give it a thumbs up, but hopefully I’ll remember the chorizo next time. The smokiness and crunch from the crisp chorizo will be a killer addition to the sauce.

Favorite Song Internet Radio Played While Cooking

Dominion/Mother Russia by The Sisters of Mercy. Thank God the internet didn’t really exist back during my high school goth phase. Nobody needs to relive that. Seriously.