Art + Chemistry = Cheese

April 30, 2011

Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.
~Luis Buñuel

Combine milk, bacteria, rennet, mold…and you have one seductive and addictive vice.

So simple, yet almost magical and surely sublime is this holy craft of transubstantiating milk into cheese. Even though the fond remains fairly steady, cheeses can range from rustic to elegant in character with noses, palates, textures, hues, masses and shapes across the board. It is about art and chemistry.

There is no fixed date, but cheese is rumored to have originated when goats were first domesticated in the fertile crescent region of the ancient Middle East around 8,000 BCE, give or take a millenium or two. Perhaps some imaginative soul noticed that neglected (1) milk turned acidic and curdled into a thick yogurt which could then be readily separated into solid curd and liquid whey. While the whey provided a refreshing drink, the fresh curd could be salted to produce a crude cheese. Others have suggested that the process was accidentally discovered by nomads who stored milk in skins made from animals’ stomachs naturally lined with rennet, separating the milk into curd and whey.

A primer may be in order. The cheese artisan first acidifies milk to turn the liquid into a solid by use of a (2) bacteria. There are several hundred thousand strains of starter bacteria which devour sugars, converting lactose into a lactic acid. This creates a viscous yogurt-like mass.

Next, the syrupy mass is coagulated by adding rennet to the mix. Rennet comes from the stomach linings of young ruminants. The active enzyme in (3) rennet acts on casein proteins which occur in milk as clumps known as micelles, held together by a calcium “glue.” When the rennet is added, a web is formed which traps water and fat, further thickening the gel.

The curd is (4) heated in a giant cauldron and salt is often added not only for taste but also to inhibit the growth of spoilage microbes and draw out yet more water. The cheese is then (5) molded which proves critical. The shape of the mold, the application of pressure and the proportion of whey removed all affect the texture of the final product.

Finally, the cheeses are (6) aged/ripened, a stage where they are left to rest under controlled conditions and often in special venues, e.g., the caves of Roquefort sur Soulzon. This aging period lasts from a few days to several years. The casein proteins and milkfat are broken down and morph into a complex mix of amino acids, amines, and fatty acids. As a cheese ages, microbes and enzymes transform textures and intensify flavors.

Some cheeses even have additional bacteria or molds introduced before or during the aging process. Think brie, camembert, roquefort, stilton.

Other seemingly minor variations can have a dramatic effect on the finished cheese: animal species, breed and diet, terroir, amount and type of bacterial culture and molds, ripening time, aging locale, rennet volume, curd size, heating rate for milk, length of time stirred, how the whey is removed, and so on.

While cheeses are liberally used while cooking here, there is nothing more mold-ambrosial than an array of artisanal cheeses—from mild to wild—gracing the table with a choice wine and a baguette, ciabatta or other artisanal siren. Staff of life stuff. Khayyám’s standby “a loaf of bread, a flask of wine and thou” seems so often apt (loosely translated). A winsome foursome that brings cheeses on board is even better.

BREAD PUDDING WITH CHEESES & ASPARAGUS

1+ lb baguette loaf, cut or roughly torn into 1″ pieces

3/4 lb asparagus, trimmed and sliced into 1″ pieces

6 large, fresh eggs
1 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 1/2 C gruyère or comté cheese, grated
1 C emmental cheese, grated
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
1/4 C fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 C fresh thyme leaves, minced

Preheat oven to 375 F

Butter a 13″ x 9″ glass baking dish

Heat a large saucepan with cold water over high, and when boiling, add salt. Cook asparagus until al dente tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and plunge in an ice bath to cease cooking. Drain well and dry, or the asparagus will become soggy.

Whisk eggs, milk, cream, salt, and pepper in large bowl. Mix cheeses and herbs in medium bowl.

Place half of bread in baking dish. Sprinkle with half of asparagus, cheese mixture and egg mixture. Repeat with remaining bread, asparagus, cheese and egg mixture. Let stand 30 minutes, pressing down to submerge bread pieces.

Bake until nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool 15 minutes or so.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.
~Blaise Pascal, from Pensées

DUCK RAGOUT WITH POLENTA

While the precise date for Easter is a matter of contention, the celebration is a moveable feast, in that it does not fall on a specified date in Julian or Gregorian calendars. Rather, the day for celebration is determined on a lunisolar calendar—the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal moon) following the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox—even though this does not comport to ecclesiatical strictures. Polemics on the nearly endless theological, philosophical, mythological, and even biological controversies surrounding this rose from death holiday will serve little good here. Not that I fear expressing valid doubt; it’s simply a question of venting space.

Since childhood I have however pondered about the duck’s entry into the Easter fray, given that it is bunnies that really lay eggs, right? You know, that common marsupial form of the family Leporidae…or how bunnies, eggs and scavenger hunts are related to the celebration of Jesus dying on a cross and then resurrecting a couple of days later. Apparently, the egg bearing bunny evolved from the fertile Saxon goddess named Oestre, the pagan goddess of spring and personification of dawn. The goddess saved the life of a bird whose wings had been frozen by the snow, making him her pet and some even say her lover. Filled with empathy at the bird’s inability to fly, Oestre morphed him into a snow hare and bestowed upon him the gift of being able to run so rapidly that he could evade hunters. Still sensitive to his early aviary form, she also gave the male hare an ability to lay brilliantly hued (now pastelled) eggs one day each year.

We now know this tale may have been mischievously invented by a monk who became known as Venerable Bede. While research has failed to unearth much mention of Oestre earlier, Bede mentioned her in connection with the pagan festival Eosturmonath in a book authored in 750 CE. So, was the Easter bunny a literary forgery?

Myths built upon myths, all leading to marketing mirth.

A derivative of the French verb ragoûter, meaning “to stimulate the appetite,” ragoût is a thick, deeply intense stew of meat, poultry, fish and/or vegetables. Its northern Italian kin, ragù, is a sauce that often contains ground meats, pancetta, tomatoes, onions, celery, carrots, and wine.

As befits its name, this fare is far from taciturn.

4 duck leg-thighs, excess skin trimmed
3 T extra virgin olive oil

3 ribs celery, trimmed and finely diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

4 premium anchovy filets, rinsed, dried and minced

6 juniper berries
1 1/2 C dry red wine, such as a Zinfandel or Rhône
1/2 C apple cider vinegar

3 T tomato paste
2 C chicken stock

1 T fresh sage leaves, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sautéed or fried sage leaves, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F

Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add olive oil, and when it begins to shimmer, add the duck legs, skin side down. Cook until the skin is nicely browned and the fat has begun to render, about 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the legs over and brown the other sides, some 5 to 10 minutes more. Remove and allow to rest.

Add the celery, carrots, onion and garlic to the pot, and stir to combine. Cook until the onion has softened and has just started to color, approximately 8 to 10 minutes. Clear a space in the center of the pot and add the anchovies, then swirl and press them in the fat until they begin to dissolve. Stir further to combine. Add juniper berries, wine, cider vinegar and duck legs, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, approximately 15 minutes.

Add tomato paste and stir to combine, then enough chicken stock so that the combination takes on a saucy consistency and just barely covers the duck. Increase heat to high and bring just to a boil. Cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook until the meat is almost falling off the bone, about 90 minutes.

Remove duck from pot and allow to cool slightly. Peel off skin, dice and reserve. Shred meat off bones and return to pot. Place pot on stove top over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add duck skin, sage, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Strew shredded duck over polenta, spoon over sauce, and top with a couple of sage leaves.

Serve in shallow soup bowls, paired with creamy polenta.

Polenta

2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 C chicken stock
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 C polenta
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano

In a medium heavy saucepan, combine the milk, cream, stock, and thyme over medium high heat. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Discard thyme sprigs and garlic cloves. Reduce heat to low, slowly add the polenta and cook, stirring constantly, until creamy and thick, about 5-8 minutes. Gently stir in the parmigiano-reggiano.

Pourboire: the sauce and legs can be stored separately overnight in the refrigerator. The fat will rise to the top of the sauce and may be easily skimmed off when you are ready to heat it through the following day. You may even find this method preferable. Also, give strong consideration to serving the ragoût over delicate gnocchi.

Erotica is using a feather, pornography is using the whole chicken.
~Isabel Allende

Bouillabaisse is an iconic, magical Provençal fish stew which is derived from the Occitan compound word bolhabaissa, consisting of the the verbs bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to simmer). While Greek and Italian culinary historians also lay claim to bouillabaisse, the simplicity of regional poached fish in an aromatic broth make a true origin difficult to pinpoint. Made in so many quaint port villages in Provence and laden with local Meditteranean fish, citrus, saffron and aromatic Provençal spices and herbs, bouillabaisse is both kitchen and fresh catch variant.

Admittedly, this is a fish soup guised in fowl clothing. But, this is no loss as many of the same robust, sublime scents and flavors linger. This recipe benefits from being made one day in advance…allow to spoon.

CHICKEN BOUILLABAISSE WITH ROUILLE

1 3 lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces*
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T fresh garlic, finely minced
1/2 C yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 C fennel, coarsely chopped
1/4 C carrot, coarsely chopped

1 can (14 ozs) San Marzano tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 1/2 C dry white wine
2 C chicken stock
Splash of anise liquer–Ricard or Pernod
1 t saffron threads
1 t grated lemon zest
1 t orange zest
1/2 t fennel seeds, crushed
1 1/2 t herbes de Provence
1 bay leaf
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered

2 kielbasa sausages, roughly sliced into 1/2″ pieces

Chopped tarragon leaves

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Add olive oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add onion, fennel, garlic and carrot, and stirring often, sauté until onions are tender and translucent, about 8 minutes.

Add the chicken, tomatoes, wine, stock, Ricard, saffron, lemon & orange zests, fennel, herbes de Provence, bay leaf and potatoes. There should be enough liquid to just cover the meat. Cover and bring to a gentle boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer gently until chicken is tender, about 25-30 minutes. Add the kielbasa and cook some 5 minutes longer. Remove bay leaf and correct seasoning.

Serve the bouillabaisse in warm soup plates over steamed rice with a spoonful of rouille drizzled over and tarragon strewn atop. Pass the rest of the rouille and cooking liquid separately.

Rouille

1/4 C chopped red bell pepper
1 red chile pepper

1 medium potato, cooked (see above)
4 large, plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 egg yolks
1 t dried thyme

1 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Simmer red bell and chile peppers in salted water for several minutes until tender. Drain well. With a mortar and pestle, pound simmered chiles, cooked potato, garlic, cayenne, egg yolks and thyme to form a smooth paste. While whisking, drizzle in olive oil until the rouille reaches a mayonnaise consistency. Season to taste.

*Pourboire: There are a couple of schools about the chicken prep. One espouses leaving the skin intact on a cut whole chicken and sautéeing the chicken to a light, crispy brown in olive oil and butter prior to poaching. Another suggests using leg-thigh quarters and simply skinning them before the poaching process sans sauté. A third says leave the skin on period. Rarely do Hobson’s choices inhabit a home kitchen.

Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.
~Bertrand Russell

Ancient Rome had an illustrious tradition of kinky emperors, some of whom just narcissistically railed out of control. Whimsy and revelry gone morbid.

Armed with a paranoid temperament, Caligula (37-41 AD) was widely reputed for his tyrranical cruelty, orgiastic extravagances and sexual perversities. Nero (54-68 AD), an early persecutor of Christians, was known for having captured worshippers burned in his garden at night for a source of light. Alleged to have calmly fiddled while Rome burned—a My Pet Goat moment—he also had his mother Agrippa summarily executed and stepbrother poisoned. Commodus (180-192 AD) who ruled with his father, Marcus Aurelius, held perverse sway over hundreds of concubines and terrorized Rome’s rich and famous with a murderous reign of death and torture. In the midst of his cruelties, Commodus would sing and dance, frolicking as the town buffoon on Rome’s streets. The notorious Caracalla (209-217 AD) ruthlessly murdered his brother and persecuted some 20,000 of his allies. Elagabalus (218-222 AD) married multiple times, even taking one of the sacred vestal virgins as one wife. He was rumored to have had homosexual liaisons with his courtiers and had his body hairs plucked to appear more feminine…even engaging in public crossdressing.

Enter on stage Silvio Berlusconi, the current prime minister. Facing trials on a number of scandals, his private life has become curiously linked with the phrase bunga bunga. The term is now so well embedded in the Italian language that “bunga bunga city” refers to Sig. Berlusconi’s world.

Hordes of linguists and journalists have puzzled over the origins of these words which emerged last year, when a teen Moroccan belly dancer said she had attended bunga bunga parties with other women at Sig. Berlusconi’s villa in Milano.

I openly confess to not knowing what bunga bunga means. But, Arab news sources have reported that that Berlusconi learned these harem rituals frοm hіѕ friend, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Some have suggested that the phrase comes from one of the prime minister’s favorite infantile African-connoted jokes. Other references to bunga include a masquerading hoax about the Abyssinian emperor inspecting the H.M.S. Dreadnought at the turn of the century which involved the author Virginia Woolf donning a full beard. Earlier this year in Spartacus fashion, Sabina Began, German actress and Berlusconi’s friend, even revealed to Sky Italia that she herself was bunga bunga: “Bunga Bunga is simply my nickname.”

I still do not know the definition, but have felt an urge to proclaim “I am Bunga Bunga!” It has a certain cinematic ring.

So, enough bunga bunga prattle. On to more serious fare, risotto—a marvel of the food world. There is a radiance to risotto. An elegant, yet soulful, sheen which almost causes you to bow at the waist.

RISOTTO con FUNGHI e VINO BIANCO

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2-3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 ozs proscuitto di parma or san daniele, diced finely
3/4 lb porcini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 1/2 C arborio rice
8 C chicken stock

1 C sauvignon blanc
4 T unsalted butter
1 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, almost simmering.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat until almost smoking. Add the shallots and proscuitto and cook until the shallots are softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned while stirring. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes.

Then, begin the process. Add a ladleful of hot stock, and cook, until liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock a ladleful at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more. The rice will become tender and creamy but still al dente after about 18 minutes.

Add the wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the butter and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so. Season with salt and pepper, divide among shallow serving bowls and serve.

The cruelest prison of all is the prison of the mind.
~Piri Thomas

Petit and piquant, piri piri (also known as bird’s eye or African red devil) is a cultivar of Capsicum frutescens, which is both a wild and domesticated chile pepper.

Piri piri rolls off the ever seductive Portuguese tongue which did not so gently settle into the lush, tropical lands of the República de Moçambique (Mozambique). Not unlike most European-African incursions, Portugal began to colonize these lands in the early 16th century. Mozambique’s natives and natural resources, particularly gold mines, sugar and copra plantations, endured serious exploitation. Indigenous peoples were subjected to harsh conditions, punitive laws, and restricted rights all the while “settlers” were lured to a land claimed to be flowing with milk and honey. Sadly, a familiar tune.

Independence from this colonial yoke was finally achieved in 1975, yet Mozambique was soon ravaged by civil war, economic woes and famine. Relative peace was reached, ending sixteen years of brutal strife and allowing the country to begin drifting toward some form of stability. Still, the civil war that devastated Mozambique’s economy and infrastructure left it one of the world’s poorest nations.

Ironically, Portugal’s PM, José Sócrates, has now requested a financial bailout for his own country, north and west of its former colony.

The country’s name was derived from Mossa Al Bique or Mussa Ben Mbiki who was a renowned, local Arab trader of yore. I must assume that had to be one in the same person.

Shrimp piri piri has been anointed as Mozambique’s “national dish.” But, what does that phrase connote in a world rife with regional and familial dishes, cross cultures, conquest, occupation and colonialism?

This piri piri swerves some from the basic, but is well worth the diversion.

SHRIMP PIRI PIRI

1/3 C extra virgin olive oil

1/2 t black mustard seeds
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
6-8 red bird’s eye chiles, seeds and ribs removed, chopped

1 t cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1/2 t ground turmeric
1 t garam masala
1/2 t ground clove
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t sea salt
Pinch of raw sugar
1/2 C apple cider vinegar

1 lb shrimp (16-20 count), peeled and deveined, tails intact

Fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Lime quarters

In a large, heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the mustard seeds and cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Add the onion, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion has softened slightly, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and chiles and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2-4 minutes longer.

Add the cumin, turmeric, garam masala, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, salt, sugar, and vinegar. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and, when the mixture is cool enough, purée in a food processor or blender until smooth. If necessary, add more oil to achieve the desired consistency. Set aside and allow to cool. Then, pour over the shrimp and cover in the refrigerator for a few hours or even overnight.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté, stirring and shaking the pan, until the shrimp are done, about 2-4 minutes. Serve promptly with cilantro and limes.