Every Cheese Has a Story

Cookbook from a Very Smart Cheesemonger

About a week or so ago a friend of mine, who is an excellent cook and a frequent contributor to this column, excitedly shared news of a cookbook she received for Christmas -- "Caseus Fromagerie Bistro Cookbook: Every Cheese Has a Story." Her enthusiasm for the book was so exciting, that I promptly sent a request to the publisher for a copy of my own and literally, within days, here it was. And, so goes the exuberance and pace for "Caseus," both the name of the cookbook written by Jason Sobocinski and his award-winning bistro/cheese shop, located in New Haven, Connecticut. With the kind of know-how, confidence and energy that comes along with an earned master's degree in gastronomy (from Boston University) and a move-up-the-ranks stint at Cambridge's celebrated Formaggio Kitchen, Sobocinski also captured the spot as host of the Cooking Channel's "The Big Cheese (www.cookingchanneltv.com)," a show that has Sobocinski not only touring some of the best cheese-making establishments in the country, but also cooking their cheese alongside esteemed local chefs, as well. With the United States' being the foremost makers of cheese in the world, Sobocinski encounters no shortage of material for his show -- or his bistro. Cheeses such as Cabot's Clothbound Cheddar, from Vermont, or Cato Corner Farm's blue cheese, from Colchester, Connecticut, are but two examples of notable American cheeses that Sobacinski favors for some of his signature dishes. For folks seeking imported cheese endorsements, "Caseus" includes a list of "crucial cooking cheeses," such as Old Amsterdam Gouda and Comte, which Sobocinski describes as "the king - the best ever for cooking, melting or eating straight up." Don't let the catalog of artisanal cheeses put you off. This is a fun cookbook, filled with personality, recipe sidebars and a raucous good time. Purchase "Caseus" at  book stores carrying fine cookbooks or via on-line sources, such as Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) or Barnes and Noble.com (www.barnesandnoble.com).

Sue Ade is a syndicated food writer with broad experience and interest in the culinary arts. She has worked and resided in the Lowcountry of South Carolina since 1985 and may be reached at kitchenade@yahoo.com. 

French Onion Soup (Feeds 4)

7 large Spanish onions
3 tablespoons fresh unsalted butter
3 cloves fresh garlic
1/4 cup tawny port (Use the cheap stuff and you'll not be happy, so pony up for something decent.)
1 bay leaf
10 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 bottle good, robust red wine (Something dry and Spanish and leftover is perfect.)
2 quarts beef stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sourdough ficelle or old baguette, sliced and preferably stale
1/2 cup plus of cheese per portion of soup (We use a blend of Raclette, Gruyere, Comte, Provolone and 2-year-aged Gouda).

Peel and cut the onions into thin ribbons, but not too thin (about 1/8 inch or so). I like to cut them up into several sizes so that some of the onions melt away while others stay toothsome. Over medium heat, warm the butter in a large stock pot or, for best results, in a thick, enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Allow the butter to begin to melt, and then add all of the onions at once. It's a ton of onions, but they will sweat down considerably. If need be, cook them in two batches. Cook the onions uncovered and check them every so often, using a wooden spoon to stir them around so that the ones on top get some bottom time. Meanwhile, peel the garlic cloves, smack them with a knife, and throw them into the pot with the onions. They should not be minced but merely slightly flattened. The smaller the garlic is cut, the more forceful its flavor. By keeping it whole but simply smacked you release some of its sweetness but none of the spicy robustness that garlic can incorporate. After about 30 to 45 minutes, the onions should be a nice golden to dark brown color and soft and translucent. Pour the port into the pot with the onions and, using your wooden spoon, scrape/deglaze the bottom of the pot as much as you can. Be sure to get the sides and edges so that entire bottom of the pot is now clean. Add the bay leaf, thyme, red wine, and beef stock. Season with salt and pepper until desired flavor is achieved, but don't go too heavy on the salt. As you cook the soup, it will reduce and intensify in flavor. Let all of this simmer lightly on the stove for at least 4 hours (preferably longer) and--this is very important--allow to cool and store overnight to be reheated the next day.

The following day
Slowly reheat the soup on the stove top. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler in the oven. Set out 4 oven-safe onion soup crocks. (These can be purchased at your local restaurant supply store.) Onion soup crocks are fat and bulbous in the middle and come to a nice, slightly smaller, round top, allowing you to load your cheese and bread on top but not overwhelm the brothy, oniony goodness. Fill each crock with soup, then top with a piece of sliced stale bread and some shredded cheese. Place the crocks in the oven with the broiler cranking.
DO NOT WALK AWAY: Take pleasure in watching the cheese begin to sweat, then bubble, then pop and turn a deep golden to dark brown. The key is to get those teardrops of blobby cheese to run down the sides of the crocks and crisp up. Amazing! Serve hot. If you prefer a lighter soup, use brown chicken stock instead of beef stock. At Caseus, we make chicken stock, beef stock, and veal stock, and when we have enough lamb scraps, we make rich, savory lamb stock. All have been used in our French Onion Soup.

When done right, this is the most wonderfully satisfying dish around. Once a guy came into the restaurant and asked for a raw egg in the shell with his French Onion Soup. When it came to the table, he dug out a nice little hole through the thick cheese layer on top of the bowl and cracked the egg into it. He let it sit for a minute and then dug in. The heat of the soup cooked the egg and made what is already one of our richer dishes seriously over the top.

Beet & Blue  (Feeds 4)

"Not only are they sweet in flavor, loaded with energy-enhancing vitamin B, and absolutely beautiful to look at, beets are also a great local vegetable that we are able to get nearly year-round from our area sources. We always have them on our menu, and their color and taste suit both the harsh New England winters and those sticky summers. This recipe is a great wintertime version that uses a local cow's milk blue cheese from Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Connecticut. In the summer we substitute a local goat's milk cheese from Lebanon, Connecticut for a lighter salad.

4 large beets (softball size)
3 tablespoons peanut oil (or canola, if you're allergic to peanuts)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the beets
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash the beets under cold water and pat dry. Toss with the peanut oil and a bit of kosher salt and pepper. Place them on a baking sheet and bake the beets for about 1 hour, checking with the tip of a paring knife for doneness. (Different-size beets will take more or less time, so you'll need to stay on top of them.) If the knife inserts into the beets easily and comes out quickly, the beets are done. If not, allow to cook longer.
Once cooked, remove the beets from the oven and, while still hot, use a kitchen towel designated for this purpose (it will be purple after this procedure--you've been warned) to rub each beet until its skin is removed. Allow the beets to cool and then rinse them under cold water. Cut the beets into slices or matchsticks (your preference).

For the dressing
Juice of 2 lemons
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil vigorously until emulsified. This step can be done in a blender, but the dressing should look rustic and slightly separated. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

To finish
Several handfuls of light greens, such as mache, watercress, arugula, tatsoi, or miszuna
Candied walnuts
6 to 8 ounces Cato Corner Blue, depending on your liking
Maldon salt*

Lightly toss the salad greens with the dressing and plate. Place the beets on top of the greens and the walnuts on top of the beets. Finish with a light drizzle of dressing over the beets, some crumbled pieces of Cato Corner Blue, and a pinch of Maldon sea salt. Walnuts are what we use, but if you don't have any on hand, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, or even peanuts are all great to add some crunch and sweetness.

For the candied walnuts
2 cups shelled and lightly toasted walnuts
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons orange juice
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Toss the walnuts and the rest of the ingredients in a bowl until the nuts are evenly coated. Spread them out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and put in the oven for 5 to7 minutes. Take them out and move them around with a spatula, then put them back in the oven until lightly browned, about another 5 to7 minutes. This can be done a few days ahead, and the nuts can be held in a lidded plastic container.

*Kitchen Ade Note: Maldon salt is an all-natural sea salt made by England's Maldon Salt Crystal Company. Find it via retailers of specialty foods such as  Whole Foods,  The Fresh Market, Amazon.com (www.amazaon.com) and Williams Sonoma (www.williamssonoma.com).