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Cheese of the Week’s Interview Series: David Grotenstein

Cheese of the Week’s Interview Series: David Grotenstein

This is the first installment in a multi-part series in which Raymond Hook will interview influential people in the cheese world in order to provide a broader perspective on great cheeses in America and beyond.

The following is Hook’s interview with David Grotenstein, a NYC-based specialty food retailer consultant. A native New Yorker, Grotenstein is the Chair Emeritus for the American Cheese Society judging and competition – the most prestigious cheese event held in the USA – which he presided over for seven years. He is one of the very few people who have tasted the actual wheel or form of each Best of Show cheese at the ACS competition for the past twelve years.

The topic of this interview: cheeses made in America.

RH: What is the state of the American cheeses selling in the marketplace today?
DG:
It has never been better; we’re in the golden era. It’s the retail category that gets the most consumer attention, has the most room for growth and attains the highest-quality improvements.

RH: How do the top-quality American cheeses measure up to the best of the rest of the world?
DG:
The top American cheeses can easily stand alongside the best cheeses of the world, with pride.

RH: How about cheeses that are American originals?
DG:
There are so many now, and more being developed every day. Crafting originals has become a true mission for many American cheesemakers.

RH: How is the market different for American cheeses vs. European cheeses?
DG:
They are actually an easier sell at the moment, even when American artisan cheeses are sold at a premium.

RH: Do you often get questions on the premium prices for American cheeses?
DG:
Yes, I do. I just explain that they come from small farms, are made in small batches, and that they are handmade and truly different from non-artisan cheeses, so they are worth the difference in price.

RH: What would be your recommendation for how many American cheeses to carry in a new retail shop?
DG: Unless your shop has a particular theme otherwise, I’d suggest one third to one half be American artisan cheeses.

RH: What do you find to be the most intriguing category?
DG: The large format, over-ten-pound wheels require longer aging and investment in care, and are now showing their real terroir [regional flavor]; the cheesemakers of these wheels have found extremely unique ways to represent where they are from.

RH: Are American customers educated on American regional specialty cheeses, and if so, who is doing the education?
DG: Consumers may not be any more knowledgeable of American regional and artisanal cheeses than they are of imported cheeses, but they're definitely more interested in learning about them. Telling customers about how a family really makes something on a farm, from their own herd, etc. is the easiest conversation to have with a shopper.

RH: What are some of the better selling styles of American cheese (i.e. cheddar, goat, etc.)?
DG:
I would guess that fresh goat cheeses are probably the bestsellers. Cheddars, both block-style and clothbound, move well also, as customers are familiar with the styles. That said, it's the newly named, newly created cheeses that currently get the most inquiries and generate interest in the category as a whole.

RH: Why aren’t American sheep’s milk cheeses easier to find?
DG:
Like sheep's milk and its cheeses almost everywhere, there's just not that much of it being produced. It's the lowest milk yield by far [between sheep, cow and goat] and is challenging and expensive to produce. But the cheeses are out there…you just have to ask.

RH: What does the future look like for American artisan cheeses?
DG:
As I've said, we're basking in the glow of the greatest awareness of American cheeses ever. To me, this is just the beginning.

Additional reporting by Madeleine James.


Obsessed: A Man and His Mold

Even if you've never heard of koji, you've put it in your mouth in one form or another. "Koji" refers to any grain that has been inoculated with the mold Aspergillus oryzae, although it can, confusingly, also refer to the mold itself. In Japanese, the mold spores are referred to more specifically as koji-kin—a distinction we'll stick to in this post for clarity's sake. Grains inoculated with koji-kin can produce a range of flavors and products with which you're likely very familiar, from slightly sweet sake to nutty miso to intensely savory soy sauce.

But there are other uses for koji beyond making soy sauce and sake. When mixed with salt and water and allowed to ferment for about 10 days, it creates a porridge-like slurry called shio koji, which can be used as a marinade, pickling medium, or dressing. When soy sauce is used instead of salt, the mixture is called shoyu koji. Both shio and shoyu koji impart a sweet-salty dimension to the foods they're cooked with, similar in kind, if not in intensity, to miso- and sake-based marinades for meats and fish.

Koji can be made from almost any grain, so, while traditional Japanese preparations usually involved mold-inoculated white rice, barley, and soybeans, chefs across the globe have been experimenting with making other types of koji and, in turn, using those unorthodox kojis to produce oddball new misos. (David Chang, of Momofuku fame, produces what are basically miso and soy sauce analogues, which he's branded hozon and bonji, by combining basmati rice koji with nuts, seeds, and legumes.)

If you spend any amount of time looking up koji on the internet, you're likely to run across the name Rich Shih, or "Jean Dough," Shih's nom de cuisine. Shih, a mechanical engineer by day, runs the website OurCookQuest and maintains a robust social media presence, all in the service of spreading the word about a variety of food preparation methods that he views as underappreciated or misunderstood, many of which involve fermentation. (While his current obsession is koji, he has in the past focused on pursuits like making kombucha and kimchi.)

Though he lacks formal training in cooking, Shih has established himself as something of a koji authority, in part because of a seemingly relentless drive to experiment with the mold—creating koji from a range of unusual grains, including emmer and teff—and using it for novel purposes, like dry-aging meats. He's also collaborated with a number of chefs to help demystify koji and its myriad uses, projects that have come about only because he rarely hesitates to reach out to people. "I've never been afraid to ask people questions," Shih says.


Shavuot: Delicious Dairy Recipes To Enjoy On The Jewish Holiday

An important Jewish holiday, Shavuot, is here and one of the customs for the holiday is to eat delicious dairy foods.

Shavuot is one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, according to The Jewish Agency for Israel. It has both a biblical and agricultural significance as it marks the wheat harvest in Israel and the giving of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) on Mount Sinai, National Today said.

Referred to as the "Feast of Weeks," Shavuot is observed at the end of the seven-week (49-day) period called "Omer," which begins at Passover or the holiday that commemorates liberation from Egyptian slavery. This year, Shavuot is observed from sunset on May 16 to sundown on May 18.

Typically, it is observed by abstaining from work, staying up all night to read the Torah and saying morning prayers together.

One particularly delicious hallmark of Shavuot, however, is that it's observed by consuming dairy treats. There are several explanations for this tradition, including milk being a symbol of the Torah, or that the people were still pure and innocent like the babies that depend on milk when they received the Torah.

"Though you may not have heard of Shavuot or celebrated it in the past, this year is a great time to start," the Jewish Agency for Israel said.

On this day, try your hand at some delicious recipes with dairy in celebration of Shavuot. (Courtesy-- Tori Avey and So Tov)

Classic Cheesecake

Almost everybody loves a good cheesecake, and Shavuot is the perfect time to eat a slice or two of it, no matter which style you choose. This classic cheesecake recipe makes for a "rich, indulgent treat" that cheesecake lovers will want to try, whether they top it with tart blueberries or sweet strawberries.

Some people may not be familiar with Blintz, but it's a food that's certainly worth trying. It is made by first creating thin pancakes that are each filled with cream cheese and curd stuffing. They are then folded into a roll then baked together in the oven. It is served hot with a dusting of sweet cinnamon and sugar.

Quinoa Stuffed Tomatoes with Pesto and Goat Cheese

Just the name itself already sounds delicious. For this recipe, whole tomatoes are stuffed with quinoa that's cooked in pesto and tomato juice. The stuffed tomatoes are then topped with creamy goat's cheese and baked in an oven until the cheese begins to brown. For added flavor, it may be topped with fresh basil leaves.

Mediterranean 7-Layer Dip

It's always a good time to enjoy a 7-layer dip, and this recipe is said to be a "healthy twist" to the traditional Tex Mex version that many are familiar with. With ingredients such as feta cheese, Greek yogurt and hummus, this dip proves to be a good pair for your favorite vegetables or crackers.


Nadiya’s New Homeware Collection

Nadiya has teamed up with BlissHome for her first homewares collection and has been fully immersed in the whole process from design concepts to choice of pattern, colour, choice of materials and packaging. Nadiya was clear from the outset that she wanted to produce something beautiful and handcrafted that you can mix and match to use every day. The Make Life Colourful collection features eight different designs across the full tableware collection, as well as spice racks, candles, aprons, oven gloves and tea towels.

Nadiya’s love of homeware comes from her mother. ‘She could never bear to throw away a plate, they all had different patterns and designs, everything was mixed and matched. I hate serving food on plain white dishes, I like beautiful plates to display my food. Then I can say to my family and friends, come on, get in and eat….’


SCRAP FACTORY FARMING

Banner of the Scrap Factory Farming campaign. @HunameBeing

David ended up joining forces with Jane and Peta. Along with others, they launched a new campaign called Scrap Factory Farming. This aims to challenge the UK Government to end factory farming to prevent disease in people, protect the planet, and end the suffering of intelligent, feeling animals.

David explains how he conceived this: “Through research, we realized that factory farming was not only damaging the environment and being awfully cruel to animals, but it was also a huge health risk. We are saying to the government, with all this knowledge available to us, why are you allowing factory farming to continue? It’s a threat to people’s health, it’s a threat to the planet, it’s intolerable conditions for the animals.”

The acronym SCRAP stands for the main problems caused by factory farming: Suffering Climate chaos Ravaging the planet Antibiotic resistance Pandemics and diseases. Jane added…

“THERE ARE PROBLEMS WITH ALL ANIMAL AGRICULTURE, WE ARE NOT TRYING TO PRETEND THERE AREN’T. BUT WE KNEW THAT WE HAD A BETTER CHANCE IF WE FOCUSED ON FACTORY FARMING BECAUSE OF THE CONNECTION WITH THE PANDEMICS. IT’S THAT GENERAL PRINCIPLE: THAT THE GOVERNMENT IS NOT PROTECTING PEOPLE.


Pecorino Is for Chefs. Let's Keep it That Way.

Yesterday it happened again: the world tried to get me to use pecorino.

This time it was a cookbook, on a page with a recipe for simple, sautéed greens that could have been finished with a fresh farmer's cheese, or some grated manchego. But no. Finish with "lots of pecorino," the chef instructed.

I've heard this so many times by now. For the past ten years (more or less), a message about pecorino has been pushed to unsuspecting eaters like me: Pecorino is the new parmesan, and anybody who knows anything about food (chefs, cookbook writers, etc) knows it.

I resisted this dogma until the moment I couldn't. I was watching two Brooklyn chefs—they run a bunch of Italian restaurants—on TV demonstrate how to make a pasta sandwich.

A sandwich. Stuffed with pasta. For some reason, I watched this to the end.

"Before adding the pasta to the sandwich," one of the chefs said (or, I mean, he said something like that—who am I, Rain Man?) "shower the pasta with parmesan."

"Sorry, pecorino. Shower the pasta with pecorino."

An on-air correction! And all for pecorino. Dang, I thought. Pecorino must be the stuff.

But pecorino is not the stuff. It's not the stuff for home cooks, anyway. I know, because I listened to those chefs and ditched parm for pecorino. When I had spaghetti to douse in cheese, it was pecorino I slid over my microplane. Platters of broccoli rabe? Raw kale salad? World-famous lasagna? I swapped pecorino for the parm in all of them. (Note: When most folks refer to Pecorino, they mean Pecorino Romano, the most common and, perversely, the most aggressive of the Italian sheep's milk cheeses.)

And in each case, I felt pecorino's knife-like bite, its musky punch, stab me in my tongue, my cheeks, the delicate roof of my mouth. It was a sharpness that was akin to being screamed at. Man up! pecorino seemed to be screaming. The pain is where the flavor is! It was like being in a CrossFit class, if CrossFit classes were led not by cheesy instructors but by actual cheese.

It's called chicken parm, not chicken peco!

Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Food Styling by Katherine Sacks

And then came the voices of those hipster chefs in my head.

Parmesan is for losers, loser!

So much yelling! And for awhile, it worked. I kept buying and grating and eating pecorino like an obedient, ahem, sheep. I believed in it so fully that two years ago, in one of my first acts as editor of this website, I suggested we put pecorino on a list of essential pantry items. "Parmigiano is great. Pecorino is better," I wrote. I'm sure that made the chefs in my head happy. But now I have to apologize to America, because what I wrote is a ludicrous lie.

Please, let me redeem myself. Pecorino is great if you're making cacio e pepe. But for almost every other dish on the planet, I'll take parm. Good, salty, nutty parm (be it domestic parmesan or real-deal Italian Parmigiano) is near perfect, and it is particularly perfect as an all-purpose cheese for home cooks. You can eat it by itself, dressed with nothing but a little balsamic. It melds seamlessly—non-aggressively—into pastas, salads, and sandwiches. It is distinctive, it is not easily quieted—but unlike macho, bossy pecorino, it will never, ever make you do push-ups.


One Mom Dishes on the Challenge of Feeding Everyone Different Things

Welcome to the latest post in TreeHugger's series, "How to feed a family." Every week we talk to a different person about how they approach the never-ending challenge of feeding themselves and other household members. We get the inside scoop on how they grocery shop, meal plan, and food prep to make it go more smoothly.

Parents work so hard to feed their children and themselves, to put healthy meals on the table, to avoid spending a fortune at the grocery store, and to fit it all around busy work and school schedules. It's a feat worthy of more praise than it commonly gets, which is why we want to highlight it – and hopefully learn from it in the process. This week features an interview with Eleanor, a busy mom of three who works full-time and has to juggle multiple dietary requirements and allergies.

Names: Eleanor, husband Chris, kids David (7), Daniel (5), Maria (3)

Location: Oakville, ON

Employment: Both of us work full-time. Chris’ job involves about 25% travel and my job requires extra work in evenings/weekends, but flexible on when and where I work.

Weekly food budget: CAD$250 (US$190) per week

© Eleanor R. (used with permission)

1. What are 3 favorite or commonly prepared meals in your house?

According to Chris, I keep changing my recipes all the time. I’ll make something several times and then he won’t see it again for a year or so. Generally speaking, I make each of the following each week: a) Some sort of pasta dish with veggies on the side – I make extra pasta and put it aside for Daniel for the rest of the week b) Breakfast for dinner – usually homemade waffles or pancakes are part of it and I make extra so that we can heat them up quickly throughout the week for the kids’ breakfasts and/or Daniel’s dinner c) A big casserole or stew - usually a double batch.

2. How would you describe your diet?

We have a variety of diets/restrictions: I am anaphylactic to tree nuts, Chris doesn’t eat gluten, and Daniel doesn’t eat meat and also has a pickiness problem to the point where he was under observation by the head of pediatrics at the hospital because he refused to eat and fell off his growth curve.

3. What does your grocery shopping routine look like?

I shop once a week. I set aside a morning every week to do so. Typically, I go to a few different places. I do a bulk shop at Costco for items like meat, cheese, eggs, milk, fruit, veggies, pasta/rice, etc. I then go to a regular grocery store/specialty stores/farmer’s market (in warmer months) for the things that Costco doesn’t have, i.e. gluten free goods or any items that I don’t want to buy in bulk.

4. Is there anything you absolutely have to buy every week?

Things we buy every week are milk and eggs. I always keep an emergency jar of tomato sauce (Longo’s) and frozen meatballs (also Longo’s because the ingredients list is healthy) and a pack of pasta for emergencies. For Daniel, I always have on hand pasta, mac and cheese, almonds, yogourt, fresh fruit and raw carrots.

© Eleanor R. (used with permission) – Getting the kids involved with cooking

5. Do you meal plan? If so, how often and how strictly do you stick to it?

I meal plan most weeks. Since I buy in bulk, it is only efficient and economical if we actually use what we buy. So, before making my plan, I look at what perishable items were leftover from the previous week and think about one or two new items that I want to buy and plan my menus around those ingredients. I plan two or three meals a week, with leftovers.

6. How much time do you spend cooking each day?

I probably spend, on average, an hour a day cooking dinner (I’m not including making breakfast or lunches – those combined are probably about 30 min per day). Some days we have leftovers, so the cooking is minimal. Other days, I cook something that can take a few hours. it varies a lot.

7. How do you handle leftovers?

We usually eat leftovers every other day and also for the adult lunches during the week.

8. How many dinners per week do you cook at home vs. eat out or take out?

We eat home-cooked meals most nights on a regular week. There are some weeks where my workload is extremely high or when the weekend is too full or when Chris is away or we are all sick. Those are the weeks where everything falls apart. We end up ordering food or going out, and we completely blow the budget. It happens.

9. What are the biggest challenges in feeding yourself and/or your family?

Everyone eats something different. When I cook a meal from start to finish for the family, I end up using all the pots and pans that we own. We have yet to master the one-pot recipes. Trying to provide a variety for the rest of the family is hard too when Daniel only eats a handful of plain foods. We toned down the extracurriculars recently, but trying to cook around after-school activities, work schedules, and school is very difficult too – in the past, I have made a pizza night to deal with that situation, but we aren’t in that situation currently.

© Eleanor R. (used with permission)

10. Any other information you’d like to add?

Working from home has been a life-saver for us in terms of being able to make homemade meals. I am home three days a week and the time saved from my commute can be used to prep dinner before the kids get home from school without taking away from my hours of work. I highly recommend working remotely and/or flexible work hours to anyone who is able to do so.


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The Perfect Thanksgiving Mac and Cheese, From the Chef Who Was Most Ambivalent About It

Chef Erick Williams used to look forward to Thanksgiving as the day when heɽ eat that special once-a-year food: a bowl of cereal.

“For years I used to do homeless feeds on Thanksgiving so that I could get out of the cooking at home, which is a much heavier lift,” he explains. “Home stoves are weird there’s not enough space in a lot of home kitchens it’s an all-day event.” But when cooking for people experiencing homelessness, he says, “I can get up early in the morning. I can put out a lot of food that’s delicious. It’s super rewarding. And then I could be home at 11 and then sit and eat cereal. I’d sit on the couch, watch sports, and everybody would be out of my house because they would all be out celebrating Thanksgiving, and I could relax.”

The cereal years coincided with Williams’s long legendary run as the executive chef at mk, a French and Italian-leaning restaurant that was a fixture in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. But for the past few years he’s been planning, opening, and operating his own restaurant—Virtue, in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood—and has had less time for volunteering. That means he’s leaned in, just slightly, to Thanksgiving at home. He makes the turkey for his family’s celebration now. Sometimes he even sticks around long enough to eat some of it.

Photo by Nolis Anderson. Image Courtesy of The New York Times.

For all his ambivalence about celebrating Thanksgiving, Williams is nevertheless very opinionated about how Thanksgiving food should taste. He stuffs the cavity of his turkey with a mirepoix of celery, carrot, onion, and apple. He thinks that green beans should be simmered in broth until they’re completely soft—”none of that al dente stuff,” he say. The greens can be collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, or spinach—but don’t mix the collards and the spinach. (Mixing the turnips, mustards, and spinach is okay.) And the mac and cheese—well, the mac and cheese wasn’t on the chef’s mind, because up until a few years ago he’d never been a fan.

He objected mostly to the texture. “In a lot of homes, the noodles are cooked until they’re soft. Not al dente, but soft. Then you mix all the hot ingredients into the mac. And then you layer it in the pan. You add more cheese. Then you bake it again to brown the cheese. So that’s a lot of cooking the pasta for me.”

You can see why a chef who has spent his career in French and Italian kitchens would object. But when he started planning the menu for Virtue, where he serves American southern food, Williams had to face mac and cheese straight on. His chef de cuisine, Damarr Brown, broke the news to Williams.

“He was like, ‘We gotta put macaroni and cheese on this menu.’ And I’m like ‘You gotta be nuts, no way we’re doing macaroni and cheese. That’s not my jam.’”

Williams knew that few dishes conjure as much emotion as a mac and cheese. He’d seen it in his own family growing up, and in the families around him, where mac and cheese was, he says, “revered.”

Don't be fooled: this is mostly a stovetop mac and cheese.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Rebecca Jurkevich

“The mac and cheese shows up at different events. It could be at a wedding. It could be when a child’s born. It shows up at Thanksgiving and all these festive opportunities. And it shows up at funerals. So the highs and lows of your life are coupled with the security blanket of this damn mac and cheese.”

Who could blame him for not wanting to wade into those waters? But Brown persisted. And after a couple of years of tinkering with the recipe, Williams finally came around to the dish. So much so that he’s now as opinionated about it as he is about everything else on the Thanksgiving table.

His strongest opinion:“I don’t like cheese charred. I don’t like crunchy edges.” Williams’s mac and cheese has texture, but the texture comes from the (just-cooked) pasta the silky cheese sauce that envelops the pasta and two layers of cheddar, one that runs through the middle and one that goes on top. That cheddar “melts to have a texture that’s different from the texture of the pasta, different from the velvety cheese sauce that’s in there.”

And that’s why Williams forgoes breadcrumbs on his mac. “I understand why people like breadcrumbs, because if you cook the macaroni and cheese as much as people cook macaroni and cheese, there’s a lack of texture.” But if you cook your mac and cheese correctly, he reasons, breadcrumbs shouldn’t be necessary.

One thing Williams was never ambivalent about is sweet potato pie, which he says is “a must” at Thanksgiving. Check out the entire Thanksgiving menu, which he curated exclusively for Epicurious, here.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Judy Kim

Of course, cooking correctly is relative. Williams knows that. He knows that when you’re dealing with mac and cheese, everybody has a different idea of what’s correct, and often that idea is informed by tradition. What’s correct is a grandparent’s recipe. Or the mac that only your aunt can make. In some ways, introducing a new mac and cheese recipe into a Thanksgiving celebration is pointless.

“Even if you have what some would say are superior ingredients. If you have better cheese. If you have better pasta. If the pasta is cooked perfectly. If the cheese sauce is as velvety as any cheese sauce is supposed to be, without any graininess and a high level of richness. You would still have a hard time competing, because you can’t match the nostalgic place. They know there’s something different about it. And with nostalgia, you really just want to sit with your memories alongside the food. It’s a very comforting space. It’s a space where you go when you’re going through hard times in life. It’s a space you go to when you’re celebrating.”

Still, the chef wanted to try. Williams dipped into his own nostalgia to curate this Thanksgiving menu, which is based on his own family experiences. The mac and cheese is a new recipe, but it fits right in.


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