Thursday, September 1, 2011

Homemade Cheese to Garnish Sausage and Peppers

Making cheese is way more daunting than bread. Bad bread, whatever, it's still bread. Bad cheese could end up a weird moldy science experiment that stinks like rotting garbage and cures syphilis. Nevertheless, despite not really knowing how, I thought I'd give it a shot. When I was a kid, my mom made a kind of farmers' cheese by curdling milk with lemon juice and straining the curd, and I thought I could handle that. I had about a half-gallon of whole milk in the fridge, which seemed like it ought to be enough to test the principle. Milk needs to be hot for the protein to react with the acid in the lemon juice, so I put the milk in a pot on a low heat with a little salt. I saw a cheesemaker on YouTube put salt in his milk, so what the hell me too. As a kind of hedge against the cheese coming out awful, while it was coming up to temperature, I steeped a handful of mint and Thai basil leaves from the alley in it. I didn't get that off YouTube, I came up with that on my own. If the cheese had an awful consistency it would at least taste like something.

When the milk was just barely up to a simmer, I strained out the mint and returned the milk to the pot, then added the juice of a lemon and let the milk come back to a light simmer. I was concerned that lemon juice might not work as well as rennet, but it jelled fairly quickly, so I took it off the heat and let it rest. When it had cooled to room temperature, I stirred it to break the curd, then poured the curd and whey into a colander lined with cheese cloth. I was startled by how much whey there was, and how little cheese, and started to feel like an idiot. I wondered if there was enough whey to make it worth trying to make a ricotta, but decided against it, preferring to win one battle rather than lose two.

The cheese was profoundly wet, so I balled up the cheesecloth like a purse, tied it off and let it drain, sitting in a strainer resting in a bowl in the fridge. It was still about a cup's worth, so the maybe the effort wasn't wasted. I let the cheese set for almost a week before I tried to use it. Fort the occasion I made a little plate of salami and apple slices, and tried to incorporate my new cheese. It had the crumbly consistency of ricotta salata or feta, but was much milder in taste. The mint and basil imparted a cool herbal essence (1970 called, she wants her shampoo back), but overall the cheese was unremarkable. I wrapped it back up in its cheesecloth and stuck it in the fridge.

Much time passed. Heather and I went to Hawaii to celebrate our anniversary (really we just like to go to Hawaii once in a while), and while there we ate like royalty. On our first night back, I needed to make dinner, but we had very little in the kitchen, having depleted resources prior to leaving town. I made a quick run to Jewel and grabbed a couple of apples, some smoked bacon and a sweet Italian sausage. I was pretty sure I could grab enough stuff from the alley to make a decent ragu to serve over some rice, and that would be our dinner. In a quick ransacking of the alley, I grabbed two bright red jalapeƱo peppers, four little Hungarian Peppers and a big pile of both mint and basil leaves.

In the kitchen I started the rice cooking, then cut some bacon into chunks and put it in the pan along with a little olive oil to get things going. When the chunks were nicely rendered, I took the skin off one of the Italian sausages and pulled it into bits, which I added to the bacon. Giving the sausage a moment to compose itself, I diced half an onion, a small apple and a couple cloves of garlic, and added them along with some salt. When they were sweated down nicely I added the peppers, all cut into small pieces. When everything was brown and sticky*, I added a couple glugs of vinegar and let everything simmer to deglaze the pan and bind the components into a ragu.

By then the rice was ready, so I chopped the basil and mint into a heap and stirred it into the rice. The visual effect of the brilliant white rice and deep green herbs was nice, and when I spooned the ragu on top it made for a pretty plate. I tried a little of the ragu on its own and it was a little lean tasting. I don't mean it lacked fat, but the acidity of the vinegar and the natural tartness of the apples made it feel harsh, almost metallic in my mouth, and it cried out for something to enrichen it. It certainly didn't need any fat, so a drizzle of oil wouldn't help. I tossed a couple of pine nuts on as garnish, but that wasn't enough.

The obvious solution would be to grate some parmigiano on it, but we didn't have any. While poking around in the fridge, I came across my old buddy the homemade cheese, now hardened to almost exactly the same consistency as parmigiano. In one of my better what-the-fuck moments, I tried grating some onto the ragu. It still had a mild minty flavor, but through the drying process the milk solids now had an intensely rich mouth sensation, almost like a condensed milk caramel. It was neither as biting nor as salty as parmigiano, but it had a similar umame effect and was the perfect counterpart to the ragu.

So there's another personal milestone. Made some unremarkable cheese, then forgot about it long enough for it to become useful.

*Jesus I hope that's not what she said.


  1. Hi Steve
    This is a pretty unremarkable comment, but I really really enjoy your posts.
    That's all.

  2. Thanks for this tip. I am living in Thailand and have limited access to cheese and would like to try this.

    How long exactly was the cheese in the fridge and was it also in a plastic container or only wrapped in cheese clothe?

    Cheers, John

  3. k33pth3h3ll0ut, I have no idea exactly, but it was a couple of months, just wrapped in cheesecloth. If you have trouble getting the milk to curdle, let it come to a full boil, then add the lemon juice. It should curdle quickly, so take it off the heat as soon as that starts or the boiling action will give you little specks of milk protein instead of a nice smooth curd.

  4. In India they make weak cheese in a similar method to yours and call it paneer (I'm sure you probably know this). Weirdly, they never seem to have gone to the second stage and let it mature for a while.

    We just spent 6 weeks out there and ate paneer-based food whenever the kitchens looked particularly unpleasant instead of taking a chance with the meat. It just didn't the cheese-craving, though. Next time we go to the non-cheese zones of the world, we're going to pack a nice big piece of parmigiano and grate it when necessary.

  5. You really, really like apples, don't you?

  6. Simon, I know paneer, but it's usually used in cooked dishes, almost like tofu, and I wanted to make a cheese that would stand on its own. Fail. May try again some day.

    Mike N. Blow me. How do you like them apples?

  7. Nice. I would have considered blowing Roland in the Big Black days...he was hottest.

  8. Dude, Mike N.'s not fucking with you. I notice this too--you really like apples. It makes me want to incorporate more apple into my cooking... (when I finish skool and my kids can wipe their own butts).

    Hey, I'm not gonna be able to make it to The Vera Project show in Seattle soon. Have clase de espanol during that time. I will think of you! Doesn't that help?

  9. I luv them apples. I use them in everything, sweet to savory. I love my apple crumble, just apples, cranberries, almond powder and honey from the oven.


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