Cheese has been around for thousands of years. Along with bread, beer, wine and a few other foods, people learned how to let “good bacterial cultures” transform perishables into delicious foods that could be held without refrigeration and consumed over a long period of time. They could be called the first “convenience” foods.
Modern America became a world leader in food processing and packaging — hence the popularity of processed American cheese, Cheez Whiz and tons of American singles. More recently we discovered and now enjoy the handmade artisan cheeses of long ago.
One category of cheese that makes a huge statement of flavor are the blue cheeses of Europe: Roquefort from France; Gorgonzola from Italy; Stilton from England; and Danablu from Denmark. Although different in texture and flavor, these cheeses all have blue veins that are the result of the penicillin culture added to them during production and aging. The flavors are sharp and salty and can be a little strong when eaten unadorned. Added to cooked recipes they create a whole new dimension of exciting flavor.
Here are some examples.
Chicken in Stilton Cream Sauce
Cut a 4-pound chicken into 8 or 10 pieces (or buy a cut-up chicken). Sprinkle the pieces with ground black pepper (no salt).
Heat a dutch oven and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Brown the chicken pieces skin-side down, then turn and brown the other sides. Cook to a rich brown in small batches, then remove and set aside.
Reduce the heat and add 1/2 cup minced shallots and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Stir in 2 tablespoons flour and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup white wine and bring to a boil. Whisk in 1/2 cup chicken stock and 1/2 cup heavy cream. Add the chicken back and season with 2 teaspoons dried herbes de Provence.
Bring to a boil on the stove, then place in a 300-degree oven for 45 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked.
Remove the chicken to a platter. Place the sauce back on the stove and stir in 1/2 cup crumbled Stilton cheese. Serve with rice or mashed potatoes.
Danablu Cheese and Spinach Quiche
Make a pie crust by combining 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add 4 tablespoons cold shortening and pulse a few times.
Add 4 tablespoons cold butter cut into small pieces and continue pulsing until the mixture resembles small peas. Remove to a bowl and add 5 tablespoons ice-cold water. Stir in the water with a dinner fork to form a dough.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and gently knead it into a round disk. Cover with plastic film and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Rinse 2 packages of spinach and remove the large stems. Bring 2 quarts water to a boil and plunge the spinach into the water, cover and bring back to a boil. Drain, plunge into cold water and squeeze out all the moisture that you can with your hands. Chop the ball of dry spinach with a chef’s knife and set aside.
Brown 4 strips of bacon in a skillet and remove. Add 1 chopped onion to the bacon fat and sauté briefly. Chop the bacon and remove the onions from the pan.
Crumble 1/2 cup Danish blue cheese into a bowl.
Roll out the pie dough and fit it into a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan. Place the bacon, onions and cooked spinach into the pie shell and sprinkle the cheese over the top.
Whisk together 3 eggs, 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup cream. Season with 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg.
Pour the egg mixture over the ingredients in the pie shell and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.
Guacamole with Gorgonzola and Bacon
Cut 3 ripe avocados into small cubes by cutting the avocado in half, removing the seed and making vertical and horizontal cuts through the flesh. Then scoop out the flesh with a tablespoon into a bowl. Add the zest and juice of 1 lime, toss and set aside.
Place 3 strips of bacon on a paper towel-lined plate and microwave for 4 minutes. Remove, dice and set aside.
Combine 1/2 cup minced red onion, 1 minced jalapeño pepper (seeds removed), 1 diced plum tomato, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, a few drops of Tabasco, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 cup chopped cilantro. Gently toss this mixture with the avocados and the bacon.
Crumble about 1/2 cup Gorgonzola into the mixture, toss and check for seasoning.
This can be served on a bed of lettuce as a salad, with chips as a dip or with roasted fingerling potatoes that have been split in half lengthwise.
Bring to a boil in a saucepan 1/4 cup water, 1/4 cup white wine, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 cup cubed cold butter. When the butter melts, reduce the heat and add 2/3 cup flour all at once. Stir the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon until it forms a dough.
Whisk 3 eggs together in a bowl and gradually add them to the dough. Add about one-quarter of the beaten eggs at a time and stir until they are incorporated. Leave about 1 tablespoon of egg in the bowl to use as a wash before you put the pastries in the oven.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in 1/3 cup crumbled Roquefort cheese.
Line a sheet pan with parchment and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using 2 teaspoons, place little mounds of the pastry on the parchment, about 1 heaping teaspoon each. Keep about 1 inch between them. You should end up with about 24 gougères.
Brush them lightly with the reserved egg and place them in the oven to cook for 30 minutes. They should be puffed up and dry with a hollow center when you remove them from the oven.