Friday, December 2, 2011

Cheeses for Winter

These cheeses are all semi-firm or firm textured, made from cow's milk and produced in the mountains or highland regions of France and Switzerland. Dairy farming is one of the oldest food production practices, and highland regions are particularly famous for making good cheeses where pasture contains fresh green grasses and wildflowers, particularly during spring and summer.

These cheeses are often made into large wheels or cylinders (preserved for the cold winter), and some are massive. Swiss Emmental wheels can be 6-10 inches thick, 44 inches in diameter and weigh over 120 pounds! These cheeses are also cured and aged for a long time -- normally 3 months to over 12 months. They are traditionally made with raw milk, which has not been homogenized or cooked/pasteurized by high heat (meaning less shelf-life for the retailers). That is why they are so tasty!

Those who like firm Cheddar cheese textures may discover a new favorite among these European classics.  They also melt well, and Gruyere and Emmental are important in traditional Swiss Fondue. Cantal and Comete are good with baked potato or gratin dishes and hearty soups.  

Cantal (France)

This oldest of the French cheeses dates back to Roman times. The cheese is shaped like a cylinder, one foot in diameter and about 20 lbs. The two types of Cantal are Cantal fermier (farmhouse cheese using raw milk) and Cantal laitier (a mass-produced version). Recently, Cantal has appealed to more and more cheese lovers because of its natural, rustic, tangy flavor that isn't too sharp, just creamy and mild. It comes from Auvergne, a region known for its fertile pasture lands. The well-ripened Cantal has a bolder, more vigorous taste, while the younger versions are sweeter and more creamy.

Aligot is a famous regional dish of mashed potatoes mixed with Cantal. It is also great for French onion gratin soup (instead of Gruyère or Cometè) and for grilled cheese sandwiches. Recommended wines for pairing:  Cote d'Auvergne, Chateauguay, Vouvray, (moelleux [medium sweet] or demi-sec [medium dry]), Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc.

The Cantal in the picture was purchased at Whole Foods Market for $16.99 a pound. 

Comté (France)
Comté (also called Gruyere de Comté) is a cooked, pressed cow's milk cheese produced in the Jura mountains in the east of France. It has the largest production of any AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) cheese in France (just like AOC wine, but for specific cow’s milk, because areas of production are regulated). More than 50,000 tons of Comté are made each year. The depth of flavor experienced when you bite into a piece of Comté comes from the diversity of the milk sources (from cooperatives that buy milk from small farmers throughout the region).

Long ago, people of this mountainous region (as in Switzerland) were faced with the need to preserve food for the long winter. By pooling their resources (cow's milk), they could create cheese in large wheels that could be stored many months and feed a lot of people.The wheels still weigh about 80 pounds and require about 530 liters of milk (daily production of 30 cows). The long maturing period, called affinage, takes from 4 months to over 12 months, during which time the cheese is regularly cleaned and rubbed with salted water.

Comté cheese is firm-textured with a mellow, nutty flavor. It's great on its own or served with a dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc or a light red wine, and accompanied with nuts, dried fruits and a good rustic country bread. As with all cheese, it should be served at room temperature (you may need to bring it out from refrigerator at least a couple hours).  

The Comté in the photo above is aged 6 months and costs $10.99/lb. at Trader Joe’s.

Morbier (France)

Morbier is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the Jura mountains. It is named after the small village Morbier (Swiss border) in France's Comté region. This uncooked cheese is pressed, ripened for two months and then brushed with salty water. It is easy to recognize by the dark stripe of ash separating it horizontally in the middle of the paste. The aroma is pungent and a bit strong, but the flavor is rich, sweet and a little nutty.  

Morbier cheese dates back more than two centuries. Producers of Comté wanted to make a smaller cheese for their own consumption with leftover milk from making Comté. Each night, soot/ash was sprinkled on the fresh curd that remained at the bottom of the barrel to prevent a rind from forming and keep insects away. The next day, another leftover piece of cheese was put on top to complete the Morbier. 
Try this cheese either straight or melted, served with a mild bread, nut and fruits . It will make all cheese lovers very happy! Recommended wines: Sauvignon Blanc, white wine from Jura and light red wine.

I purchased the cheese in the picture above at Whole Foods Market for $13.99/lb.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fine, Affordable Bordeaux Wine

My recent picks of affordable wines at Trader Joe's are fine Bordeaux wines. The 2009 Chateau Meric ($9.95; left in the photo above) is a typical Medoc (region 1 on Bordeaux map) blended Cabernet Sauvignon wine with smooth/silky tannins, the aroma of ripe red fruits (blueberry and cherry) and a hint of vanilla. It has an attractive ruby color with a slight amber reflection. This wine should age well for the next few years but is deliciously ready to drink for this holiday season.

2004 Chateau de La Riviere ($14.95) is from a well-reputed, historic winery in Fronsac (region 12 on  map) and is a bargain. Fronsac "appellation" (the district where a wine's grapes were grown; e.g., Napa, Sonoma, etc.) is located west of St.-Emilion, next to Pomerol and has a reputation for great value in red Bordeaux wine. I love how this wine bursts with wonderful fruity aromas as soon as the bottle is uncorked, and its luscious, fine Merlot flavor. This wine needs to be decanted. "Decanting" is a way to remove the deposit of tannins and color pigments that build up in older wines. The bottle needs to be stood upright several hours before you start. Next, gently remove the cork and wipe around the neck to clean it, inside and out. Pour out all the wine slowly and carefully in one movement to transfer to a clean, clear glass bottle, pitcher or decanter, leaving just the sediment in the original bottle.

Trader Joe's sells the 2007 Chateau de la Riviere, but the 2004 is definitely a better wine, plus you have an opportunity to practice decanting.

More tips on storing, decanting and serving wine at the


2009 Chateau Meric, Medoc (above)

2004 Chateau De La Riviere

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Autumn Vegetables

Autumn is here at my farmers market. We are still having fairly warm and sunny days here in the Bay Area, but the change in season is evident in the market's offerings. Ben, an organic farmer, told me that he saw frost last week, and that means there may be no more tomatoes next week. Sure, it's already November -- we are spoiled living in California. The East Coast has already had a bad snow storm. Anyway, it's the season for squash, potatoes and Swiss chard, with apples coming and oranges in the next few months. 

I baked these small honey bear squash that Ben gave me with a little butter and salt. They are less sweet than pumpkin but have a firmer texture, like butternut squash. Very delicious!

Organic vegetables are great. They don't all have the same shape and color, and sometimes aren't so pretty, but they always taste great. I marinated these eggplants with olive oil and chopped garlic and grilled them. I want to make Moussaka this week.

Basil is almost at the end of its season. Time to can some pesto sauce to enjoy until next summer.

It's also season for persimmons.

I sauteed eggplant with onion, garlic and chopped Italian parsley for the topping of Bruschetta.

Sauteed eggplant on toasted Ciabatta bread. Mmmmm!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Easy Indian Curry

I enjoy Indian-style curry dishes quite often. I normally make vegetarian curry but sometimes I make chicken or lamb curry. It's great with boiled Basmati or Thai jasmine rice, or Naan (flat bread) when available. I also make Raita (yogurt sauce with vegetables or fruit) to serve with it. Now making curry is especially easy! You can buy curry sauce at Trader Joe's -- 15 oz jar for $2.29. Their Curry Simmer Sauce is milder and the Masala Simmer Sauce is darker and spicier. Both are fairly good products and inexpensive.

I normally use chopped onion or shallot, sliced carrot, zucchini and mushrooms. I sautee the vegetables for 5-6 minutes with a little vegetable oil, then pour in a whole jar of the sauce with a cup of water and simmer the curry for 15-20 minutes. That's it. You may use coconut milk or buttermilk instead of 1/2 cup water, which will make the curry richer and more flavorful.

Naan bread and cucumber-tomato-mint Raita

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tofu -- My True Love!

Tofu will be my last supper if I need to choose one. For many years I have lived in this western country, and so many times I have heard people say they hate it, but my love of good tofu will never be changed. Whether it is fresh and cold, fried, grilled, stir-fried or steamed... it is a comfort food for all seasons that I cannot live without. When the weather is too hot and steamy, fresh cold tofu with chopped scallion, grated ginger, soy sauce and a dash of lemon juice is refreshing and helps the appetite. When the weather is cold and miserable, a hot pot of tofu with vegetables can soothe and nourish body and soul. 

I think tofu often is disliked because people just don't know what to do with it. There are a thousand ways to cook and enjoy tofu. How about Tofu Parmigiana, or Spicy Fried Tofu Etouffee, or Marinated Grilled Tofu Burger?

For tonight, I made a quick, easy stir-fry of tofu and mixed fresh vegetables:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chocolate Tart and Banana Bread

I gave a baking lesson for my neighbors on making a couple sweets: Chocolate Tart and Banana Bread. They had only 2 hours available to learn everything, so I had to organize the procedure to make both recipes at the same time. First I made the tart dough, rolled it out, placed it in the tart pan, and then chilled it in the refrigerator. While the pan/dough was chilling, we made banana bread batter and placed it in the preheated 375F oven to bake about 45 minutes. Then we put the chilled tart pan into the oven and baked it about 18-20 minutes -- the lower shelf for the tart and the upper shelf for banana bread. While baking the tart dough (to lightly brown it), we made the chocolate filling, which takes about 10-12 minutes. Once the tart shell was ready, we poured in the chocolate filling, then put it back in the oven for about 15 minutes. Consequently, within just 2 hours we had finished making both recipes.

Start to finish... everything in 2 hours.

They both came out excellent!
Pairing suggestion for the banana bread:  a light, fragrant Muscat
Pairing suggestion for the chocolate tart:  a full-bodied Port

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thai Food

I am a big fan of Thai cuisine, particularly seafood and vegetable dishes. This is my favorite: cuttlefish salad served with sweet chili/lemon dressing on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Sometimes I add shrimp to make this dish more flavorful. What to drink? Thai beer, of course!

The picture on the left is a vegetable dish of stir-fried tofu, zucchini, snow peas, baby bamboo shoots and red sweet pepper. The one on the right is fried fillet of cod with red hot chili pepper and garlic sauce. These three dishes are my current favorites. I've got to have them at least once every 2 weeks.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Flat Bread Pizza

I made pesto sauce for a friend this morning, so I was able to make a quick lunch for myself using Lavash Bread. It's like a Mexican tortilla and quite versatile in that you can put on any topping you like, then roll it up and slice, or just cut into smaller squares and serve like an open (or folded) sandwich.

I normally warm up Lavash bread just a few minutes in the oven or quickly toast it over the open gas flame or grill. For the one in the picture above, I put my homemade pesto sauce, sliced tomatoes, arugula and some fresh mozzarella cheese on top. I often make it with sliced mushrooms, shredded cheese, arugula with thin sliced prosciutto or Coppa (dry-cured pork shoulder) or sliced smoked salmon with thin-sliced cucumber and sour cream, cream cheese etc.... whatever I can find in my refrigerator. Quick and easy!

Mushroom, red onion and fresh basil leaves

Thin sliced Coppa

I am lucky to have a store called "Woodside  Delicatessen" (Italian family-owned)  in my neighborhood. It's  kind of an old-style establishment, but very popular, and they have a wonderful selection of many cold meat products, both domestic and imported. What I love is that they slice cold meats perfectly for you for no charge. It makes a big difference when you get freshly sliced cold cuts. And they are very friendly people and  know all their customers' names.

Prosciutto with Parmigiano Reggiano

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Raspberry Sorbet

The Bay Area weather has been like a roller coaster ride in the past week. It was pretty cool last weekend, but heated up hot during the week. So I made raspberry sorbet a couple days ago to go with this Indian summer. I do not know why but raspberries are cheaper than blueberries these days. Supply and demand? I see that blueberries have been very popular in the U.S. recently, maybe it due to news media' s large claim about health benefits. Anyway I like raspberries because it not too sweet but very delicious.

I bought these local organic raspberries at the Menlo Park farmer's market. They were still very delicious. The grower is from Watsonville, south of San Jose.

Puree the raspberries through the sieve after 30 minutes in the boiled water and sugar mixture (2 cups of water, 1 and 1/2 cup sugar and 3 basket of raspberries about 20-ounces).

Chill the raspberry mixture in refrigerator at least 2 hours before putting into the ice cream maker for about 20 minutes.

It was started melting while I was taking the picture. It's still pretty hot around here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rich and Moist Chocolate Cake

Rich and moist chocolate cake (Fondant Au Chocolat)... mmmm! 

It was quite cool over the weekend. You could feel the season changing to fall, and this made me crave a rich chocolate cake. So I made one. I baked it a few minutes too much, but it was still pretty moist and came out good. I also made a rich custard sauce called Creme Anglaise for serving with the cake.

The ingredients for the cake are very simple:  butter, sugar, whole eggs and chocolate, plus 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Note: This is a flourless cake but you may add some flour or cornstarch if you wish.

In a medium-sized bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate with the butter. Remove from heat and set aside to keep warm. Meanwhile beat sugar and eggs in another bowl until thick and foamy, about 3-4 minutes. Fold the chocolate/butter mixture into the sugar/egg mixture. Pour the mixture into a prepared 8-9 inch spring form pan. Bake the cake about 22-25 minutes in preheated oven at 350 F until a toothpick inserted into the center still comes out slightly wet.

When the cake is done, cool it off in the pan at least 30 minutes on a wire rack. Remove the cake from the pan and serve with creme anglaise, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Or cool the cake completely on the rack  about 2 hours if glazing with melted chocolate.

Glazing cake: Pour/spread the fondant (5-ouncs dark chocolate with 3-ounce unsalted butter) over the cake evenly using an offset spatula. Cool at least 2 hours in refrigerator.

I used a 9-inch spring form pan. You should get about 12 slices.

Fondant au Chocolat
Preparation: 30 min
Baking: about 30 min

One 9-inch spring form pan, buttered

7 oz. (200g) bittersweet chocolate (52-60% de cacao), chopped
7 oz. (200g) unsalted butter, cut in pieces
2 oz. (50g) sugar, granulated
3 oz. (70G) powder sugar
5 large eggs
A pinch of salt
1.5 oz. (40g) cornstarch (optional)

For Glazing: 
5 oz. (150g) bittersweet chocolate (52-60% de cacao), chopped
3 oz. (75g) unsalted butter, cut in pieces

Preheat the oven to 350°F
In a medium-sized heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter. Remove from heat and set aside.

In another medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs, granulated sugar, powder sugar, and salt until thick and form (4-5 minutes), then fold the cornstarch if using in the egg mixture.

Fold the chocolate into the egg mixture one third at time. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan and bake it about 22-25 minute in the center of the oven. It is OK that the center is still wet if you insert a tooth pick, and it shows wet.

Cool off the pan 30 minutes on a wire rack. Remove the cake from the pan. Rest the cake on wire rack until cool completely about 2-3 hours.

In a small bowl melt the chocolate, butter and 2 tablespoon of water. Remove from heat and set aside to cool a little. Pour the glaze (fondant) over the cake evenly with using an offset spatula. Cool the cake at least 2 hours in refrigerator.

325° F (160° C)
350° F (175° C)
375° F (190° C)
400° F (205° C)
425° F (220° C)
450° F (235° C)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Beef Carpaccio

Beef Carpaccio 

It was so hot and dry the last few days in the Bay Area that I just didn't have much appetite, except for cold drinks. For yesterday's dinner, I had organic, hand-made chilled tofu with grated ginger, chopped scallion and dried shaved bonito served with soy/lemon juice. It was a perfect appetizer/dinner. 

Today I made Filet Mignon Carpaccio, which is really easy. I hand sliced the meat (make sure it is good quality), then placed the slices between two pieces of parchment paper. Then I pounded them until paper thin, arranged them on a platter, brushed them with good extra virgin olive oil, and ground some  black pepper on top. For a sauce, I mixed half mayonnaise, half Dijon mustard, and added a little creme fraiche. Can't forget a garnish:  chopped Italian parsley and grated Parmesan cheese "Grana" plus some lemon juice. Great appetizer for a warm evening! I ate the Carpaccio with toasted Ciabatta bread. Oh yes... I had a glass of Pinot Grigio.

Friday, September 16, 2011

French Cheeses

Cheese is probably the most perfect companion food for tasting wine, and I can't think of a better beverage than wine (mostly red, but also white) for tasting quality cheeses. Here are two favorite cheeses currently available at Trader Joe's. (I love shopping at TJ's. They have a good selection of both imported and domestic cheeses with very reasonable prices, and I often find something new.) 

First is a very typical cow's milk soft cheese from the Rhone-Alpes, called Le Petit Creme (left in the picture above). "It is a rich, smooth and creamy cheese that melts in your mouth," according to the label, but it's really true. However, it is best to leave it out a day or two at room temperature. This improves taste, texture, flavor and smell... until it says "Cheese!" 

Next (right in the picture above), is a semi-firm cheese made from cow's raw milk (not pasteurized) called Raclette. It's from the mountainous Savoy region of France near the Swiss border. This cheese is great when melted on rustic bread or over baked potatoes. Of course, you can just slice and eat without heating. It has nice texture and a slightly nutty flavor. However, the one I got recently at TJ's was not so great. In fact this one comes from Auvergne mountains (center of France). It was a little too salty and did not have good Raclette flavor and sweet/ fruity aroma when heated.

Le Petit Creme


 This picture shows how le Petit Creme will look when left for a couple days at room temperature as mentioned above. The irresistible creamy cheese comes out like molten chocolate cake as soon as you slice it.

France makes many wonderful cow's milk soft cheeses like this, such as Brie and Camembert....
French cheeses with rustic bread and a glass of wine is one of my favorite quick dinners. Enjoy!

For a good overview of international cheeses, with notes on tasting, storage, nutrition, creating cheese plates and more, see the Cheese Lovers' Manual.