Hello, welcome to Djalali Cooks! Cheese. We eat a lot of cheese at the Djalali house, with Pizza and a Movie; sandwiches and tacos…and just because, well, cheese. For today’s Ingredient Spotlight on Cheese, let’s take a look at several cheeses; some you will know, and some may be new to you. Let’s jump right in!
The melting cheeses are a familiar bunch; we have The Jack cheeses, Monterey and Pepper; Cheddar; Swiss; Mozzarella and Provolone. All of these cheeses are perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches, mac and cheese, on a pizza, or nachos. When I want to give a melty cheese dish a little more nuance, or change up its flavor profile to be a little more nutty, smoky or buttery, I like to mix things up with Gruyère, Fontina, Havarti, or Smoked Gouda. Of course all of these cheeses are fantastic in their solid state on a cheeseboard, or in a sandwich.
Gruyère is a cow’s milk cheese that is classified as a Swiss or Alpine-type cheese. It has a distinct, yet mild, nutty flavor that is similar to Swiss, but with a slightly sweeter note. Typically found in French onion soup, fondue and quiche recipes, it’s easily at home in other recipes that call for a mild, melty cheese. I love to shred Gruyère for pizza. It adds a creamy richness that won’t overpower other ingredients, but also brings its own unique flavor. A favorite combination of mine is ham and Gruyère (e.g. Croque-Monsieur sandwich), which makes it a great pizza cheese with prosciutto or pancetta.
Comté is a French cheese that is incredibly similar to Gruyère in both texture and flavor. I highly recommend Comté as a Gruyère substitute, alternative, or just because!
A semi-soft cheese, Fontina has been made in the Aosta Valley region of the Alps since the twelfth century. Derivative versions are made all across Europe now and the types of Fontina we find most easily in US supermarkets are from Sweden and Denmark (known by the red wax rind). These derivative versions are even milder in flavor than the Fontina that comes from the Aosta Valley. The original Fontina from the Aosta Valley is more pungent and sharper in flavor. The Swedish, Danish and American versions (with the red wax rind) of Fontina have a mild, buttery flavor which pairs really well with more pungent and earthy flavored ingredients, such as truffles or other mushrooms.
Havarti is a semi-soft cheese, originating in Denmark. It’s a rindless, creamy cheese with a slightly sweet, acidic flavor. It’s this flavor profile that makes Havarti so perfectly at home with herbaceous flavors in salads – you can often find wedges of Havarti with dill at the supermarket. I particularly like Havarti paired with sour Granny Smith apples, or bright green grapes.
The tangy, smoky bite of Smoked Gouda makes this cheese a flavor powerhouse in any recipe. Gouda is a Dutch cheese named after the city of Gouda, in the Netherlands. It surprised me to learn that Gouda accounts for over 50% of the world’s cheese consumption. Smoked Gouda is a variant of the famous cheese, smoked over Hickory chips. Smoked Gouda has a lusciously creamy texture with all the notes you’d expect from something smoked over hickory – slightly sweet and tangy with bacon undertones add up to make this cheese perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches, mac and cheese or topping burger.
Hard and Crumbly Cheeses
While Cheddar, Gruyère, Swiss and Emmental are all superior melting cheeses, they are actually considered hard, or semi-hard cheeses. But the hard cheeses I want to cover in this section are the “super hard” cheeses (think Pecorino Romano and Parmesan); and their friends, the crumbly cheeses, like Cotija and Feta.
Manchego hails from Spain; originally it was made from the Manchego sheep’s milk in the La Mancha area of Spain. Manchego is nutty in flavor with a hint of bitterness. It’s Alex’s favorite cheese, so it always appears on a cheeseboard at home – it’s paired beautifully with olives; salty, Marcona Almonds; and dried fruits like apricots or cherries.
We all know Parmesan. It’s a cow’s milk cheese originating in Italy. Often made in other parts of the world now, the real-deal Parmigiano-Reggiano is the authentic Italian version and because it’s aged at least two years, its texture is drier and more granular, its flavor is concentrated and more complex. Freshly grated or sliced from a wedge is the best way to enjoy Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Pecorino Romano is often likened to Parmesan for its umami flavor and hard, granular texture. But Pecorino Romano is made from sheep’s milk, rather than cow’s. There are flavor differences too, Pecorino Romano is tangier and a bit sharper than Parmesan. next time you’re at the supermarket, pick up Pecorino and give it a try. Or do a cheese tasting at home of both Pecorino and Parmesan and see if you can pick out the differences!
Real Greek Feta is not that easy to find at the supermarket. Authentic Greek Feta is must be made from at least 70% sheep’s milk, with 30% goat’s milk, and packaged in brine. The flavor and texture of Greek Feta is so different than the American-made Feta-style cheese most commonly found in the US. The texture crumbles easily, and is very creamy; with a tangier, citric, grassy flavor that is unmatched by American-made Feta. Pre-crumbled Feta is not a good Feta option. Luckily, we can order it online, if we don’t see authentic Greek Feta at the grocery store! Try Dodoni Greek Feta.
Cotija is a Mexican cow’s milk cheese from Michoacán. It’s a salty, crumbly cheese. It’s a non-melting cheese that is perfect on tacos, corn, or on salads. Its texture and flavor is not unlike Feta. It has become more common at the supermarket, so it’s not hard to find. You will find that you can swap Feta for Cotija in recipes such as Watermelon salad with Cotija (or Feta) and Serrano chiles. I love to top a Mexican pizza with it, much like you would with grated Parmesan.
More Notes on Cheese
While pre-shredded cheeses are super-convenient, you’re not getting the best cheese flavor or texture with the shredded stuff because it’s coated with cellulose to keep the shreds from sticking together. It only takes a few more minutes to grate a cup of Mozzarella, Parmesan or Cheddar cheese, so I highly encourage the extra step to get a superior flavor and texture for your melty-cheese dishes – trust me, the difference is noticeable!
There are so many amazing cheeses out there, so this is likely only part one of a series on cheese – I didn’t even get to the soft cheeses yet! I didn’t cover mozzarella here today; I have talked about mozzarella (fresh, part skim, Burrata, etc.) on Pizza and a Movie; today I want to point you in some cheese directions that are maybe new to you. If you have any questions on Mozzarella, Send me an email from my Say Hello page, or ask in the comments below.
Thank you so much for joining me today for this Ingredient Spotlight on Cheese. All this talk about cheese has me craving a cheeseboard! I will see you tomorrow, take care and be well everyone! xo Kelly
MariSeptember 22, 2021 at 9:50 am
Thank you so much for this lovely ingredient spotlight. Of all the things I miss eating due to food intolerances, cheese, and dairy in general had to be the hardest to give up. Vegan friends almost universally say the same thing. Because there are really good vegan milks and ice creams, those are not so difficult to replace. What is so hard to replicate is flavor and texture. At least the nondairy cheeses melt better than they used to, and the mouth feel is almost there. As for taste, no! I especially miss Gouda and Swiss. I wasn’t very adventurous with cheese, or I would probably miss a Iot more. I still remember the look of abject horror on my uncle’s face when he asked the 14 year old me what my favorite cheese was, and I said. Velveeta. “That’s not cheese!” I think the entire block heard him. When my mother defended my choice, he yelled at her too! Now I have a better understanding of cheeses, and I can make better selections for my family, and I know what is similar, if a substitution is necessary, If I could go back in time, I would apologize to Uncle Bill and tell him sharp cheddar, Gouda, and Brie. I swear breaking up with real cheese was harder than breaking up with my boyfriends was! Thanks to pizza and a movie, I discovered other cheeses to feed my family, and they are so grateful too you for burrata. A Happy Wet Wednesday to you, Alex, Terry and the blog sisters and brothers out there. In the words of Mister Spock, live long and prosper. To which I would add, eat lots of cheese.
Kelly DjalaliSeptember 22, 2021 at 10:19 am
Hi Mari, there have been times in my life when I was on an elimination diet to determine a food sensitivity and I went about a year without eating dairy. I missed it so much! Since then I have discovered that while cream-based dishes (like chowders and cream sauces) are difficult for my digestive system, dairy inoculated with cultures (like cheese, buttermilk, yogurt, etc) are just fine. A wonderful realization, indeed! I know cheese alternatives have come along way, but I get what you’re saying about texture and mouthfeel. I am glad this post gave you a few more ideas for your family. Have a great hump day! xo Kelly