Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Toast to Cheddar

Here's an empty glass. What are you going to pour into it to toast lovely Cheddar cheese?

For Americans this can be a difficult question to answer. More than any other swilling nation, we Americans can be hung up about what we should drink with certain foods. We seem to lack the confidence to choose for ourselves the appropriate potent potable. Believing that there is a scientific, knowable formula for pairing beverages with food, we seek advice from experts and books instead of just popping open a bottle of something and seeing whether or not we like it. I think this quest for the perfect food & wine pairing stems from our lack of enduring food traditions and from the immense variety of foods we have to chose from. We can't simply do what's always been done (e.g., as the English do with port and Stilton).

What we should keep in mind when pairing food with wine and other beverages is that it's all a matter of taste and that there are no steadfast rules or a correct body of knowledge. Instead we should try something on our own and then stick with (and up for) what we like.

As you'll see from this long list of what cheese experts pair with Cheddar, it's hard to go wrong:

Cabernet Sauvignon
Chenin Blanc
Late-Harvest Gewurztraminer
Pinot Noir
Sauvignon Blanc
Indian Pale Ale
Pale Ale
Oloroso Sherry
Ruby Port
Tawny Port
Tobermory Scotch
Ledaig Scotch
Hard Cider

It's ok if you want to learn how to increase your chances of a favorable pairing. If you do, I suggest Laura Werlin's, The All American Cheese and Wine Book: Pairings, Profiles, & Recipes, which I've finally just started reading. It's great, of course.

But don't wait until you've finished reading her book to pop open a bottle of something, fill your empty glass, and toast Cheddar!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Cheddar's Chunky Chums

Just who are Cheddar's chunky chums? Chutney and pickle, of course. They are standouts from the fine relish family.

On a sandwich these relishes make classic, satisfying pairings. When I say classic, I am referring to the British model for eating Cheddar out of hand. Those Brits like their cheese sandwiches either with thickly buttered bread or with a sticky dollop of chutney or tart pickle relish. When I was young and visiting relatives in the U.K., I opted for butter. To my young, American mind, the combo of Cheddar and chutney was just too bewildering and foreign.

Now as an adult, with a stint at Neal's Yard Dairy and a trip to India under my belt, I've come to embrace English relishes on my sandwiches. In fact, I had some for both lunch and dinner on Sunday, along with a cup of spiced Norwegian pumpkin soup and a glass of hard, local cider for lunch and a green salad with pecans and a bottle of ale for dinner. These meals were super fast, entailing nothing more than toasting the bread, melting the cheese, and reheating the soup which was left over from my Great Squash Sacrifice dinner the night before. Not bloody bad for a snowy Sunday!

Lunch on Sunday was particularly fast because it entailed reheating not only the soup but also my toasted cheese sandwiches. They, too, were left over from my squash supper. I had served them as an appetizer with boozy applejack cobblers, and they were the only dish—as hard as it is for me to tell and for you to hear—that contained Cheddar. More bruschette than sandwiches, they are slices of toasted Sicilian whole wheat bread, brushed with melted butter and pumpkin seed oil, topped with homemade pumpkin chutney (see Thanksgiving entry below) and cave-ripened Jersey Cheddar, and then toasted again until the cheese melts. (Note: I mean New Jersey, not the island in England, famous for its creamy Chanel Island milk!) I make this chutney each year at the end of November, and I think it's a lovely, seasonal companion for Cheddar. Spiced with nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves, it's kind of like pickled pumpkin pie, but in a good way. Of the relishes accompanying my Cheddar on Sunday, this was the one that most resembled the pickle by which to judge all pickles, Branston Pickle Relish. It's the Heinz ketchup of the British pickle world, and it's the common pickle for a ploughman's lunch or a cheese and pickle sandwich bought at a railway station. Branston's chunky bulk comes from diced cubes of rutabaga and a medley of other vegetables, so my chutney made from diced winter squash isn't far off.

Sunday's dinner entailed a little more work, but not much. I halved a Sicilian whole wheat roll, also left over from my dinner, and toasted each half. On one half, I spread ajvar and then topped it with thin slices of Cheddar, and on the other, I put the Cheddar directly on top of the roll, and then spooned on a pickle relish from Brooklyn, that I had planned to eat at Thanksgiving (again, see post below) after the cheese was nicely melted. The Brooklyn pickle certainly sounds classic, but the ajvar doesn't seem typical, does it? It's not British; it's a moderately chunky Balkan relish, made with red bell peppers, eggplant, garlic, and chili peppers. It doesn't have the zippy acidity of an English pickle or chutney, but it does have the sweetness along with a hint of heat. Acidity is usually a welcome counterpoint to the sweetness of Cheddar, but the ajvar emphasizes it, and the relish's silky eggplant complements the unctuousness of melted cheese. The mild heat prevents everything from going over the top. I must admit that I was mildly disappointed by the Brooklyn pickle, Wheelhouse Pickles' seasonal Ploughman's Pickle. Florence Fabricant of the New York Times billed it as the local, small production alternative to Branston, but it couldn't have been more different. There were no cubes of vegetables and no zip. It was kind of dull and flat and tasted or raw, poorly integrated spices. But atop the roll and melted cheese, it wasn't all that bad, proving that Cheddar can bring out the best in its chums.