Pining Over Paneer

Pining Over Paneer

Learn about this ancient and ubiquitous fresh cheese of South Asia.

From the more than 1,800 cheeses that exist in the world, the oldest and most versatile is arguably the fresh cheese, paneer, that is ubiquitous in Indian cooking. Supposedly mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit scriptures that go back 4,000 years, fresh paneer is surprisingly easy to make at home and amazingly adaptable to different cooking methods.

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Olive Estates of South Africa

Olive  Estates of South Africa

An exceptional and unexpected culinary journey.

Cheese, wine, charcuterie, bread and olive oil, the essentials of a satisfying culinary experience enjoyed with friends—even if the pleasure is shared virtually like it has been for so many this year. Whether it is delivered from a favorite restaurant or house-made, the satisfaction is undeniable. Attention to flavor, provenance and terroir can make the experience exceptional, yet few really consider the impact of a high-quality extra virgin olive oil with its own unique character and substance. Even fewer would have an olive oil from South Africa among their considerations.

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An Eye On the Environment

An Eye On the Environment

Sustainable Swiss dairies produce exceptional cheese.

Swiss artisans have been making cheese since the Middle Ages. Isolated in secluded hamlets on mountains and in valleys, they developed cheese unique to their region. This tradition continues to this day. I’m passionate about cheese, so when I heard that Switzerland produced around 450 kinds of cheese (191,000 tons), I knew I had to track down cheese dairies that have been making exceptional cheese for centuries.

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A Perfect Pairing

A Perfect Pairing

Combining savory cheese with sweet chocolate results in unique flavor sensations.

Autumn excites chocolate lovers. The summer heat that melts the sweet stuff in our hands also coats a silky, dark brown bar, left to sit, in a bloom of white dust. But let the cooler weather set in, and we gravitate towards chocolate, just as a greater variety of cheese beckons.

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When The Work Is Worth It

When The Work Is Worth It

Creating Portuguese cheese is labor-intensive, but the results make it worth the effort.

Portugal’s most famous consumable may be Port, but everybody knows that few foods pair better with wine than cheese. So it should come as no surprise that this small country on the Iberian Peninsula produces outstanding cheeses—some so good they were once used in place of currency. From soft cheeses melting inside hard rinds to crumbly, firm cheeses that are perfect for grating, everyone can find something they’ll love on a Portuguese cheese platter.

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The Cheese CSA

The Cheese CSA

Sustainably staying afloat through community.

Farms and creameries around the country are diversifying their marketing and sales strategies to try to set themselves apart. Some are ushering product into neighborhoods at farmer’s markets or in grocery stores, and others are meeting customers exactly where they are by offering Community Supported Agriculture shares, or CSAs.

Every farm has a slightly different process for this, but most are very similar: customers purchase a “share”, either directly from a creamery or from a farm that makes cheese or has partnered with a cheesemaker, and that customer receives a number of cheeses or dairy products on a regular basis throughout a season.

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Salute Grana Padano

Salute  Grana Padano

A healthy Italian cheese with gusto.

Beloved in its Italian homeland and throughout Europe, Grana Padano cheese was a familiar sight on the dinner table when chef Danilo Cortellini was growing up in the Abruzzo region. Now Cortellini is passing that tradition on to his own family, and to visitors to the Italian Embassy in London, where he is the head chef.

“There is a culture/heritage factor in my love for it,” says Cortellini. “And it is one of the most nutritious options when it comes to cheeses. In fact, it is the first cheese that my baby daughter ever tasted.”

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Tradition and French AOC Cheeses

Tradition and French AOC Cheeses

It’s all about the history, terroir, quality and flavor imparted in France.

In 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle famously mused, “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?” While the point holds true, de Gaulle’s estimate was a lowball—France boasts closer to 1,600 varieties of cheese, which is a whole lot of cheese for a country roughly the size of Texas.

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Kefir and Lassi POPULARITY CONTINUES

With a bevy of health benefits, both kefir and lassi have become more prevalent in the U.S.

The yogurt aisle at the grocery stores has boomed in recent years, as people have discovered the many health benefits of this probiotic-rich food. But there’s other dairy products that are also making big resurgences.

Kefir and lassi were once obscure products most likely to be found in natural food shops. Today, even the most mainstream grocery stores are likely to carry these drinkable yogurts, which offer great taste, a host of health benefits and versatile options for cooking.

“Sales of kefir and other drinkable yogurts are big business in the U.S.,” says Seair Lorentz, brand manager at Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, located in Sebastopol, CA. Data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI shows that sales of drinkable yogurt products were around $900 million in the past year. “There are a lot of new plant-based alternatives entering the drinkable yogurt market right now and getting a lot of attention.”

“We know that today’s consumers are on a constant pursuit of delicious options to add to their diet,” says Kiersti Bird, brand manager for Broomfield, CO-based Wallaby Organic, which makes whole milk and low-fat kefir. “Kefir is great to try with breakfast or as a mid-day snack.” It can also be used in salad dressings, soups, curries and a variety of other dishes, although people hoping to replenish their bodies with probiotics should avoid cooking it.

Kefir: An Introduction

“Kefir is a cultured milk beverage that contains a variety of live and active cultures,” says Bird. “It tastes similar to yogurt, but is drinkable and doesn’t require a spoon, making it a delicious and convenient option for an on-the-go snack.” It’s also high in calcium, protein, B vitamins and potassium.

“There are essentially two types of kefir: milk kefir and water kefir,” says Lorentz. Both are made by adding crystals called kefir grains to a liquid. “For our kefirs, fresh milk is first pasteurized and then mixed with a blend of live and active cultures, prompting fermentation. This makes the milk slightly thick and causes it to develop a beautifully tangy flavor.” While many people like to drink it plain, kefir is often blended with berries, mango or other fruit, which provides a nice counterbalance to the drink’s naturally sour flavor.

While cow’s milk is the most common ingredient in the United States, Redwood Hill makes some of its kefirs with goat’s milk. It also offers a lactose-free cow’s milk version for people who struggle with dairy. Consumers who cannot have milk at all can buy or make kefir made with coconut, almond or other nut milks.

The other option is to add the kefir grains to a mixture of water and fruit, which provides sugar with the beneficial bacteria needed to survive. Water kefir is a slightly fizzy drink similar to flavored carbonated water or kombucha, which is a type of fermented tea.

Kefir is one of the many fermented foods rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. Products like non-pasteurized sauerkraut, miso, yogurt and kefir are rich in probiotic bacteria. These microscopic organisms provide a huge range of physical and mental health benefits.

Jennifer Iserloh, a Hoboken, NJ-based holistic health coach, chef and author of “The Superfood Alchemy Cookbook,” likens the human gut to a jungle full of flora and fauna. “The more cultures you can introduce into your jungle—the more biodiversity you have—and the healthier your jungle will be,” she says.

“There’s this whole movement right now toward functional medicine and understanding the root causes of chronic illness,” she adds. “When you want to heal yourself at the root, you go to the gut. What people are realizing is that without balancing the gut, you’re not going to heal those chronic conditions—ever.” Fermented foods then become a necessity, not a luxury.

It’s important to note, too, that different probiotic bacteria serve different roles. One may help people digest certain foods; another may encourage weight loss, while still another will help in regulating hormones and mental states. The term “gut-brain axis” references this idea that what happens in the stomach has a surprisingly high impact on what happens in the brain. While these bacteria do occur naturally in the body, they’re constantly being killed off by things like antibiotics and over-the-counter medication, processed foods, lack of sleep, drinking too much coffee or alcohol, or even trauma, such as a car accident. That means the bacteria have to be replenished on a regular basis.

Probiotic cultures in pill form are available nearly everywhere these days, “but the one off the shelf can die quite easily,” says Iserloh. “In kefir and other fermented foods, they’re more likely to be living.” A pill may also contain only one or two types of probiotic bacteria, where fermented foods may have many more species. That’s why many people are now seeking out probiotic foods to add to their diet.

Learning about Lassi

Lassi is a drinkable yogurt that is made in much the same way as traditional yogurt. Milk is heated, cooled and cultured in a warm place until it has thickened. Water is then added to give the drink a lighter texture and more refreshing feel.

Lassi has a rich history in Ayurveda, a form of holistic medicine developed thousands of years ago in India. Even thousands of years ago, practitioners recognized that good health starts and finishes with the gut, says Karan Gera, founder of Monsieur Singh Lassi, New York City. “The science of Ayurveda is about making sure your stomach is healthy.”

Jaya Shrivastava, CEO of Austin, TX-based Sassy Lassi Yogurt Co., describes lassi as “smooth, slightly tart, naturally sweet and easy to digest.” Gera also emphasizes the drink’s tartness. The sour flavor created by the cultures helps highlight the sweetness of anything that is added to lassi, making it less important to add sugar to pull out that flavor.

When Americans hear the word ‘lassi,’ they typically think of a mango lassi. Because mango is not that common of a thing in some western cultures, there’s that exoticness to the fruit,” says Gera. The sweetness of a fresh mango is also exquisite with the drink’s sourness.

But in India, mango lassis are not as common. Salty lassis, which do have salt added but are what Americans might refer to as savory, are more traditional. “The way my mom used to make lassi is you gently roast cumin seeds, then you mix them with salt and maybe some fresh coriander leaves,” Gera says.

According to Ayurveda, lassi, like most other foods, should be consumed at room temperature. “Cold drinks are not considered to be good for the body,” Gera says. “When yogurt is colder, it’s thicker, and it shocks the system and, therefore, takes longer to digest. If it’s warmer, it’s easier for the body to absorb, and you get the nutrients faster. Also, if you let it sit outside, once it gets a little warmer, you get more of the flavor of the fruit or spices.”

Despite that recommendation, many people prefer to enjoy lassi cold. “On hot summer days, salted lassi is the welcome drink of choice that is offered to guests,” says Shrivastava. “It is light, icy cold and smooth, garnished with fried curry leaves, roasted and ground cumin seeds, and popped mustard seeds.” Lassis can also be topped with cheese and roasted nuts, sweetened with sugar and rose syrup, or made even richer with the addition of heavy cream.

Warm or iced, lassis have a special place in the hearts of many Indians.

“There’s a common saying whenever someone loses their temper in India. They say, in their own language, ‘Chill, have a lassi,’” says Gera. “It’s got that very refreshing aspect to it because it has that special tartness and is mixed with real fruit and spices. When it hits your brain, it refreshes it. There’s so much stress with modern life. Sometimes you want to take a moment and just have a real thing and not something processed.”

“Cooking” with Kefir

“Kefir is an incredibly versatile ingredient,” says Lorentz. “It can replace buttermilk in any baking recipe, including cakes, muffins and pancakes.” Besides providing great texture, using fruit-flavored kefir will add appealing flavor to baked goods. “Plain kefir is a great addition to dips and dressings, like green goddess or ranch.”

“Marinade bases are great with the salted lassi,” Shrivastava says. “Simply pour a cup of plain or salted lassi, add any spices or rubs you like, and pour it over raw chicken or meat. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight, and throw it on the grill.”

To get the health benefits of kefir or lassi, though, it’s important not to heat it, Iserloh says. “It will kill the probiotic bacteria.”

She recommends substituting kefir for yogurt in smoothies or using it as the base for a cold soup with avocados, green grapes and almonds.

Gera used to make lassi ice cream, with flavors such as passion fruit chia and honey lemon with mint. While those products are no longer available, anyone with an ice cream maker can whip up a similar mixture at home.

Shrivastava has made cocktails with lassi. She recommends using rum with pineapple, mango or other tropical fruit-flavored drinks. Or try combining rose lassi with red wine.

It turns out that lassi is great for the outside of the body as well as the inside.

“Plain lassi is a great skin and hair conditioner,” says Shrivastava. “We regularly use it in India.”        

RECIPE: Mor Kuzhambu

Recipe provided by Jaya Shrivastava, CEO of Sassy Lassi Yogurt

1            cup plain or salted lassi

1            cup water

½           tsp turmeric

¼           cup freshly grated coconut

1            green chili or jalapeño pepper

1            tsp cumin seeds

1            tsp black mustard seeds

1            sprig curry leaves

5            okra – cut into 3 pieces each

2            Tbsp canola oil or ghee

To make:

1. Dilute the lassi with water and use a whisk to make smooth.

2. Add the turmeric and salt if required, and set on a stove to simmer on a low flame.

3. Meanwhile, grind the grated fresh coconut and green chili into a paste. Add the paste in the lassi and continue to simmer—a low flame is important.

4. Heat oil/ghee separately.

5. When hot, add the mustard seeds first.

6. Wait until they pop and then add cumin seeds and the curry leaves and fry for about 30 seconds.

7. Add the okra and fry until crisp.

8. Add the fried okra and seeds into the simmer lassi sauce and turn off the stove.

Italy’s Coveted PECORINO DI PIENZA

A cheese that reflects its impressive history.

Photo by Jesper Storgaard Jensen

Pienza is one of Tuscany’s most enchanting towns. Its only 2,000 inhabitants have the privilege of living in an ancient environment full of history that was admitted to the prestigious UNESCO list of world inheritance places in 1996.

But the wonder doesn’t stop here, because Pienza is also home to one of Italy’s most beloved cheeses.

In certain parts of this country, local food products deep-rooted in tradition enhance the image of cities. This is exactly the case in the central part of Tuscany, Val d’Orcia, which is well-known for its stunning natural scenery. Here, the sweetness of the hilltops and the multiple long rows of marching cypress trees give Tuscany a touch of softness, as though nature had decided not to offend anyone’s eyes. You are able to drive around for hours while indulging in one dazzling view after another.

This is, however, also an area famous for its abundance of flavors that can be found in local recipes, wines and the many varieties of cheeses. Smells and tastes abound in the area’s cozy towns, which here are called città d’arte, literally meaning ‘art cities’. Amongst these are Siena, Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano and Bagno Vignoni.

Abundance is, without a doubt, the appropriate key word when you speak about the flavors of this area, including the two famous wine towns—Montepulciano and Montalcino. The first is famous for its red wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the latter has gained world fame due to the “King of wines”, the Brunello di Montalcino.

But, as we all know, a good wine becomes even better if it has the intriguing company of an outstanding cheese. That’s exactly why Pienza should have an important position on your Tuscany bucket list. A place that cannot be missed because of history, architecture and a cheese that many claim to be one of the best in Italy.

Historic Origins

When traveling from Montalcino towards Pienza, at a certain point along the motorway you’re likely to find a row of cars that have pulled over and parked on one side of the road. Many of the people leaving their cars have a camera around their neck. They are all heading towards the same spot from where you’ll find the best view to one of Italy’s most iconic natural spots—a green valley with a small group of cypress trees that seem to resemble the classical Tuscan dream of natural beauty.

This iconic view of nature and beauty is actually a sort of metaphor of what awaits you after just another quarter of an hour away, when you arrive at Pienza. Here, though, the beauty is also the taste of local pride, which, without doubt, is able to bring a smile to the lips of cheese lovers.

Pecorino di Pienza is a sheep cheese that has historic origins, just like many of Tuscany’s wines. Allegedly, it’s one of the oldest types of cheese in the world. The ancient Romans and, before them, the Etruscans, produced and consumed Pecorino. And, according to Italy’s gastronomic historic books, the Florentine nobleman Lorenzo de’ Medici was so fond of Pecorino that he actually went all the way from Florence to Pienza just to get his hands on the tasty cheese.

Over time, many tales and histories have been told about this cheese that has evolved over centuries. In modern times, this is also the story about how Sardinia and Tuscany are bound together through Pecorino.

Some 50-60 years ago, Val d’Orcia was not the fashionable, sought after area it is today. Most of all, it was a rural district where no one wanted to live, especially the young people who often preferred to move to nearby towns. At the same time, many Sardinian farmers decided to leave their farms and businesses. For that reason, the Italian government started offering the Sardinians an opportunity to buy huge areas of land in Tuscany at favorable prices. Many of them accepted this offer after which they moved to Tuscany, bringing hundreds and hundreds of sheep with them.

From Sardinia with Love

To be able to fully understand the history and quality of Pecorino di Pienza, I decided to visit the Fattoria Buca Nuova in the outskirts of Pienza. The company was founded in 1966, when Pietrino Cugusi and his wife, Mulas Maria Antonia, moved from Sardinia to Tuscany. Today, Pietrino’s son Emilio Cugusi is one of the heads of the company. He greets me as I arrive, and together we start our walk through the production unit.

“Since the middle of the 20th century, the production of Pecorino was carried out by the local farmers of this district who only had small breedings of sheep,” says Cugusi. “The sheep pastured in areas that otherwise would have been totally ignored. But, very slowly, these breedings started to be more substantial. The production became more and more important, and the markets—both the Italian and later on also some foreign markets—started to ask for higher volumes of a product that was characterized by a high quality.”

Today, the Sardinia imprint is still very present in the production of Pecorino. Sardinian sheep, which are a different breed compared to the Tuscan variety, are still used for the production of a cheese with very particular characteristics.

“The cheese is not spicy, although it’s full of character. I’d say that it has a decisive and rounded taste,” says Cugusi.

As we move further in the production unit, Cugusi stops and shows me some Pecorinos in the middle of a seasoning process.

“This orange Pecorino is being stored for 45 days. You obtain this color because of the external treatment that is used, i.e. the cheese is rubbed with a mix of tomatoes and olive oil,” he says. “This coating will naturally protect the cheese.”

Other types of Pecorinos are wrapped in a totally black coating or placed on a bed of leaves, which you are also able to see in Pienza’s numerous cheese shops. And one can also find Pecorino with a coating made on pomace from wine, which, of course, adds a very pleasant scent to the final product.

“As you can see, we have many different products and also sizes. Pecorino’s classical form weighs 1.5 kg, but we actually have cheese forms that weigh up to 6 kg. Although the standard seasoning is one and a half months, our Pecorino Gran Riserva, which is our top product, usually has a seasoning between 18 and 24 months,” Cugusi says.

In some Pecorinos sold in Pienza, you’ll even be able to see mold on the outside of the cheese. But there is actually no need to worry about that.

“The mold is actually a positive sign,” says Cugusi. “It occurs due to the fact that the cheese is not treated with chemical products in any way, and the seasoning is completely natural. The mold can easily be washed away.”

Not Protected

Pecorino is truly a unique cheese also when it comes to the quantity of the overall production, which is actually quite modest compared to a cheese produced commercially. While many of Italy’s other famous cheeses are protected by the EU-qualification DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), this is not the case with Pecorino of Pienza. Because it is not a protected brand, there is actually a risk of coming across fake products.

Around Pienza, only some 20 companies are producing the cheese made from the milk of just 3,000 sheep. As a matter of fact, if all the cheese sold under the brand Pecorino di Pienza were really the original, you would actually need 100,000 sheep.

Contributing to the problem are the sheep imported from France, which some local farmers have been using for milk in recent years. Instead of only 1 liter—the daily amount of milk coming from the traditional Sardinian sheep—the French sheep are able to produce 3 liters a day, which, of course, gives access to a larger production. However, the flavor of the final product is not like the original.

In the center of this Tuscan city, you’ll find the long Corso Rossellini, which cuts the town in two. The center of Pienza was designed in the Middle Ages by architect Bernardo Rossellino, who also worked for Pope Pio II, and it is dominated by the impressive Cathedral of Pienza, erected in 1462. From here, it is as though spirituality flows out to reach all corners of this small town, which is also known under its nickname “la città ideale”. This because Pienza was considered the Renaissance utopia incarnation of an ideal city, which, from an architectural point of view, is characterized by a rational organization of the open spaces and perspectives of squares and palaces.

Along the Corso, many small grocery and specialty stores can be found. And when you stop in front of them, you are automatically bound to be dragged inside by the inviting Pecorinos. Samples are on display to taste, and you’ll be able to try many before making your choice.

And, to complete the picture of Pienza, if you happen to visit the town on the first Sunday of September, do not miss the annual precision game ”il Gioco del Cacio al fuso”, where the participants try to role Pecorino cheese as close as possible to a pole. It takes place right in the center of town on Piazza Pio II and is an important folkloristic event of Pienza. On that day, a touch of fun and madness mixed with history and taste, will give you the perfect dimension of what Pienza is all about.