Cook From the Books: Buttermilk Fresh Cheese

I made cheese this weekend.

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I have wanted to make cheese for a really long time, and this weekend I finally made it. I am pretty ecstatic about this fact. I find it amusing that I waited a year or two to sufficiently psych myself up for this event, then I went to four different stores before I found one that had cheese cloth, then I wasted about a half an hour putting together my fire pit on the back porch, for the specific purpose of serving fresh cheese by a crackling fire, and then actually making the cheese only took fifteen minutes. So easy!

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While I was lounging around wasting hours of my holiday break, I noticed that my cookbooks do not get enough love. I realized that I have a few cookbooks that I received a year ago as gifts, that I have flipped through and bookmarked pages in, that I have never actually cooked a recipe from. When you get used to looking up and bookmarking recipes online, it is easy to neglect the great resources you have on your bookshelves.

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There are dozens of glossy photos and new recipes that I have marked “for later” and never gotten to, so I am now making an effort to cook from the books more often. Because the modern techniques in the Voltaggio brothers’ VOLT ink are way too intimidating (foams, thermal immersion circulators, and hydrocolloids . . . oh my!), I chose to start with the Lee brothers’ Simple Fresh Southern instead. Voltaggio brothers, I’ll get to you soon enough. With an iSi whipped cream canister. Wait, what?

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People have told me that ricotta and soft cheeses are very easy to make, but I did not really understand how quick and easy they were until I tried it myself. I had witnessed the last few steps of homemade ricotta at my friend Melissa’s apartment once when we were in college, but never jumped in and helped or tried to make my own. Fresh cheese is as simple as this: heat, strain, squeeze, serve. Simple Fresh Southern offers simple directions, helpful photos, and several suggestions for what to do with the final product.

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I mixed whole milk, buttermilk, salt and other seasonings over medium-high heat until curds started to form. I made two batches: one with fresh ground black pepper and another with Herbes de Provence. When the curds and whey were separated, I poured the mixture into a cheese cloth lined colander. Taking the four corners of the cheese cloth together in one hand and twisting the pouch of cheese with the other, I squeezed out the excess whey. When I opened the cheese cloth pouch, delicious soft cheese awaited. The light is terrible in these photos since the sun went down while I was playing with the fire pit, but you can kind of see the result.

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When I considered what to do with the fresh cheese, I was inspired by my Sunday morning walk through Forest Hill Park. It was supposed to be seventy degrees and sunny on Sunday, but it was hard to believe the forecast first thing that morning. The air was cold and damp, and thick fog covered the city.

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The hot sun was due to come out later, but morning in the park felt cold, wet, dark, and quiet. There was a damp earthiness in the air while I mentally planned meals for the week, and I remember thinking I would have to cook mushrooms to match this mood.

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I really am not a fan of mushrooms, so I settled on beets. Cool, earthy, beets, golden in color and roasted in the oven, because if the weather can be ambivalent, then so can my dinner. This sandwich showcases the fresh cheese pretty well, so if you plan to make some soft cheese yourself, put this on the menu for the week ahead. We had black pepper buttermilk fresh cheese, sliced roasted golden beets, fresh arugula, and mandarin orange vinaigrette between two slices of toasted multigrain sourdough, and it was perfect.

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See what happens when I cook from the books? I think this is the start of something beautiful (or at least delicious).

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Rennet: Animal, Vegetable, Microbial?

The more I learn about food, the more concerns I have about where it came from. Likewise, the more educated I become about animal products, the pickier I get about what I put on my plate. The growing number of food documentaries and the vast information available on the internet gives us the opportunity to be more informed about our food sources than we have ever been in my lifetime, and probably my parents’ lifetime too.

One of the most eye-opening food experiences I have had this year was when I discovered rennet. Rennet is a combination of digestive enzymes that is used in the production of cheese. Many cheese makers use animal-derived rennet, which comes from the stomach lining of a calf. The rennet is a byproduct of veal production. So imagine my surprise when I realized that I was indirectly supporting this practice by consuming cheese. Being anti-veal, I freaked out a little, and temporarily banned cheese from my diet until I could learn more. I discovered that there are three types of rennet: animal, vegetable and microbial. When I reincorporated cheese into my diet, I bought only cheese made with vegetable rennet, which I found at our local market, Ellwood Thompson’s.

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I took it a step further and started questioning where all of my animal products came from, and now I make more informed decisions about those animal products that I eat (typically just dairy and eggs). I don’t always research every food that I put in my body (for example, cream at the coffee shop, and cheese on a take-out sandwich), but I am getting better.

The reason I bring it up today is that when I was perusing the Trader Joe’s website, I found a very helpful guide to rennet that calls out which of their cheeses use animal, vegetable and microbial rennet. I wish more retailers made this information readily available. I thought you might want to check it out, so here is the link.

Trader Joe’s Rennet Guide

TJ’s has several other helpful guides, and I encourage you to check them out on their website. I hope you find this information useful while making your weekly grocery list. If you have any other helpful and reliable online resources for food education, please leave them in the comments for those of us who love to research what we eat!