On Board For Summer

By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

For lots of cooks, warm-weather months are all about the glories of the grill. For others, summer broadens the kaleidoscope of vegetables and fruits. For me, this time of year means all of that -- with cheese.

Most of us aren't used to thinking of cheese as a seasonal food, but summer is the time when certain cheeses are produced or are at their best. Dairy animals are feasting on lush, nutrient-rich grasses, and their diet is reflected in the flavor, freshness and richness of many kinds of cheese.

For reasons not understood by this dairy queen, cheese seems to be an afterthought or subsidiary ingredient in summer cooking. It is my opinion, however, that now's the time a well-chosen cheese deserves its place of honor at the table.

To be sure, it can be hard to choose. There are hundreds of varieties of cow's-, goat's- and sheep's-milk cheeses (not to mention buffalo's milk), fresh and aged, from dairy farms across the country and from all corners of the globe, readily available at well-stocked supermarkets, gourmet and specialty cheese shops and online. It makes for an intimidating and often expensive array. That's why I decided to share thoughts about my current summer favorites. And although some cheeses cost upward of $20 a pound, it's important to remember that a little goes a long way. I think of it as an affordable indulgence.

To simplify matters, I like to divide the subject into two categories: true summer cheeses, and those that seem right for the season. For example, two fresh cow's-milk cheeses -- mozzarella and its even richer cousin, burrata -- are now at their peak in richness and tangy flavor. Summer is also the natural season for fresh goat's-milk and sheep's-milk cheeses, such as chevre, feta and ricotta. Goats and sheep stop producing milk in winter, when they are breeding and preparing to give birth. Although some cheese producers freeze the curds collected in summer (which is why we see goat cheese in stores year-round), the ideal time to enjoy these fresh cheeses is when they are made from fresh milk and curds.

"It's like strawberries or tomatoes," says Sebastien Tavel, owner of a new cheese shop in Old Town Alexandria called La Fromagerie. "Yes, you can get them in December, but it's not the same thing."

Then there are, to my mind, cheeses that just make sense. For example, I enjoy a rich, meaty wedge of Taleggio as much as the next cheese lover, but I find it too substantial for the heat of July and August. Instead I prefer the lighter, fresh cheeses: milder blues and supple semi-aged cheeses such as Gouda or Idiazabal, a lightly smoked beauty from Spain's Basque country.

Of course, only some of this is a matter of logic; it is also a matter of preference. I am never without a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano in my refrigerator, and I love the salty sharpness of a good, aged pecorino Romano in summer because it goes so well with other robust flavors of the season: grilled peppers, briny olives and meaty heirloom tomatoes.

The cheeses on my list of 13 are all available in the Washington area. I've grouped them according to how I use them: for grilling, for melting, for salad, for dessert and for eating fresh. Not surprisingly, there is overlap among the categories: fresh sheep's-milk ricotta, which is in the dessert group, would be perfectly at home on a summer cheese plate or drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper. Let your own palate be your guide.

Try crowning a burger with something with a little more character than the typical mild cheddar, such as goat Gouda. (Even better if it's a lamb burger.) Instead of another peach pie for dessert, let grilled peach halves share a plate with a creamy wedge of fresh sheep's-milk ricotta drizzled with honey. Armed with a little knowledge and a sense of adventure, you can easily add to your repertoire of summer cheeses and ramp up your summer recipes.

A word about storing cheeses in warm weather: All of them should be kept in the refrigerator. Fresh ones such as feta, mozzarella and ricotta are highly perishable. If possible, refrigerate them in a tightly sealed container in the brine or liquid that they came in and use them within a couple of days of purchase. Creamy or sticky cheeses, such as fresh goat cheese or creamy blues, should first be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. Wrap semi-soft cheeses such as Gouda or cheddar in wax paper (some cheese shops sell sheets of wax-coated paper) to allow them to breathe. Aged cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano store better than fresher cheeses and may be wrapped in plastic or wax paper. Be sure to use a fresh sheet of wrapping paper each time you rewrap the cheese.

Domenica Marchetti's latest cookbook is "Big Night In" (Chronicle Books, 2008). Her Web site is http://www.domenicacooks.com.

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