Monday, December 14, 2009

Cheese of the Month- Ardrahan

I’ve fallen off the cheese wagon lately. Chalk it up to my move to Brooklyn and away from my apprenticeship at the inimitable Sprout Creek Farm. Though I live among a plethora of some of the country’s best cheese shops, I’ve been a very bad and lazy taste-tester, existing in an existential state of cheese limbo.

However, I recently got my paws on a choice piece of Ardrahan, a wash-rind, semi-soft cheese hailing from a small family farm in Cork, Ireland. Those of you who know my cheese sensibilities won’t be surprised that I’m featuring this particular cheese on this particular blog.

Ardrahan proved itself a complex cheese, worthy of the awards it has garnered. Splitting open the golden, saffron-hued exterior reveals an ocre-colored flesh that’s both firm and springy. Like some of my other stinky cheese favorites, Ardrahan possesses a somewhat sticky rind and a meaty interior that’s delivers a subtlety pungent barnyard aroma and an earthy, mushroomy flavor, which becomes slightly tangy as it ages. On the tongue, the mouthful is buttery, nutty, salty and slightly chalky.

Ardrahan is made from pasteurized cow’s milk and vegetarian rennet, hand-made in small batches by the Burns family on their Kanturk, County Cork farm.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Grape Focaccia

I’m always pleasantly surprised to sit down at a restaurant and find a bread basket filled with salty, warm focaccia instead of the ubiquitous hunks of nondescript bread that fill the stomach while leaving the soul empty. I can think of nothing better to start a meal than this soft and spongy Italian specialty, its moon-like craters filled with hot pools of olive oil, coated in an inviting layer of crusty salt and crispy herbs.

And with the holidays upon us, I begin a treasure hunt for inspired recipes and flavor combinations, familiar and homey, but with a twist. This focaccia recipe is utterly simple to assemble, yet the interplay of flavors- sweet and fruity grapes and sea salt, tangy shallots and earthy rosemary- give way to synergistic bread, a marriage of aromas and tastes more dynamic than the sum of its individual parts.

The flavor combination is traditionally Italian. I used both red and green grapes as that is what I had in stock. If using sea salt, be sparse- a little goes a long way.

Requiring only premade pizza dough, there is no need to slave away with packets of yeast and no need to massage the dough. This recipe is like a holiday recipe in itself: simplicity gift-wrapped and served-up in the form of piping hot, springy bread that packs a serious flavor punch.

Grape Focaccia

1 pound pizza dough, preferably from your local pizzeria
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary
1 cup red grapes (or 1/2 cup red grapes and 1/2 cup green grapes)
Coarse sea salt or kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Honey for drizzling

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll the pizza dough into a rectangle on sheet of parchment paper or a silpat. Place the dough and parchment paper (or silpat) on a baking sheet.

2. Brush the dough with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt, garlic, shallot and rosemary. Spread the grapes evenly on dough and push slightly into the dough. Drizzle honey and black pepper to taste.

3. Bake about 25 minutes or until golden.