I used to laugh at myself when I bought Cheetos from the vending machine at work. “Cheetos are good for you,” I would say. “There was actually real cheese in the same room when they were made!”
I get serious cravings for salty snacks and cheesy snacks, even though I know Cheetos and Cheese Nips are a classic example of what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances.” It’s been a while now since I had one, and I might be able to resist if someone waved them under my nose.
For a long time, I just tried not to include edible food-like substances into my diet. I would stand in the store holding a box of Cheese Nips and muttering “edible food-like substance” and on days when both my resolve and my budget were strong, I would buy Triscuits and Tillamook cheddar cheese instead. (Tillamook medium cheddar is a standard grocery store buy in this area, frequently on sale. The cows are partly grass-fed, and it is made within 100 miles of home. It’s my minimum quality standard cheese for cooking.)
Just leaving the bad stuff out isn’t always enough. Sometimes you need to add the good stuff in as well.
What I really crave now is cheese
Good cheese. Extraordinary cheese. Miraculous cheese. A good sharp Cheddar like Cougar Gold from the WSU Creamery is just a starting place.
My son Nathaniel doesn’t share this craving. It took years of patience to get my son to accept that Tillamook medium cheddar is “normal” cheese, instead of the American cheese he was used to from school.
Since I have to cook for both of us, my quest for cheese became a quest for cheese that he would eat as well.
Then I stumbled across the Pacific Northwest Cheese Projects, a blog that strives to list every artisan cheesemaker in the Pacific Northwest.
Only one was available in my home town, Blue Rose Dairy, which was sold at the farmer’s market and in one health food store. At $16 a pound, I couldn’t buy it very often.
My son turned up his nose at their chevre, which was fine with me. More for me. But it meant I couldn’t cook with it.
He thought my pizza with chevre and beets on a whole wheat crust was just weird. He ate two bites and left the rest for me. I have to admit it wasn’t very pizza-like, but it was tasty.
I don’t leave town just to shop, only when I have to travel anyway. A trip to Vancouver costs me $10, to Portland or Olympia more like $12. So I was elated the day that I managed to get a visit to the Olympia Food Co-op worked into a necessary visit to Olympia. Several of the Washington state cheeses listed on the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project were available there.
I came home with organic blue corn masa, my first-time-ever quart of raw milk, and three little packages of cheese.
Valentina cheese, from Estrella Family Creamery, changed my view on the cost of cheese vs. cheese-like foods forever.
Valentina is a raw cow’s milk cheese, a sharp, well-aged Gruyere-type cheese named after one of their cows.
It was so good that I moaned when I tried it. The little sliver melted in my mouth in a cascade of flavors — sharp, salty, fruity, nutty, wine-like.
It has become my standard for cheese flavor. No cheese has ever measured up to it. I don’t have a large sampling for comparison, but not even imported Parmigiana Reggiono or Asiago quite measured up.
And no Cheeto ever came close.
When I first tried it, I just sat on the couch for about a half an hour, carefully shaving off slivers with a vegetable peeler, placing one sliver at a time into my mouth, and moaning and rolling my eyes in ecstasy as one brilliant but elusive flavor melted into another.
Nathaniel, then about 15, said it was “OK.”
“OK” means he will eat it without significant protest as long as I don’t layer it on too thickly.
I did try cooking with it, with the first delivery from a new CSA, grating a little onto a bowl of white bean, squash and kale soup, and it was excellent in that role, enhancing the soup without either the soup or the cheese being overwhelmed by the other.
He thought the soup was “OK,” too.
The other cheeses? He liked the Adelle from Ancient Heritage Dairy. This one is a soft, ripened sheep’s milk cheese. “It would be good on crackers,” he said.
We were making progress.
And the family Bible study we attended they enjoyed a little round of Cirrus from Mt. Townsend Creamery, a Camembert style cheese. “I don’t know anything about these gourmet things,” said our leader, but a young man who had visited Europe went nuts over it…he had no idea anything like it was available in the U.S.
That was a couple of years ago, during my mis-timed participation in the Pennywise Challenge for locavores (I was only a year late! – no need for Nathaniel to get in such a huff over it when I figured it out).
I haven’t had many opportunities for cheese exploration since then. Trips to Portland have been centered around Shriner’s Hospital. Trips to Olympia have been centered around college campus visits and shopping for special shoes for him.
But I am convinced that the quest for wonderful cheese is worth continuing.
And on a cost comparison basis?
An ounce of a good artisan cheese (at $16 – $19.95/pound) will cost $1.00 – $1.24. A 2-ounce bag of Cheetos costs somewhere around a dollar. Both measures are light snack sizes. In terms of either nutrition or pleasure, a good cheese wins every round.
I might not want to put the more expensive cheeses into a casserole…but even without finding another cheese to equal the bliss of Valentina — I would much rather spend my $1.25 of snack money on really good cheese. A little goes a long way, especially if you slice it with a vegetable peeler!
And Nathaniel? This summer we finally found a cheese he was enthusiastic about.
Not just enthusiastic, but evangelical.
At a family reunion, my dad brought out a Stilton cheese and a bottle of port on the last evening. He announced that he had been hearing all his life what a great combination this was, and he had made up his mind that one of the things he wanted really to try was Stilton and port.
I knew just what my dad meant. I read lots of books set in the Regency/Napoleonic wars era. The gentlemen in these novels always round off their dinners with a fine Stilton and a bottle of port, while the ladies retire to the drawing room. I think Bunter served up this classic pairing to Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers’ novels as well. So it felt like a taste of both history and literature, as well as cuisine.
It may have been the effect of letting him sample the port (powerful, rich, and silky smooth), but my son loved the Stilton!
He went around the room with a little plate and fork trying to persuade all the younger kids to try it. “Go on,” he said, “it’s a little strong but it’s really good!”
If only Stilton were local…but since it’s both imported and famous, I can probably buy it at a well-stocked Safeway!
NOTE/WARNING from Elizabeth: I found this news shortly after sending my entry in. On September 4 the FDA issued a press release with a safety warning on possible Listeria contamination in Estrella Family Creamery cheeses. Apparently it was found during testing on cheese from one cave and none of the contaminated cheeses were actually released to the market. Here’s the original FDA release and a story that does a good job of telling the dairy’s side of the story –which is that there was not, emphatically not, an actual recall (which is what happens when contaminated food is actually sold). In fact, this may prove to be a good example of the food safety system working as it should…vigilant attention to safety catching problems before they reach the market place, instead of, say, 15 million eggs later.
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