Leftover Cheese

In the cheese world we tend to put a lot of emphasis on cheese by itself - pretty looking cheese, cheese plates and cheese courses. This is all well and good but if you're like me you might serve a cheese plate at a dinner party or whatever.....and then you end up with all of these leftover pieces of cheese. Generally, at least in my case, these bits tend to sit for months on end because I feel too guilty to throw them out...until I am, finally, forced to dispose of them because they've dessicated to hard unrecognizable bits. In an effort to use up what I have, throw less away and diversify, I've come up with some ideas for using up leftover cheese and I thought I'd share them with you.

1. Make Grilled Cheese  Call it a legacy from childhood, but I tend to get caught up in the idea that a grilled cheese, by definition, can only have one kind of cheese in it. Usually cheddar. But now that all of us are grown up and evolved, it's time to break the chains of severe recipe myopia and - gasp - combine cheeses in one sandwich. Seriously, combining cheeses makes for some great flavor combinations. Just the other day I combined some sharp cheddar, Juniper Grove Tumalo Tomme and La Mariposa Cinquo Esquinas and the results were outstanding. (xtra tip: grate small amounts of cheese for quicker melting).

2.  Baking Projects   Some cheese shops and restaurants deal with cheese leftovers by using them in products like crackers or pastries. This is a really easy way to do something with stray bits of cheese - plus it makes for a fun, kid-friendly project. Most comprehensive cookbooks have recipes but here's one I like here and another here.

3.  Dogs Love Cheese  I have yet to meet a dog that doesn't love little bits of extra cheese and/or cheese rinds. In moderation, of course! If you have backyard chickens, they will eat cheese too -  a favorite trick of cheesemakers is to feed the bad experiments to the chickens.

4. Fondue  Yes, the classic fondues require Emmenthaler and Gruyere - and I wouldn't necessarily stray from these base cheeses altogether because they guarantee good consistency - but go ahead and throw in some of that Mt. Townsend Trailhead or WSU Cougar Gold. Any good melting cheese will work here.

5.  Grate it and Melt it  If you usually grate cheddar on your chili dogs you'll probably really like Fontina, for example. Small amounts of grated cheese add a nice protein boost to salads as well. Grate cheese over a bit of pasta for lunch, or think bruschetta. Potatoes Au Gratin. The possibilities are as limited - oops, I mean as unlimited - as your imagination.

6.  Add Rinds to Soups  This is a classic technique of Italian cuisine - add the rinds of Parmigiano Reggiano to a soup like Minestrone for a savory flavor boost (recipe example here). Use leftover rinds of any naturally rinded aged cheese - i.e. a style of cheese not coated in plastic to protect the rind during the aging process.

7.   Fricos  Have you ever made Parmesan Crisps (aka Fricos)? These are really simple to make and deliver impressive results, and the recipe will work other styles of harder aged cheeses (i.e. low moisture cheeses) as well. Do a Google search for recipes or find one here.

8. Lunches  Think outside the sandwich box: take that small leftover hunk of Rogue River Blue with you to work, along with a pear and some good bread and call it exceptional. A nice alternative to the same ol' carrot sticks or - worse - plastic-packaged string cheese. Or if you want to go all out do a classic Ploughman's Lunch with cheese, bread, chutney and pickled vegetables.

Do you have other ideas or techniques for using up leftover cheese? Leave a comment and let us all know.

On Restaurant Cheese Plates

DSC_0029 Ordering the cheese plate at a restaurant can be something of a dicey proposition. Last night at a restaurant in the Portland area, we were told the three cheeses on their artisan cheese plate were Rogue River Blue (it wasn't), a smoked Gouda (it wasn't) and a cheddar from Switzerland (I'm not even sure there is such a thing). A mess, right? Though the blue cheese had no leaf wrapping, we were assured that, indeed, this was the one that had just won that big award (I suspect it might have been Rogue Caveman Blue instead). The 'smoked gouda' turned out to be, of all things, Rivers Edge Astraea, a distinctive aged goat's milk cheese from Oregon with a cinnamon dusted rind. I didn't bother pursuing the mysterious Swiss Cheddar; perhaps they were attempting to communicate that it tasted like a cheddar. Too much work, you know?

I've lost count of how many times this type of thing has happened when I order a cheese plate at a restaurant. Quite often servers confuse sheep with goats; once a server insisted that an obviously non-blue cheese was in fact blue. One related the story of a cheese that was actually the story of another dairy in another state (that person gets credit, at least, for being in the ballpark). And more often than not, the cheese presented on a cheese plate is cold, straight from the refrigerator, when it should be warmed to room temperature. While many of these same restaurants treat wine with such reverence that they hire specific people with advanced educations (sommeliers) to serve it, they seem to approach cheese as if it is a mysterious substance from, perhaps, another planet. And don't get me started about cheese carts...

I know running a restaurant is a tough business. But restaurants, I think there are some things you can do to improve this sad state of affairs. First off, consider whether you have the time, money or even the interest in serving a cheese plate or cheese course. Because, like many things, if you can't do cheese well, there is no point in doing it at all. Second, if you are going to serve cheese you have a few obligations: one - learn about your producers, whether local or european; two - learn to take care of the cheese you buy; and three - educate your staff and make sure the right messages are making it on your menu and being communicated to your customers. The cheesemaker who works 18 hour days milking animals and making cheese that you buy expects and deserves to be represented well. And if, like many restaurants these days, you want to project the image that you're committed to local products and local farmers, you have to be able to back it up. Your customers will recognize the difference.

Here's some free advice: one of the simplest things you can do to improve the situation is to list the cheeses you're serving directly on your menu. So, for example, you might say you are carrying Valdeon (cow/goat, Spain), Tomme de Savoie (cow, France) and Rivers Edge Sunset Bay (goat, Oregon). Front load your menu so that you aren't putting the burden on your servers, who already have too much to do. This way you're ensuring that the right information gets to your customers directly. You will eliminate a lot of questions that way and if customers do want to ask for more information, you can pursue these questions individually and with more authority. Here's an example of what I consider a simple, well executed cheese menu from Lark in Seattle.

Do you have a story to tell about an experience with a restaurant cheese plate - whether from a server, chef or customer perspective?