Cheese and Taxidermy
Little known secret: I have a wild affection for stuffed heads. Blame it on my Wisconsin heritage or my graduate degree in The Pretend (I have an M.F.A. in Fiction), but I am endlessly fascinated by preservation. Maybe this, this!, is the root of my cheese love. Could it be?
I got to mull this very question last week at a taxidermist’s cabin in rural Maine, where I spent seven days in deep relaxation with a group of dairy-loving friends. Some people need sand and sun to quiet the mind; I tend to favor antlers and milk products. Taking a social media hiatus was good for the mind too, which is why it’s been “lights out” on Madame Fromage for a wee spell.
Never fear. I ravaged the highways and biways of rural New York and Massachusetts en route in order to bring you some fabulous dairy gossip and some rare glimpses of lesser-known cheese products. I’ll share them with you over the next few days, but first, let me show you some highlights from our rural hideaway.
As you might imagine, I put a lot of thought into which cheeses to pack. No cheese-cation is complete without the right accoutrements, and our location was far off the beaten path, near the top of Baxter State Park. Only the gnarliest cheeses would suffice, like this wedge of Pecorino Ginepro, which pairs so perfectly with lichen. And honey. And gin’n tonics.
No cheese-cation is any fun unless you have raw-milk loving friends who appreciate things like gourmet butter, homemade bread, cocktails, and wine. Best to appoint a sommelier and a baker so that your evening cheese course is always rounded out with a fresh loaf and a warming nip.
Yes, that was a Tater Tot Casserole in that photo you just saw. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Tater Tot Casserole. In this case, we spruced it up with some wild rice and ground turkey, along with plenty of carrots and celery. Just because I have a thing for fine cheese doesn’t mean I can’t crack open a can of condensed cream-of-mushroom soup once in a while. Please.
What else can I say? My first trip to Maine was pretty much perfect, even if I didn’t see a moose or spy on Stephen King. I highly recommend renting a cheap shack, grabbing a pack of cards and some cookbooks, and running away with your friends. A cheese board at sunset is all you need to feel civilized.
Gussied Up Tater Tot Casserole
This recipe is ubiquitous on the internet, but I can’t abide the basic version, which is bland and veggie-less. The key here is getting over your fear of gelatinous canned soup and marveling at the ingenuity of this down-home shepherd’s pie. Wild rice makes this dish especially hearty, but it’s definitely not necessary. If you want your Tots to remain crispy, try layering the cheese underneath them.
1 pound ground turkey
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 cup corn, steamed, cut from the cob (or 1 can of corn)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup wild rice, cooked
1 can (10 1/2 ounces) cream of mushroom soup
1/2 cup milk
1 package tater tots
1/2 pound Cheddar, grated (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease a 13 x 9 casserole pan.
2. In a skillet over medium-high heat, sautee the turkey and onions. You may need to add a little olive oil.
3. When the turkey has browned, add carrots, celery, corn, and garlic. Sautee for another 5 minutes. The vegetables should remain a bit crisp.
4. Add the soup and milk. Stir, then pour the mixture into the casserole pan.
5. Arrange Tater Tots in a single layer across the top and sprinkle with cheese, if desired.
6. Bake for 40 minutes. Broil an additional 5 minutes to crisp the Tots.
7. Serve with Beaujolais and forest sounds.