There is something unnerving about a cheese that looks like dried squid. When I received an inquiry about sampling Chechil, I was hesitant when I viewed the pictures – but the email came from a charming man named Sergy, who described how he used Kickstarter to launch production of this Russian snack cheese in the U.S. Sure, Sergy, I wrote back. Send me some samples.
Mostly, I was curious to check out crowd-funded string cheese. To be more precise: this is a crowd-funded, smoked, braided, string-cheese beer snack.
Chechil is one of several Kickstarter campaigns sweeping the cheese world; I watched Caputo Bros. Mozzarella successfully raise funds in November, and this month I’m watching the campaign for Cricket Creek Farm. (My friend Sue Miller, of Birchrun Hills Farm, has planned a campaign in September.)
Before you read my tasting notes on Chechil, you should know that Madame’s gold standard for smoked cheeses from the U.S. is Rogue Smokey Blue. The smoke gilds the complexity of this Oregon blue, without overpowering the taste of good dairy. The flaw in many smoked wedges – like supermarket smoked Gouda – is that they smack of smoke, not of milk.
Like the burnt sugar crust on a creme brûlée, the taste of char should harmonize with the cream.
Chechil is a bar snack that is produced at a plant in New York state. It’s sold online at Chechil USA and is available at Netcost Market in Philadelphia. Chechil owner Sergey Yerkin told me that hopes to make Chechil available at Whole Foods and Fairway Market.
Smoke and salt. If you sampled this cheese with eyes closed, you might think you were eating turkey jerky. The texture makes up for the one-note profile here. It’s definitely a cheese that needs beer to offset the intense flavor.
Dry and thready, this cheese is fun to unbraid and peel apart. Pictures online show bowls of Chechil separated into strands as thin as dental floss.
I ferried Chechil to a food blogger party, along with a six-pack of Eastern European beers. Light and sweetly yeasty, these flavors offset the salty, smoky taste of the cheese. An Armenian expat friend (Karina Ambartsoumian, below-left) who sampled Chechil called it “authentic,” and within a half hour two braids of Chechil were devoured by about a dozen people.
At a party, Chechil is edible Jenga. It’s fun to take apart and talk about. To serve it, let it come to room temperature, which makes it more pliable. Pilsners are perfect alongside, but I can also imagine…
- Stuffing Chechil into martini olives
- Spooling Chechil around a long skewer for Bloody Marys
- Serving Chechil at a bbq or a vegetarian event
- Packing Chechil on hiking or camping trips
To read more about Chechil, visit Chechil USA.
One of my favorite places to eat dinner is at my neighbor Larry’s. He and his family live in a cozy row house with three kids and three whippets. It’s a place of elegant chaos. Someone or something is always clattering up or down the staircase.
Any other family of five would serve a big pot of pasta or soup to 8 guests on a Saturday night. But Larry likes to make epic meals. For his semi-annual cassoulet night, he and his sister, Jean, spent a week cooking.
When we arrived, Larry had just finished frying latkes and chicken for the kids. “So I thought we’d start with a pizza,” he said, tossing flour on the counter and reaching for a bottle of wine.
I admire hosts who cook in front of their guests. I’m a pre-party prepper who gets every dish ready before anyone knocks. By the time guests arrive, I’m panting and slinging back a gin and tonic. Larry and his wife Susan welcome the hubbub.
Add another stool to the table! Grab another dinner plate from the secret closet in the living room! Who wants an espresso? Who wants to make a s’more on the patio (using Peeps instead of marshmallows)? Would you like another glass of wine? Another slice of pie? Turn the music up! Turn the music down!
The secret to a good dinner party isn’t just about serving great food. It’s about dimming the lights, pouring drinks, and letting the rumpus begin.
Cassoulet Night Menu
Homemade pizza with caramelized onions and crème fraiche
House-cured lox with watercress salad
Espresso and s’mores
Wonderful wines (described here by Barolo Dave)
Was there a cheese board? Don’t be silly!
Coach Farm Aged Heart: A Brie-like gem made of perfectly balanced goat cheese, lovely with a dry lambrusco
Brescianella Aquavite: A pudgy Italian doused in brandy and rolled in dried off wheat germ
Ubriaco Prosecco: A firm cow’s milk hunk marinated in booze
Moliterno al tartufo: Sardinian sheep’s milk with pinstripes of black truffle
Faribault Blues & Brews: A sweet blue cheese from Minnesota, washed in Summit beer
Reader, my love affair with the food at High Street only grows deeper. The ash-swirled bread beckons me through blizzards. The cannoli danish calls me out of subway tunnels on the way to work. I brave snow, ice, sleet for crumbs.
This spring, I’m collaborating with High Street to present a series of dinners featuring local cheesemakers. If you attended the Birchrun Hills dinner in February, you are still dreaming of the stunning dairy fantasia created by Chef Eli Kulp.
Who can forget the Red Cat Lasagna, presented like a bed sheet with secrets buried beneath it – tufts of earthy dairy, mushrooms, and sprouted greens. To eat it was to peel back winter and discover spring below.
(Word has it that Red Cat Lasagna is on the menu at sister restaurant, Fork, starting this week.)
On Tuesday nights, the team at High Street gets creative, preparing a prix fixe “friends and family” dinner on a theme, starting at 9 p.m. On March 4, April 1, and May 6, local cheese will be the muse!
Trio of Local Cheese Dinners
March 4: Meadowset Sheep Cheese Dinner
Meet native Swiss cheesemaker Tom Schaer of Meadowset Farm & Apiary (Landenberg, PA). He’s a UPenn vet who makes raw sheep’s milk cheese, including the much-lauded Last Straw and Camel’s Back.
April 1: Cherry Grove Sustainable Cheese Dinner
Meet young upstart cheesemakers Paul Lawler and Jamie Png of Cherry Grove Farm (Lawrenceville, NJ). They make a variety of rustic raw-milk cheeses, including Herdsman and Lawrenceville Jack. This year, they were crowned King and Queen of the Cheese Ball.
May 6: Valley Shepherd Mixed Milk Cheese Dinner
Meet cheesemaker Jeanine Dargis of Valley Shepherd Creamery (Long Valley, NJ), who prouces award-winning Crema de Blue. Valley Shepherd has a stand in Reading Terminal Market, where some of the city’s best mozzarella is made on site.
Reservations: 215-625-0988. Dinners take place from 9-11 p.m.; $25 before tax and tip. For breathtaking glimpses of the last cheese dinner at High Street, visit Phillyism.
Surely, you too have a snack drawer at work. This week, I’m humbled to reveal my very own little desk — the place where all these posts get written — on Kokblog. Brooklyn illustrator Johanna Kindvall drew the contents of my drawers (mmm, sounds a bit naughty?), right down to the flasks. Just look behind the cheese knives in the pencil cup.
Pop over to her site and you you can read these tips in my guest post:
- What to stock in a desk pantry
- Good cheeses to eat at your desk (not too messy, not too stinky)
Big gush: I love this collaboration! The simplicity of Johanna’s line drawings manage to be sensuous, yet playful. Two things I always aim for in my own prose. I feel fortunate to work with her on this, the first of several collaborative posts. Viva winter! Viva 2014!
Seriously, what nubbins do you stash in your desk?
If you’re new to Johanna Kindvall’s work, check out her shop for prints. She also has a new cookbook, The Culinary Cyclist (Taking the Lane Press, 2013) with Anna Brones. In my last post, I wrote about their glorious quinoa cake.
When I have a few minutes in the morning, I like to pop over to Kokblog – an illustrated cooking blog by Johanna Kindvall. Her line drawings accompany each recipe instead of photographs – an aesthetic choice that took my breath away the first time I stumbled upon her site. I melt for her simple style.
Pssst…is it just me, or does this image of cake make you think of Brie?
Recently, Johanna illustrated a cookbook, The Culinary Cyclist, with blogger Anna Brones. I read that it was published by a small cycle-centric outfit in Portland, called Taking the Lane, that specializes in “feminist nonfiction about bicycling.” Curious, I sent away for a copy.
Johanna and I ended up trading books — a happy exchange. She’s a Swede who loves cheese, and I’m a dairy fiend who seeks out quirky pairings. That’s probably why I was drawn to the recipe for quinoa spice cake.
I could picture pairing such a cake with hearty clothbounds – nutty quinoa and earthy rinds sounded lovely together.
As I stirred chopped apples into the batter, I pictured dropping spoonfuls of cinnamon-laced mascarpone on top of the finished cake.
While it baked, I snoozed on a settee and imagined serving thin slices of aged Gouda alongside it. Maybe even clove Gouda.
If ice hadn’t slicked the roads in Philadelphia, I might have been tempted to dig out my olive-green Phillips 3-speed and hand-deliver my quinoa cake to some hungry cheesemongers I know.
The cake looked like baked caviar – textured, yet fluffy. It was lovely for dinner and even better for breakfast with milky chai. It made me want to try more recipes from The Culinary Cyclist, like Cardamom Carrot Marmalade (to serve with soft goat cheese) and Homemade Ginger Ale (for a washed-rind chaser).
The Culinary Cyclist offers these suggestions for living and loving well:
Eat local and mostly plants.
Ride your bike, even on rainy days.
Invite people on picnics.
That’s advice I can get behind. With Johanna Kindvall’s crisp illustrations and Anna Brones’s pithy tips for food shopping on two wheels, The Culinary Cyclist is the must-have treatise on holy rolling and eating. Note: Most of the recipes are gluten-free.
In the meantime, check out Johanna Kindvall’s recipe for Pernod and Herb Risotto on Kokblog. As you can see, it’s perfect for using up that little meteorite of Parm that’s been winking at you from the back of the fridge.
Quinoa Apple Spice Cake
From The Culinary Cyclist: A Cookbook and Companion for the Good Life, written by Anna Brones and illustrate by Johanna Kindvall
(Taking the Lane Press, 2013)
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1 cup buckwheat flour
1 large organic apple, peeled and diced
8 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup organic sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
shredded coconut (I skipped this part)
1. Cook quinoa and set aside. To cook quinoa, bring two cups of water to a boil. Add quinoa and a dash of salt and let simmer for 12-15 minutes, or until water has cooked off.
2. Mix dry ingredients.
3. Melt coconut oil and whisk together with eggs. Add to dry mixture.
4. Combine all ingredients, including quinoa, and stir in apple pieces.
5. Grease a 9-inch round pan with coconut oil, cover with a light layer of shredded coconut (I skipped the coconut.) Pour batter in and bake for 30-40 minutes at 350 F or until a knife inserted into center comes out clean.
Note: Anna suggests adding chocolate chips, nuts, candied ginger, or chopped dried figs. I added walnuts and diced candied ginger. Gorgeous.