Monday, March 29, 2010

I Went to Utah and All I Got Was This Stinking Cheese

And if you know me, you know that's a good thing. Bringing home cheese, that is.

Ironically, Utah is pretty darn cheesy. Wisconsin and even California get all the ink, but Utah isn't exactly a slacker in the culture department. Dairy farms abound in my beloved town of Logan where I went to college (USU - go Aggies!), and the area is home to Cache Valley Dairy among others... makers of cheese cheese and more cheese (ooh! they have a Facebook fan page - signing up now!). While going to school in this dairy-drenched dot on the map most of my peers were gaga over the fresh, truly famous Aggie Ice Cream, served up on campus by the Ag department. But not me. I always - and still do - go for the cheese.

Despite the proliferation of Utah cheese production, admittedly, the vast majority of it is your typical varieties: cheddar, Swiss, colby, Monterey jack... even the dreaded American. So it has been with great curiosity and enthusiasm that I have been following one of Utah's only artisan cheese makers, the Beehive Cheese Company.

For a couple years now, I've been reading the accolades upon accolades being heaped on this small Northern Utah cheese producer. In particular, I was intrigued by one of their cheeses called "Barely Buzzed" - a cheddar that is hand-rubbed with coffee and lavender buds. Coffee AND cheese? Two of my vices wrapped up in a single package? Sign me up.

Barely Buzzed is available here in the Bay Area at a few select artisan grocery stores and cheese shops, but I'd never gotten my hands on any. So when I wandered into the cheese section of a South Jordan Harmon's grocery store during a recent quick trip to Utah and was faced with a full array of Beehive Cheese Company selections, I loaded up. Barely Buzzed, of course, went right into the basket. Twice. Then, in talking to the knowledgeable cheesemonger, she hooked me up with a selection of cheeses that were a great representation of what Beehive has to offer: a Swiss, plus two different versions of Beehive's Promontory Irish-style cheese, the Apple Walnut Smoked variety (self-explanatory), and the Butter Bound variety (where the rind is hand-rubbed with butter during the aging process... mmm.... butter).

Unfortunately, the Harmon's cheese section didn't carry the complete line of Beehive cheeses... so I'm still dreaming of trying their SeaHive (hand rubbed with Beehive wildflower honey and local Redmond RealSalt), the Squeaky Bee Curds (in flavors like Habanero and Rosemary), and of course, the Aggiano (recipe courtesy of USU). I'm also bummed that I didn't have the chance to visit their actual creamery. But it's on my list, and sometime when I'm in Utah for more than 36 very booked hours, I vow to make the pilgrimage.

But I left the Beehive State with my treasured souvenirs hand-carried on my lap the entire flight back to the City by the Bay. I'd like to say that I shared my bounty, or that I incorporated the cheeses into some fabulous recipes... but nope. I kept them all to myself, and doled out slices to myself over the next week or so whenever I wanted a special treat. (Oh who am I kidding? My haul lasted only a couple of days!). How very cheesy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bringing Home the Bacon: Working Hard as a Taste Tester

One thing I know for certain: competitive eating is not in my future.

This past week, I had the opportunity to bust free from my cubicle for a day and take on the serious and very important task of "official taste tester" for an upcoming fundraising event put on by my employer (previous post here). The event is an annual Wine Auction held in Napa Valley, and as a member of the event committee, our events director figured that I would be an appropriate and discriminating judge of the meals we would potentially be putting in front of our guests, what with my love of food and all.

Well duh. A day at the office, or a day spent tasting truffled filet mignon in Napa Valley? Love of food aside, the tastings will win every time.

So off we went, the two of us and our empty stomachs (I was rightfully counseled to not eat breakfast that day). Our itinerary included separate sit-down tastings with two of Napa's premiere caterers, plus a site visit to the winery where the event will be held. I took only my iPhone, so apologies in advance for the mediocre photos, but photography wasn't in the forefront of my mind. Like I said, filet mignon was on the agenda. I do have my priorities.

So we're just going to call them Caterer #1 and Caterer #2. I assumed that we would be having nibbles of the proposed menus, sharing a plate or two just to get an idea. But no. We walk in to Caterer #1's tasting room to a fully set table with beautiful linens, a complete set of wine glasses, and flatware for a four-course meal… for each of us. And that's what we commenced to have, all before noon.

Here's Caterer #1's menu:
  • Amuse Bouche Trio Plate: Mini BLT with pancetta, arugula and sweet 100 tomato served on sourdough crostini; butternut squash soup in an espresso cup with a dollop of creme fraiche; smoked Alaskan Salmon on a purple Peruvian potato Napoleon with horseradish cream and fresh dill.
  • Salad Course: Woodland mushrooms, sun dried tomato and teleme cheese tart baked in puff pastry with organic Bay watercress, toasted pumpkin seeds and an apple cider verjus.
  • Entree: Pan-seared filet of Colorado beef topped with a ragout of wild mushrooms and crispy fried onions; served with spinach Yukon Gold potato puree, sauteed asparagus, roasted golden baby beets and a cabernet shallot jus.
  • Dessert: Valhrona Chocolate Splendor, with layers of bittersweet chocolate mousse, vanilla custard and rich fudge cake served with raspberry coulis.
  • Extra Sweet Treat: A platter of thin, flaky almond cookies and hand-rolled dark chocolate truffles, served with coffee.
In addition, we also sampled the proposed staff/volunteer meal (the one the worker bees like myself wolf down in the wings the night of the event between duties). Caterer #1 offered a penne pasta dish with wild mushrooms, yellow sweet corn, sun dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, fresh tarragon, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and freshly shaved parmesan. Grilled chicken and a salad of mixed greens would be served as well (but gratefully for my full belly, not at the tasting).

The food just kept coming. And coming. There was even a bread basket on the table - I'm quite certain it never even got touched. In addition, Caterer #1 had gone to the extra effort of getting two different wines from the winery where the event will be held, just to assure us that the wine/food parings would work well. I tired to be good and not clean my plate, knowing I had another complete menu tasting within an hour of leaving the first. Nonetheless, I walked left Caterer #1 REALLY full.

My hands-down favorite dish from Caterer #1's lineup was the second course; the mushroom tart with the watercress salad was amazing. It was a beautiful meal in and of itself. If we wind up using them, I will have to find a way to score myself that particular plate on event night. I'll start plotting now.

So we waddled out of that first tasting, and headed to our second. We may have paused for a minute to let the food settle. I'm not sure - I was in a food coma.

We arrive at Caterer #2 to a similar, although much more casual, set-up. A tasting table, simply set, but obviously meant for a sit-down, multi-course meal. Once again, dish after dish of beautifully-prepared food was placed in front of me, and I went to work.

Here's Caterer #2's menu*:
  • Entree: Grilled bistro filet with a spicy barbecue sauce, served over white cheddar/fire-roasted jalepeno grits; sauteed spinach with olive oil and sea salt. (During the course of the tasting, we determined that if we were to choose this caterer, we would change the barbecue sauce to a veal essence sauce. Just sounds more akin to a $300-per-plate event.)
  • Volunteer/staff meal: Penne pasta two ways - basil pesto; bolognese. Served with grilled cheese toasts.
  • Dessert: They rolled out five - count em, five - different desserts for us to try (one of each, served family style). They included three different variations of chocolate decadence, and two different versions of an apple tart.
  • Extra Sweet Treat: Chocolate Decadence Lollipops with mint creme Anglais.
*(We only asked to taste certain courses from this particular caterer. We felt that some of their courses were straightforward enough that a tasting wasn't required. For example, their proposed salads were either a Caesar, or an heirloom tomato/buffalo mozzarella Caprese.)

Once again, the food just kept coming. And it was all good. Very good. Keep in mind both caterers were preparing a menu for the Fall during the doldrums of Winter, not exactly ideal when everyone in this neck of the woods touts seasonal/local ingredients. No matter - they both pulled it off, with apologies for some of the out-of-season items. All I can say is, I can't wait to try some of these dishes when the ingredients are in season - wow!

My favorite dish from Caterer #2 was one of the desserts. There was a rustic apple tart that was divine; it was like a mini apple pie with a crumble topping. A perfect Autumn dessert. And they served it with organic creme fraiche ice cream from Napa's own Three Twins. Heaven.

In the end, it's going to be a tough choice as to which caterer to pick. There were incredible aspects to each meal. In a perfect world, we could have a mashup: the salad course from Caterer #1, the dessert from Caterer #2…. and flip a coin for the rest of it.

It was a fun day and a fun experience, but as I said at the beginning of this post: I'm not cut out for competitive eating. I honestly don't think I ate that much in the scheme of things, but to ingest so much food in such a short amount of time was challenging. I didn't eat anything else the remainder of the day. So to any professional or competitive eaters out there, my hat's off to you. My rookie tummy is still recovering!