I bring two pre-qualifiers to bear upon my consideration of Clifford A. Wright’s latest book, “Hot and Cheesy” (Wiley, 2012), a tome* of 250 recipes making use of the seminal dairy ingredient. One is that I’m married to a Frenchman. It is a little-known fact** that in order to apply for a French marriage certificate one must be able to list more than 100 of the more than 300 known French cheeses. My other qualification is that I am the mother of two small children. Unless you have the rare pleasure of raising a fledgling vegan, melted cheese is a protein mainstay of the child diet and the fix-all to many a vexing vegetable dilemma.
I consider myself pretty well-versed on the subject of cheese.
Which leads straight to the gooey impetus for Wright’s delightful and surprising book. How well, really … really … do any of us actually know cheese, even given the proliferation of artisanal cheeses produced and available today in the United States? Beyond, as Wright notes in his introduction, “putting cheese on a board and serving it with red wine and crackers,” how well do we know cheese not as the star of its own show, but as a supporting cast member? As an ingredient?
An appreciation for cheese history
In the Alps region of France, cheese is produced not in a fromagerie, as one might suspect, but in a fruitière, a term that comes from fruit — pronounced “fwee,” meaning fruit, exactly as in English. The term survives from medieval times, when cheese was considered the “fruit” of the milk and was a life-sustaining protein staple — hardy, transportable and capable of long storage.
In “Hot and Cheesy,” to move beyond mac and cheese (though a superlative recipe is included) and the cheese board, Wright plumbs these historical depths. The Zester Daily contributor makes an argument for cheese in its versatile international guises, as a global culinary chameleon, appreciated in nearly every culture where there’s ever been a suitable mammal to milk. Thus we get recipes as unlikely as a Tibetan blue cheese and beef soup, which I found myself needing to make immediately, applauding Wright for unearthing a long-buried memory of drinking butter tea at a Tibetan restaurant in Paris. The soup was a sensational mix of spicy, numbing (from Sichuan peppercorns), savory and sour, the blue cheese adding the pleasing pungent note. It’s a great conversation-starting dish for a dinner party.
Elsewhere in the book, a recipe for saag paneer was equally appreciated, in part for the revelation that this dish, usually associated with spinach greens — and, frankly, often on the rich yet bland side, like an Indian version of creamed spinach — is traditionally made with enlivening mustard greens. So, so much the better.
If the bulk of the book mines recipes from Mediterranean regions rather than these exotic, farther-flung gems, Wright is to be forgiven. He has, after all, crafted an accessible book filled with the types of things one actually wants to cook and eat nightly, and that is an admirable thing in a cookbook. “Hot and Cheesy” is not of the genre intended for shelf display, but rather for daily inspiration.
Accessible but sophisticated
The mother in me — in particular the French-by-marriage mère in me — did a little dance to find a find recipe for pizza flamiche, a northern French leek tart, here laid out flat and topped with caramelized onions, smoky bacon, semisoft Spanish Tronchón and silky goat’s milk cheese. This is pizza I want my children to eat.
I jigged similarly over the francesinha sandwich (though I still can’t pronounce it), a Portuguese adaptation of the French croque-monsieur in which ham, chorizo, linguiça and thin-pounded beef steaks are layered on grilled country bread with melted Edam and served with a piquant tomato and beer sauce. Surprisingly child-taste-bud-friendly, and rather like a more-sophisticated meatloaf sandwich. These are the kinds of dishes on which to raise adventurous eaters — challenging (and fun for the cook), but not, in kid parlance, flat-out weird.
I could have done with slightly fewer variations on the theme of pasta with cheese, these being the most run-of-the-mill of the dishes on offer, but on the whole, “Hot and Cheesy,” though admittedly not for the lactose intolerant, nonetheless provides ample reasons for the rest of us lucky lot to embrace our inner cheesemeister.
* Pun intended. “Tomme: a generic name given to a class of cheese produced mainly in the French Alps and in Switzerland.”
** Not really. But the ability to pun about French cheese (see tomme, above) will qualify you to receive a French passport***.
*** No. Not really.
Zester Daily contributor Amy Finley is the author of the memoir “How to Eat a Small Country,” and winner of Season 3 of “Food Network Star” on The Food Network. She lives on an orchard in San Diego, where she grows avocados and citrus for local restaurants and teaches at the Olivewood Garden and Learning Center, an urban farm in National City, Calif.
Top photo composite:
Author Clifford A. Wright and his book “Hot and Cheesy.” Credits: Courtesy of Clifford A. Wright