Festival’s fine cheeses deserve cooks’ finesse

It seems like every time a food-travel show features some segment on cheese, I can count on seeing one of Rogue Creamery’s flash across the screen.

The Rogue Valley’s hometown cheesemaker has been raking in awards, steadily gaining a foodie following and, after about a decade with David Gremmels and Cary Bryant at the helm, is on its way to being a household name.

The Creamery and its proprietors always have used their reputation and influence for the good of cheesemaking throughout the state, hosting the Oregon Cheese Festival as a fundraiser for the nonprofit Oregon Cheese Guild. For the ninth annual event this weekend in Central Point, the Creamery shares the bill with dozens of other culinary artisans, including at least 15 cheesemakers.

Set up in the style of a farmers market, the festival occupies a single, 10,000-square-foot tent on the Creamery’s Front Street property. In addition to all the food sampling participants can handle for the $15 entry fee, children’s activities include games and baby-cow petting.

Complementing the familiar format each year is a special guest. This time, it’s James Beard Award nominee Chester Hastings, author of “The Cheesemonger’s Kitchen.” Hastings is a chef at his family’s gourmet food emporium, Joan’s on Third in Los Angeles.

James Beard Award-winning author Laura Werlin headlined the festival in previous years. A companion to her “Grilled Cheese, Please!” is the new “Mac & Cheese Please!” If you thought you knew mac and cheese, this comfort food takes a bit more finesse than many home cooks realize.

So if you bring some really fine cheese home from the festival, follow these methods courtesy of the Chicago Tribune to prepare an equally fine mac and cheese.

MCT photo

THE PASTA

You must undercook the pasta before baking the casserole because the pasta cooks more in the oven. Start with a dried pasta high in durum semolina, choosing short shapes (less than 2 inches). Werlin lists more than a dozen, but start with penne, gemelli, elbows or orecchiette. Skip expensive, artisan, imported varieties and spend your money on the cheese instead. Then cook the pasta in plenty of well-salted, boiling water until it begins to soften but is not yet al dente — about 1 minute short of the low end of the maker’s suggested cooking time. Taste to check doneness.

THE CHEESE

Go for quality. Go for complexity. Get the latter by using a combination of cheeses. The dominant player should be a cheese you would eat one its own: all forms of cheddar, Gruyere and Gouda. The supporting cast should have stronger flavors, like blue cheese or Parmesan. You’ll use less, but it’s amazing what a little can do. And skip pregrated cheeses, which already have lost much of their flavor

THE SAUCE

The key to a velvety-smooth cheese sauce that coats the pasta and other ingredients uniformly is a simple roux, which forms the base for bechamel sauce. Cook butter (or other fat) and flour together over low heat so the flour loses its uncooked taste; slowly whisk in the milk (warm it first) over medium heat to avoid lumps; cook gently until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the cheese gradually; otherwise the sauce will cool and the cheese may form a giant lump that won’t melt easily.

Here’s a one of Werlin’s recipes that the Tribune adapted. For many of her recipes, Werlin includes a sauce or other accompaniment to be served with the finished mac and cheese. Here she includes a tomatillo salsa. You could use a jarred version, though, or skip it altogether.

Fiery, South-of-the-Border Mac and Cheese

8 ounces tomatillos, husked and quartered

1 medium white onion, peeled and cut lengthwise into 6 pieces

1 serrano pepper, halved lengthwise, stemmed and seeded

4 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3⁄4 cup coarsely chopped, fresh cilantro leaves, divided, plus sprigs for garnish

8 ounces small elbow macaroni

1⁄4 cup flour

2 1⁄2 cups 2-percent milk

12 ounces pepper jack cheese, coarsely grated, about 3 1⁄2 cups

1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (no need to thaw if frozen)

2 whole pickled jalapenos, finely chopped

1⁄2 cup crushed tortilla chips

To make salsa, heat oven to 375 F. Put the tomatillos, onion and serrano pepper on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Sprinkle with 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper to taste. Roast, stirring occasionally, until tomatillos have collapsed, for about 20 minutes. Let cool a bit. Transfer to a food processor or blender with 1⁄4 cup of the cilantro and 2 tablespoons water; process until smooth. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but firm; it should be short of al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water. Return pasta to pot.

Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the flour, stirring continuously until a paste forms, for about 30 to 45 seconds. Whisk until mixture starts to darken slightly and smell a bit nutty, for 1 to 2 minutes. Turn heat to medium-low. Slowly whisk in the milk and remaining salt; cook until mixture starts to thicken and is just beginning to bubble around edges, for 5 to 7 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat back of a wooden spoon. Add the cheese in handfuls, waiting until it melts before adding more.

Stir sauce into pasta to coat well; fold in the corn, jalapenos and remaining cilantro. Transfer to a buttered, 2-quart souffle dish and sprinkle with the crushed tortilla chips. Bake at 375 F until sauce is bubbly and top begins to brown, for 20 to 30 minutes. Let rest for 15 minutes before serving. Serve topped with tomatillo salsa.

Makes 6 servings.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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