I have embarked on a pair of new food adventures recently: making pates and terrines, and making cheese from scratch. Two things I had said to myself I’d never do, although I know deep down that I will never say never to anything. It was only a matter of time.
I come by this particular neurosis honestly. For a glimpse of my future, all I need to do is look at my parents.
Both in their mid 70s, my mother just picked up the dulcimer for the hell of it, and has recently been taking classes to transform herself from a shutterbug into a serious photographer. My dad is if anything more eclectic. He had himself made a real Spanish guitar so he could pick up what has been a lifelong hobby. He learned how to mend porcelain to museum quality in his “retirement.” He took surfing lessons. Bought, then sold, a motorcycle. Hell, if dad called me some day and said he was going skydiving over the Grand Canyon, I’d say, “Cool. Let me know how it was,” and move about my normal day. We are an odd family.
Cheese had been on my mind forever. It is essentially charcuterie with milk instead of meat: You take a fresh product that has lots of fat, encourage good bacteria to defeat bad ones, drive away most of the water content and age it to develop even more flavor.
What had stopped me was a good initial guidebook. Finally, when I was laid up with my torn Achilles, I did some research and landed on 200 Easy Homemade Cheese Recipes. Why? Because it had lots of recipes for Mediterranean cheeses, hot-weather cheeses like feta, labneh, mozzerella, ricotta, mizithra and caciocavallo. These were the cheeses of my favorite recipes, which tend toward the hot regions of Spain, North Africa, Turkey, Greece and Southern Italy. At last I had a road map to make these products!
My first adventure was with a fresh, cow’s milk mizithra, basically a Greek Farmer cheese. I prepped by ordering rennet, cheese mats, a few molds, and some bacterial starters from the New England Cheesemaking Supply company. Holly found the milk I needed, which was pasteurized but not homogenized — this is apparently very important in making cheese, and ultra-pasteurized dairy cannot be used at all.
I followed the directions to the letter, something I rarely do, and sure enough the milk curdled properly. I ladled the curds into a cheesecloth-lined colander and let them drain for a full day, periodically squeezing the bag to tighten the bind on the curds.
With all that whey — I go more than two quarts of it from the three quarts of whole milk I’d started with — I decided to make ricotta. So I reheated the ricotta and tossed in some vinegar as the directions said… but got nothing. No curdling or separation of solids. Frustrated, I tossed it. I have since learned there are several other ways to make fresh ricotta from whey, so I plan to get back to it soon.
The cheese you see at the top of the page is the result. According to the book, it is a Greek fresh mizithra, but my Greek friends say that no mizithra is ever made with cow’s milk; it’s always sheep or goat. Oh well, so it’s not a real mizithra. It was still pretty good.
First we ate it straight. Very creamy and milky, the texture was at first a little like mozzerella, but then as you ate it the cheese it squeaked in your mouth, kind of the way fresh mushrooms will squeak in a hot pan. The texture was a little tofu-like, which I am not real thrilled about.
What next? Well, maybe it would melt well? I sliced some on toast and tried that, but alas, the cheese did not melt. But it did brown a bit along the edges. Hmmmm…
Fried cheese! Who doesn’t love fried cheese? And better yet, I would make my own sexed-up version of fried mozzarella sticks, using the concentrated tomato jam I made with Brandywine tomatoes last season.
Is there anything you can’t make tasty by breading it in panko and frying it in olive oil? If you’re wavering, then let me answer: No. No, there isn’t.
These were a lot like mozzarella sticks, only the cheese was creamier and a little molten. The sauce is killer, by the way — it’s only Brandywine tomatoes and salt, cooked down overnight to get a thick, rich consistency. Umami-licious!
All in all, a good first start. I plan on making feta cheese next.
On to terrine land. I had trash-talked terrines for years as nothing more than fancy meatloaf. Unmanly cuisine. The epitome of the pinky-in-the-air high-end French cooking I still don’t much like. I even skipped entirely the terrine chapter when I read Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie.
Why the change of heart? I was getting tired of making fresh wild duck sausages, and my dry-cured experiments with wild duck and geese have been middling at best. And with duck season just over, we have a bunch of ducks in the freezer. Still, I did not come around to the idea of a pate or terrine until I began reading a wonderful book recommended to me by Ron Zimmerman of The Herbfarm restaurant: The book is by Roy Andries de Groot, and it is called Auberge Of The Flowering Hearth.
De Groot’s book is helping to warm me up to French cooking, or to be more specific, French provincial cooking. The auberge in question is set in Chartreuse (where the green liqueur comes from) and it is set in the Alps. There are a lot of wild game recipes there, and a few spectacular wild game terrines. Nice, but what really set me off was that Mademoiselle Vivette would make these pates or terrines on a Monday for “fast food” during the week.
A terrine will keep? I had no idea. That changed everything. I am trying to be frugal and not buy lunches at work, so I need to bring something nice. Stews are a standby, but I can get bored of them. I wanted to bring sandwiches. Corned venison was a great choice, but that’s gone now.
How about a wild duck terrine sandwich, served with fresh sorrel leaves and a little mustard on whole wheat? Yeah, baby, yeah! What’s better, I can make enough over the weekend for the whole week.
I bought a Le Creuset Enameled Terrine pan, and went back to Ruhlman and Polcyn for specific proportions; they have the best structural recipes of any charcuterie book I’ve seen. For flavors, I went with de Groot’s book as well as Jane Grigson’s Charcuterie.
I was a little nervous, making an emulsified forcemeat. If it breaks, Very Bad Things Can Happen. So I kept everything cold, and lo and behold! It worked. Making a terrine is really nothing more than a glorified meatloaf.
It was awesome. Pretty pink duck meat, little pearls of white pork fat, flecks of fresh minced sage and black pepper. What’s the big thing in the center? It’s what fancy people call “interior garnish.” It’s what I call “The Hidden Yum Yum.” Think of it as the Baby Jesus in the king cake, only this is a piece of seared mallard breast.
The taste is smooth, slightly salty and just spicy enough to make you notice. I served it over some dandelions and wild chicories we pulled out of our front lawn, sauteed in duck fat.
I am a new convert to this, and you can bet you’ll be seeing more pates and terrines here. Soon.