Big cheese put to work
The dairy’s star turn takes a supporting role here, enhancing other ingredients without outshining them
Baked chicken with tapenade and mozzarella. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Quick feta salad. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
I love cheese. Along with bacon, it’s the big reason I’m not vegan. Recently, and as part of my “job” that day, I spent an hour sampling a lot of Irish cheeses in Sheridans Cheesemongers. Slice after slice of salty deliciousness.
It was bliss, even though it was considered work. But my love of cheese is not just down to greed; it can actually be explained – I’m happy to get a bit nerdy here – by science.
You see, back in the mists of hunter-gatherer time, fat was a scarce commodity. And while cheese contains a good deal of protein and more than its fair share of nutrients such as calcium and phosphorous, most kinds are roughly one-third fat.
Fat equals calories, and we need calories for energy. So because, in evolutionary terms, fat was so hard to come by, our brains are forever hard-wired to love it and savour it, preferably in large quantities, because once upon a time we would have had to wait many months to get our hands on it again.
But there’s even more science behind our love of cheese. The mix of protein, fat and salt in most cheeses provides us with a hit of that elusive but oh-so-desirable sixth taste – umami, a “meaty” (substantial) flavour that provides a mouthwatering sensation over the tongue.
Think of the crunch of crystals in an aged Parmesan or Gruyère.
Apart from the science, however, there’s a lot else to love about cheese. First of all, there’s all that incredible, even dizzying, variety: cheeses of every shape, size and pungency, from the most delicately fragrant to outright farmyard.
There are hard and soft cheeses, goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s cheeses, blue, red, white and cream cheeses, and often the stories behind the makers are as colourful as the cheeses themselves.
Cheese doesn’t always have to be the star of the show, though.
That combination of variety and umami makes it a wonderful choice for all kinds of cameo roles, where it serves to enhance other ingredients – to show them in their best light without outshining them.
And it’s this aspect of cheese that I chose to explore in this week’s recipes. Sharp, salty, crumbly feta, traditionally made with ewe’s milk, is a wonderful foil for sweet, ripe tomatoes and cooling cucumber.
Greek salad is the traditional showcase for feta cheese, where it is usually found cubed in the salad. But for this recipe, most of it is blitzed to produce a smooth, tangy dressing for a crunchy salad. It makes a nice change.
In the other recipe, a supreme of chicken is stuffed with a mixture of spinach, garlic and mozzarella that oozes deliciousness.
A simple smear or two of salty black olive tapenade is the final flourish on the plate.
Food cooked and styled by Domini Kemp and Gillian Fallon