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Food and Drink

It's never too hot for cheese

Cool cheese choices for meals to beat the summer heat

BRATTLEBORO—Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who has air conditioning in your house during the summer heat waves, it’s pretty likely you want your meals to be as low-maintenance as possible.

It’s great that all these lovely vegetables are available this time of the year so you can make simple salads, but nobody but a rabbit wants to eat salad three times per day, every day.

To make life more interesting, you could add some cheese to your summer diet.

Unlike with meat or beans, with cheese you don’t have to cook or even open a can to get the protein you need. Cheese has already gone through the fermentation process and is more easily assimilated into your body, so it’s less likely than fresh milk to upset your stomach on even the hottest days, and you won’t have to worry about not getting enough calcium in the summer.

A very easy way to prepare a lovely summertime meal is to borrow from the Italians and put together a cold antipasto plate.

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I grew up in a region of the United States with a great many Southern Italian immigrants and their descendants, and in any Italian restaurant, from the most casual pizza joint to the fanciest white-tablecloth establishment, you could be sure to find a cold antipasto plate — for me, a childhood comfort food — listed as an appetizer.

Usually divided into rough sections on a large oval platter: crisp iceberg lettuce dressed with a vinaigrette, mixed olives, big chunks of aged provolone cheese, slices of Genoa salami and pepperoni, strips of roasted red pepper, marinated artichoke hearts, big chunks of dark tuna packed in olive oil (not light tuna, and not packed in water!), and a few long anchovy fillets draped over the top.

Your antipasto can incorporate pretty much anything you like, but the general idea is to arrange a variety of chopped or sliced foods that you could eat with your fingers if you’re too lethargic to set out the forks: some fresh vegetables, some pickled vegetables, cured meats (or chilled cooked meats), cheese and olives.

Serve bread alongside, and that’s it.

You have all of your main food groups there, the food is filling without being heavy, and if you’re sharing this plate with friends or family, just put out a big platter in the middle of the table and everyone can take what he or she wants. The only labor involved is chopping, and you can recruit help.

You can go even simpler than that: make a salad, get a loaf of bread, and find a cheese you like. There’s dinner.

Some of the smaller sized cheeses are ideal for this purpose, especially if it’s a dinner for two. Willow Hill Farm’s Summertomme, Alderbrook and La Fleurie come to mind, as does Jasper Hill’s Moses Sleeper. For goat fans wanting an ideal “cheese for two” for a meal, try Blue Ledge Farm’s Crottina.

Once the tomatoes are ready to be plucked from the vine and the basil is begging to be picked, don’t forget the classic salad of fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, and fresh basil.

Dress with salt, pepper, oil and vinegar; no other preparation is necessary. Round it out with some bread and perhaps some chilled roasted ham or chicken, and you’ll find yourself full and happy.

* * *

Maplebrook Farm in Bennington makes not only wonderful fresh mozzarella but also an exemplary burrata, another fine summer cheese.

Burrata originated in Puglia, Italy, and so did Domenico Marchitelli, one of Maplebrook’s cheesemakers, who brings with him 25 years of experience.

You can get Italian burrata in some markets, but like fresh mozzarella, burrata is best served as fresh as possible. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my burrata only just travel over the Searsburg Ridge.

Burrata is a pouch of fresh mozzarella filled with cream-enhanced fresh mozzarella curds. It comes in either eight, four or two ounce pieces.

To serve, simply place each ball onto a dish, drizzle with a small amount of the best olive oil you have in the house, and grind some fresh black pepper over the top.

* * *

Another fine way to incorporate cheese into an easy summer meal is to cut the cheese into little cubes and put the cheese in a salad.

Nearly any semi-firm or firm cheese will do: cheddar, Ossau-Iraty Brebis (the aged Basque sheep cheese), Parmigiano (use a vegetable peeler and shave the cheese into curls), Gruyère (or any other aged Swiss cheese like Appenzeller or Hoch-Ybrig), aged Gouda, Pecorino Toscano, your favorite blue cheese — the list goes on.

When you add cheese to salad, also try adding some raw or roasted nuts and seeds (unsalted is best) and fresh fruit, such as halved grapes or cherries or chunks of fresh peach or strawberries. Cheese, a natural friend to fruits and nuts, will turn a salad into something more special than a bunch of ripped-up leaves.

* * *

Are you the grilling type? If so, and you’re getting bored with endless stacks of hot dogs and hamburgers, you could always grill cheese. Not “grilled cheese,” but cheese you can put right on the grill.

Yes, for real!

Halloumi is a dense, brined cheese from Cyprus made of a combination of sheep’s and goats’ milk. Because it’s brined, it’s a bit salty, but it’s not strong.

You can grill it right over an open flame, or fry it in a pan, and because its melting point is very high, it retains its shape, but develops a nicely browned, crispy crust.

Cypriots traditionally serve Halloumi with fresh watermelon and mint.

A similar meal from a similar region of Europe is Saganaki. This fried-cheese dish comes from Greece and is simply a thick slice of Kefalotyri or Kasseri that’s been fried in a small metal pan or on top of a flat grill. If you don’t have a grill, you can make Halloumi and Saganaki in the house, using a heavy-bottom pan.

Like Halloumi, Kefalotyri and Kasseri are dense enough to retain their shape, becoming slightly gooey inside and crisp and browned on the outside.

Saganaki is traditionally served with lemon wedges, black pepper, and plenty of pita bread. If you have a small pan or baking dish (with low sides) that can withstand the heat and flame of your grill, you can make Saganaki outdoors.

You could also use a thick piece of aluminum foil, but don’t wrap the cheese; it’ll steam and not develop the delicious crust.

While you have the grill on, take some fresh goat cheese, otherwise known as “chèvre.” Slice it, then lay it down on some thick aluminum foil. Grill it for just a few minutes and serve on salad or grilled vegetables.

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If you still feel you haven’t gotten enough cheese in your summertime meal, don’t forget that cheese makes a divine dessert.

Make a platter of Consider Bardwell Farm’s Mettowee, Twig Farm’s Washed Rind Wheel, and Green Mountain Blue Cheese’s Boucher Blue, and serve with fresh berries and mint iced tea.

You can bake a cake when the temperature goes back down below 98, right?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #163 (Wednesday, August 1, 2012).

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