Last week I mentioned how the American palette has evolved over the past several decades. One class of foods that Americans have embraced with particular ardor are specialty cheeses. And of all the specialty cheeses, perhaps the most distinctive are the blues.
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Blue cheeses may be made from cow's milk, goat's milk or sheep's milk. What distinguishes them is the addition of penicillium cultures during the ripening process.
These cultures cause blue or blue green mold to grow within the cheese. That's what gives blue cheese its distinctive blue veined or mottled coloring as well as its tangy flavor.
The oldest blue cheese is probably Roquefort, from the south of France. It may date from as early as the first century A.D. Legend has it that Roquefort was discovered by a shepherd girl, who left her lunch of cheese curd and rye bread in a cave. When she came back weeks later, the cheese had molded. She must have been very hungry, because she ate the cheese in spite of the mold, and found it delicious.
Gorgonzola is Italy's premier blue cheese. It was reportedly first made in 879. It is made from whole cow's milk. When it is young, it is a creamy cheese. As it ages, it becomes drier and more crumbly. It is often used in Italian cooking where it may be melted with risotto, served alongside polenta, or used as a topping on pizza.
Another well-known blue cheese is Stilton, which the English consider the "king of cheeses." All of these well-known European blue cheeses have a protected designation that requires that they be made in certain areas according to strictly controlled procedures.
While these famous European blue cheeses have a long history and tradition, there are some fine American blue cheeses that have emerged in recent years as worthy rivals. Of particular note are the blue cheeses made by the Rogue River Creamery in Oregon. Their Rogue River Blue cheese made history in 2003 when it was crowned overall best blue cheese at the World Cheese Awards in London, beating out blue cheeses from all over Europe. The next year, Rogue River's Smokey Blue won first place in the Other Smoked category at the World Cheese Awards.
One thing I have noticed about blue cheeses is that people either love them or hate them. If you have an aversion to mold or strong flavors, blue cheese may not be for you. However, if you appreciate a sharp tang and pungent, earthy aroma, eating a really good blue cheese might be like dying and going to heaven.
Blue cheese can be used many ways. Some people like to melt it on top of a hamburger. It can be eaten with dried or fresh fruit as a dessert. It goes well in green salads, especially with poached pears and toasted walnuts or pecans. Here is a really simple potato salad featuring blue cheese that you can easily make in a half hour or less:
Blue cheese potato salad
2 lbs. small red skinned potatoes, quartered
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh chives or chopped fresh parsley
4 ounces good quality blue cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about eight minutes. Drain. Drizzle warm potatoes with olive oil. Melt in the blue cheese. Add the chopped chives and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. May be eaten warm, or refrigerated for later use. The blue cheese is the most important ingredient, so be sure to use the best you can find. The Rogue River Smokey Blue works especially well, but any good quality blue cheese like Roquefort or Gorgonzola will do.
David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.