Cheese with a kick Get your goat: Creamy chevre lends alluring tang to salads and side dishes

October 21, 1998|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,Orange County Register

Fresh goat cheese is a taste-bud tease. Its spunky tang makes everyday dishes taste like creations from a three-star restaurant. Toss it with hot pasta and veggies. Sprinkle it on pizza. Smear it on garlic toast.

Formed into logs, pyramids and pillows. Plain or coated with ash, spices, dried herbs or edible flowers. Perfect discs wrapped in chestnut or grape leaves, then bundled into neat packages with raffia. With all its shapes, sizes and flavor enhancers, goat cheese is never humdrum.

Also known as chevre (pronounced SHEHV), the word for goat in French, fresh goat cheese is snowy-white, moist and soft. It's fairly mild, but has an alluring, come-back-for-more kick.

As chevre ages, it gets stronger in flavor. Some like it better. Some find it chalky.

"Our fresh goat cheese lasts three to four months, keeping it light and fresh ... as long as it is stored properly at a constant 38 to 40 degrees," says Laura Chenel, owner and founder of Laura Chenel's Chevre, located in Sonoma, Calif., the largest goat-cheese producer in the state. Chenel, one of the first Americans to make goat cheese in the French style, prints the Julian calendar date on each package (using the number of the day of the year: 1 means the first day of January, 365 means Dec. 31).

"Fresh, mild goat cheese should have a little tang, but it should be in balance. It shouldn't taste salty, but salt should be there. One thing that varies a lot between producers is acidity. Often French chevre is lower in acidity. Many U.S. brands are higher in acidity. Ours is somewhere in the middle," says Chenel, who not only loves the cheese made from goat's milk, but the creatures that produce the milk. She describes them as bright and playful. Affectionate. Trusting.

Although some cheese makers contend there is a big seasonal difference in goat's milk, Chanel challenges the precept. She says goats flourish on a consistent year-round diet of a high-quality alfalfa, a high-protein grain mixture, mineral salt and good clean water, and in that event, there is no substantial difference between summer and spring milk.

Goat's milk, according to new "Joy of Cooking" (Scribner, 1997, $30), is whiter and richer-tasting than cow's milk, with similar nutritional content. And although it is slightly lower in cholesterol, goat's milk contains a little more fat than cow's milk.

Restaurant chef Pascal Olhats uses creamy, fresh goat cheese in myriad delectable ways.

"... We sell goat cheese marinated in oil," Olhats says. "We cut it into 2-inch portions, roll it in mixed herbs, then air dry it for two days on a sheet pan in the refrigerator. We pile them into a glass container and cover them with olive oil and bay leaves. They can be refrigerated in oil for up to 30-40 days. It's delicious."

Olhats also makes a mixture of crumbled fresh goat cheese combined with fresh basil pesto. It's an addictive mixture. Spread it on toasted slices of baguette or scoop it up with wedges of red or yellow bell pepper. Or sprinkle it on tomato salad or pizza. The fresh basil, garlic, olive oil and toasted pine nuts are divine goat-cheese companions.

When heating fresh goat cheese, keep its high moisture content in mind. It melts differently from hard cheese. When you broil or bake it for a few minutes, it doesn't get brown and crispy, although its interior is probably warm and smooth. If you sprinkle crumbles on top of a hot dish, it will probably keep its shape. But if you toss it in, it gets saucy.

Here are 10 quick ways to add zing to dishes by adding fresh goat cheese:

1. Pasta perfection: Saute fresh vegetables, such as 1 to 2 pounds of sliced green or yellow zucchini (or a combination of the two), with one diced onion and three large cloves minced garlic in a little olive oil. Toss with 1 pound of hot, al dente penne pasta and one-fourth cup minced fresh basil. Add 6 ounces crumbled goat cheese; toss. Sprinkle with one-half cup freshly grated Parmesan; add salt and pepper to taste. Easy.

2. Pizza with pizazz and pesto: Prepared pizza crusts, such as Boboli, topped with prepared pesto and crumbled goat cheese, make a fast, delicious snack or appetizer. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place two 4-ounce pizza crusts on jellyroll pan. Place one tablespoon prepared basil pesto on each round (try to scoop up the portion with the least olive oil); spread to within one-half inch of edge. Sprinkle each with one generous tablespoon of crumbled fresh goat cheese. Bake eight to 10 minutes, or until hot and crisp. Place on paper towel for two minutes. Cut each into six wedges and enjoy.

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