Veggie of the Week - Curd Cheese
sponsored by Coleman Farms
If you spend much time in a kitchen, you'll be familiar with the temptation to sample or snack on cooking ingredients and dishes at intermediate stages between pantry or icebox and table. Today's topic, Curd Cheese, is something like the formalization of that temptation, an intermediate stage of a culinary process that has itself been raised to the status of an ingredient, or a dish in itself.
The trip from fresh milk to cheese starts when the milk curdles. This can be the result of natural souring, by the addition of natural or synthetic rennet enzyme, by the addition of lemon juice, citric or some other acid, or by some combination of these three. In fresh milk, the largest amount of the protein acts as an emulsifier, with one end of the protein chain being attracted to water and the other to fat. The acids or enzymes cause the protein in the milk to change so that it's no longer attracted to water; the water and water soluble elements (sugars, some protein and minerals) separate out,
and the fat and casein clump together, forming the curds. This drying, the separation of solids from water, is an important step towards a product with a longer shelf life than fresh milk.
There are more steps involved in making a finished cheese, something like jack or cheddar that's ageable for up to years and gives something we can slice or grate, but for the moment we're interested in the result of this first step, the curds. Aged hard cheese - cheddar, for example - differs from the 'mild' variety in texture and flavor, the aged having a more complex and usually sharper flavor, and being more crumbly or creamy and less plastic in texture. Curd cheese, aged zero days, is at the extreme of 'mild': unless the curds are the result of natural souring, they will have a fresh 'dairy' smell and sweet very mild taste. They are so plastic or rubbery in texture that one of the signs of really fresh curd is that it squeaks when bitten, rather like some kinds of pencil eraser.
These properties are culinarily useful. The very mild flavor combines well with other mild ingredients, and also serves as a foil for various kinds of added flavor, lemon, for instance, or a bit of garlic, both of which we're familiar with accompaning dairy, work very nicely with fresh curd. The texture is entertaining when curds are served as a snack on their own or with herbs and other stuff to dip them in. When heated, the texture changes, but rather than melting and running away, as a mature cheddar will, the curds get soft but not particularly runny, more like a fresh mozarella. This makes it possible to present fairly discrete areas of cheesiness in a hot dish. There's the Quebecois poutine which probably looks like overkill to a diet-conscious Santa Barbaran, but wouldn't if you'd spent the day tapping maples in snow up to your knees.
A lighter version might substitute pasta for the french fries and a pesto for the gravy. Even heavier is the notion of deepfried curd. Other uses of fresh curd might be mixed or topping cooked vegetables - anything from beets to broccoli, including steamed or baked potatoes. But a good place to start is trying a curd or two on it's own at the Farmers' Market.