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By Emily Paster
As a blogger, I get invited to a lot of events, some which are appealing and inspiring and some of which are less so. Last week, I got lucky. I received an invitation to a Chef's Table lunch at one of my favorite local restaurants, Marion Street Cheese Market, featuring Cabot cheese. For me, an event doesn't get much more exciting than this. Hello? Lunch with cheese ten minutes from my house? Can we do this every week?
For those of you who don't know about Cabot Creamery Cooperative, let me introduce you. Cabot is a cooperative of 1200 dairy framers from New England and upstate New York. Cabot's farms are family-owned and quite small for the most part — the average herd size in the co-op is 150 cows. By banding together in a co-op, these farmers are able to maintain their way of life which dates back to 1919, the year that Cabot Cooperative was founded. The cooperative uses milk from their member farmers to craft rich, delicious cheese, yogurt, sour cream and butter. But most people know Cabot for their cheese, especially their cheddar, which recently won "Best of Class" at the World Championship Cheese Contest. (If they need judges for that contest next year, I'm available.) Cabot has a wide range of cheddars, including flavored and lowfat varieties.
Marion Street Cheese Market has been one of my favorite Oak Park restaurants for years. I am slavishly devoted to their Cauliflower Melt sandwich which improbably combines roasted cauliflower, cheddar, honey, curry aioli and apple into a hard-to-eat crunchy, sweet-spicy, nutty treat. (When I told Chef Leonard Hollander about my love for the Cauliflower Melt, he told me that it was one of two dishes he knows he can never take off the menu. Guess I'm not the only fan.) Marion Street Cheese Market is a combination specialty market, wine bar and bistro. It is the place in Oak Park that you can come to buy amazing cheese and wine for your party, meet a girlfriend for lunch or have a special meal with your spouse. It happens to be my mom's favorite restaurant in town, and she never leaves lunch without buying a little something from the shop like rosemary-flavored salt or marinated caperberries.
As much as I love Chef Hollander's regular menu, I have to say that the menu that he put together for our Cabot lunch was extraordinary. We started with a cheese tasting. The director of Marion Street Cheese Market's cheese program selected three Cabot cheddars, the Super Aged, the Private Stock and the Clothbound, and paired them with a spread from the market. The Super Aged, which is a sharp cheddar aged 18 months, was paired with Quince & Apple's amazing tart cherry jam; the Private Stock, which is aged 16 months and has a less sharp finish was paired with Boat Street pickled plums; and the dry, crumbly English-style Clothbound — my favorite — was paired with Oak Park's own Rare Bird Preserves Earl Grey Fig Jam. It was very helpful to taste these cheeses individually to see how the differences in the aging process affect the taste and texture and it was even more fun to pair them with these sweet and tangy spreads to see how the spreads enhanced different aspects of the cheese.
The next course was a beautiful salad of frisée garnished with Cabot Private Stock and a quail egg given the Scotch egg treatment — that is, encased in a sausage made from quail's meat and then fried. Scotch eggs are notoriously heavy but in Chef Hollander's hands, this updated version was light and delicate, without a hint of grease. The bitterness of the frisée was perfectly offset by creaminess of the cheese. The salad was followed by Chef Hollander's version of a cheesesteak: shredded venison shank topped with sweet caramelized Cippolini onions and Cabot Private Reserve cheddar. Very indulgent.
My favorite course, and the one that was the most eye-opening, was the dessert. For this course, the chef created a cheesecake with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar and some beautiful pears. So many cheesecakes are achingly sweet and, when made with cream cheese, bland. But in this instance, the sharp, slightly salty taste of the cheddar lent a complex savory note to this dessert, which was absolutely perfect with the sweet pears. I do not exaggerate when I say it was the best cheesecake I've ever tasted. All of us at lunch begged the chef for the recipe which led him to sheepishly confess that he had just thrown the cake together at the last minute. He wasn't even sure that he could recreate it. Only a master could pull that off! For my part, I would love to know how to make a cheesecake with something other than cream cheese. The use of a sharp cheddar in this dessert totally changed my conception of cheesecake forever.
The cheesecake was garnished with a cheddar oil and crunchy honey powder. When we asked the chef about it, he explained that he had baked sheets of the Clothbound Cheddar in the oven and then reserved the oil that came off the cheese to create the sauce. It was so interesting to hear how chefs are able to use familiar ingredients like cheese in new ways. As a home cook, I doubt that I could be that creative, but it is a good reminder that even at home, we should experiment and think of new ways to get the most out of our ingredients.
All of our courses were paired with some of the wines and beers that Marion Street Cheese Market sells. (Drinking that much at 1 pm definitely made for an interesting afternoon. And by interesting, I mean sleepy.) One of my favorite pairings was the Vander Mill Totally Roasted cider that came with the cheesecake. I love hard ciders for their sweet fruitiness. I confess, the bitterness of most beer turns me off and I much prefer cider. Perhaps that makes me unsophisticated. In any event, this was one of the cleanest, most fruit-forward ciders I had ever tasted. I would love to drink it again.
As if this amazing lunch weren't enough of a treat, Cabot sent each of us home with an enormous goody bag filled with their cheeses. Although it is hard to resist just snacking on all that cheese, especially that delicious Clothbound Cheddar, the way that Chef Hollander was able to incorporate cheese into his dishes in such creative way is inspiring me to want to do the same. In the coming weeks, I hope to use my stash of Cabot cheddar to craft some interesting savory and sweet dishes for my family. I am particularly excited to try the Hot Habanero Cheddar. I think it will be delicious paired with one of my homemade jams or chutneys. I also am looking forward to experimenting with some of Cabot's reduced fat varieties to create some healthy versions of traditional favorites. Stay tuned for more.
Meanwhile, if you enjoy cheese, I definitely recommend seeking out Cabot cheddars. When you buy Cabot cheese, you are not only getting a high-quality product, you are helping to support American dairy farmers who care about creating a healthy, natural product in a manner that is sustainable and friendly to the environment.
Full disclosure time: I was Cabot's guest for this wonderful lunch. In addition, I received a goody bag of Cabot products to take home. I was not asked to write about my experience nor did I receive any compensation. As always, all opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.