Forty years ago, cheese was an exotic, expensive food, something that Indians bought when they went abroad, as a special treat for those at home. Pizzas and cheeseburgers were almost unknown and fondues were the stuff of dreams. Another inhibiting factor, mainly for vegetarians, was that foreign cheese contained calf or cow rennet (an enzyme obtained from the stomach lining of the animals and used in the curdling process). The only purely vegetarian cheese known was cottage cheese or paneer, which was usually home-made. Today, all that has changed. With the advent of ‘vegetarian’ cheese, in which microbes, fungi or plant rennet are used to curdle the milk, cheese consumption in India is growing in the major cities. And the good news is that weight-watchers can now choose from a variety of low-fat and skimmed milk cheeses. Not only is cheese delicious and nutritious, it is also versatile. It can be used for garnishing, as the main ingredient and in desserts, too. In addition to containing 15 essential nutrients, cheese, particularly the firm and hard kind, is an excellent source of calcium. Calcium helps build strong bones and prevents osteoporosis. Recent studies have indicated that calcium-rich dairy foods like milk and cheese can even help one lose weight! Cheese can be made from the milk of most mammals. Besides the cow, cheese is made from the milk of the goat, sheep, buffalo, camel and even the horse!
How is cheese made? The milk is first separated by adding cultures such as rennet or bacteria or an acid like vinegar depending on whether the cheese is required to be soft or hard. The whey or liquid portion is removed and the milk solids or curds are treated in a variety of ways by adding salt, cutting, heating, stretching (as in the case of mozzarella), cheddaring (blocks of curd are piled up together to squeeze out the moisture) and washing. Some varieties are then aged by storing in a cool, dry place like a cellar. Moulds are added to others - like Stilton, Roquefort and Gorgonzola - to give them a distinctive smell and taste. These are called blue cheeses.
Buying, Handling and Storing Cheese
- Select cheese according to colour, texture, consistency and aroma.
- Make sure the cheese is properly sealed and kept in cold storage.
- The label must provide essential information such as the manufacturing and expiry dates.
- The work surface, accessories and knives should be very clean to prevent any taste or mould transfer from one cheese to another.
- If using a single knife to cut different cheeses, make sure you wash the knife after cutting each cheese.
- Manipulate the cheese with care, especially the soft and semi-firm types, to keep them in the best shape possible.
- Wash your hands after you have cut the cheese.
- Keep the cheese wrapped in waxed or greaseproof paper and place it in a loosefitting food-bag.
- Wrap blue cheeses firmly as mould spores spread readily not only to other cheeses but also to other foods.
- Chilled cheeses should be taken out of the refrigerator one-and-a-half to two hours before serving.
- Cheeses contain living organisms that must not be cut off from air, yet it is important not to let a cheese dry out. Do not store any cheese with other strongsmelling foods. As a cheese breathes it will absorb other aromas and may spoil.
- Avoid freezing soft cheeses as they become powdery. Firm and hard cheeses freeze well but should be kept for no longer than two months.
- Before freezing, first chill the cheese and then wrap it in aluminium foil and seal in a freezer bag after removing the air.
- Grate firm cheeses and place in a sealed container before freezing. In this book, I have put together a number of recipes from every course of a meal.
There is wholesome Spinach and Rice Soup, crunchy Pepper Slices with Cream Cheese, exotic Cheesy Rice-stuffed Peppers and silky Risotto with Three Cheeses. For those with a sweet tooth there is light-as-air Chilled Lemon Cheesecake and delicious Brownie Cheesecake. As always, each recipe is meant for four portions, when it is a part of a menu with other complementary dishes.