Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reliable Cheese - For The Mild to The Adventurous

It is always interesting to watch a blog evolve from concept to post. We think of an idea, plan our angle, schedule a time, and then dig in! However, more often than not, the direction changes midway and the blog post takes on a life of its own. That was exactly our experience at the Reliable Cheese Company on East Chapel Hill Street in Durham.

We selected Reliable Cheese for a post because we had both visited the shop independently and liked the ability to sample and learn about specialty cheese while making a selection tailored to a menu. We planned to order sandwiches and ask Patrick Coleff—the owner and humble cheese savant—advice about buying cheese for those of us who are less familiar with the gourmet market. We left the shop with three fresh-made sandwiches and a sample platter of five cheeses chosen for us by Patrick.
Our first sandwich was the classic grilled cheese which seemed to serve as a good benchmark against the more creative options. Served on a durable sourdough, this basic sandwich features sharp cheddar, putting full spotlight on the cheese. Something about aged cheddar adds a bit of maturity to a sandwich that can often be found on the kids’ menu. Offered daily, we think this makes a good choice for less adventurous cheese eaters.

Our next “Hot off the Press” sandwich selection (available daily) was the prosciutto, roncal and membrillo. We both found this to be our favorite of the three sandwiches because of the salty meat, sweet membrillo (a sweet spread) and creamy roncal cheese combination. All the flavors in this sandwich were distinct and played off each other well.
Finally, we tried the Wednesday special, Brillat Savarin-triple crème, fig jam and honey. This super sweet sandwich was only a hit with one of us. The fig jam was the standout with the creamy cheese enhancing its sticky texture and sweet flavor. Eaten after the prosciutto, this sandwich seemed more like dessert.

We were both impressed by the quality of the ingredients and the care with which the sandwiches were made. The down side to enjoying one of Reliable Cheese’s sandwiches is the lack of dining space, but we realize it’s not a restaurant. Durham’s local businesses do a great job of supporting each other, and we were told several places including Scratch and Fullsteam would likely be open to sharing their spaces.

When we ordered our cheese plate we asked for Patrick’s help in putting something together that would provide a good overview to a cheese novice—we relied entirely on his recommendations which he said would cover mild to adventurous (gulp!). His passion and knowledge of his product shows as soon as he opens his mouth and he even typed up a listing with the names and origins of each selection.
Admittedly, we are not accustomed to fine dining and somehow specialty cheese seems to fit into a more sophisticated culinary scene than we usually frequent. We weren’t even entirely sure how to eat a cheese plate—do you use your fingers, should you smell the cheese before you taste, is the fig a palate cleanser, can you eat the rind? We may have broken a few rules of etiquette but decided to just go for it.

Neither of us would consider ourselves to be picky eaters, but this part of the lunch turned out to be a true challenge for one of us. It appears that being raised on Velveeta and Kraft Singles may have stunted our taste and tolerance for exotic cheese. Some of the selections had very strong odors and varying textures that were a bit intimidating, but we both managed to give them all a (sometimes reluctant) try. It was actually exciting to have a food experience that pushed the limits of our taste preferences.

Below is the list of cheeses we sampled in the order they were eaten and with brief descriptions/reactions—as we are new to this scene we are also new to describing these flavors and found that to be a challenge as well:

• Grayson mini (raw cow’s milk/Galax, VA)—very smelly with strong aftertaste, smoky
• Bra Duro Alpeggio (raw cow’s milk/Cuneo, Italy)—dry and mild
• La Serena (raw sheep’s milk/Extramadura, Spain)—soft and stinky, dipped in beer
• La Peral (raw cow’s milk/Asturias, Spain)—a salty blue on the milder side
• Lou Bergier Pichin (raw cow’s milk/Piedmonte, Italy)—very smooth and mild

After our tasting adventure and out of curiosity, we looked online for resources to hone our knowledge and etiquette. As it turns out, it is good form to smell the cheese before you eat it as our taste is heavily guided by scent. Using your fingers is acceptable, particularly with hard varieties, and it is best to enjoy the cheese on its own (at least on first bite) to experience the full flavor. Crackers and figs are used to cleanse the palate between each type and you are perfectly fine to eat the rind if you find it appetizing.

For more thorough instruction and information check out the links we’ve included below—and of course, we recommend you go to Reliable and let Patrick create a custom cheese adventure for you!

The Cheesemonger: How to Eat Cheese
The Cheesemonger: How to Taste Cheese
Chow: Know Your Cheese - A Glossary of Cheese Terms
Chow: Stinky to Mild - How to Build a Cheese Plate
Chow: How to Eat a Cheese Plate

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Cherry On Top - Will & Pop's

It seems like the Girls with Guts keep ending up at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham—not that we’re complaining since it has been the site of some great times and great food. This time, we went to celebrate National Rainier Cherry Day.

The “Northwest Cherries Tree to Table” campaign selected Fullsteam as North Carolina’s representative for a national celebration of cherries. Since Fullsteam had some stout already brewed and ready for the fermentation process, they simply added Rainier cherry juice to create their signature cherry menu item. The event was also billed to include free cherry bounce hand pies to the first 50 attendees.

Unfortunately, the GWG are working girls and were unable to make it in time for the start of the event—we were told that an eager line was ready and waiting at 4 p.m., quickly claiming the limited edition pies to go with the cherry beer. Sad that we missed out on the delicious, homemade cherry pies (but glad to see the enthusiasm), we went forward with our plan to try the beer and sat at one of the indoor picnic tables.
To our unseasoned beer palettes, the drink didn't seem much different than other stouts we've tried. The smoky, coffee-like flavor was strong and kept us from detecting a cherry taste. Being a heavy beer, it probably wouldn't be our first choice on such a hot day, but we enjoyed the taste experiment. The beer is also limited edition—they expect it to last about a week, but once it's out that's it!

After much disappointment over the cherry pie shortage, we were quickly consoled by the sight of Will & Pop’s friendly green food truck parked outside of Fullsteam. A familiar presence in the late-night Carrboro scene, the truck’s birthplace, it appears to be moving in on Durham’s food truck monopoly.

The menu can vary, but their signature is the classic grilled cheese served up with a creative twist (and clever names). We won’t use the word gourmet because that is not their aim (tagline: “so good make ya smack ya pops”), but the ingredients are local, fresh and served with a smile.

We ordered two sandwiches to split—the Hot Hipster and the Stoner. The Hipster is a grilled cheese with mango chutney, or for $.50 more you can get it “hot” by adding habanero cheddar—we went for the latter. The buttery sourdough is perfect for grilled cheese and held up well while mango chutney poured out the sides adding a sweet n’ tangy contrast to the cheese. Just when you are about to tell yourself it’s not that hot you start to realize it kind of is.
The Stoner…well, now we understand why it gets that name. This is the ultimate fantasy sandwich for kids (and stoners) of all ages. Combine the flavors of banana, peanut butter, and marshmallow fluff (plus brownie for $.50 more) and serve it on grilled bread and you’ve got yourself dessert. This sandwich will soothe a severe craving with one bite. It’s pretty rich so we recommend sharing.
One of us has experienced Will & Pop’s before and admittedly has a soft spot for the Hippie—grilled cheese with guacamole. Also of note are the homemade flour chips and guacamole which were not available on this occasion, although nachos with pork were on the menu. They’ve also been spotted serving up burgers at Earth Day in Chapel Hill earlier this year. With such a variety of carefully prepared classics, we are glad to see them crossing the border!

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Sweet & Spicy Trend

When GWG combined the forces of our collective sweet tooth, we found ourselves on the tempting trail of a local dessert trend. We’ve seen Mexican chocolate beverages served in coffee shops, but recently noticed this sweet and spicy combination making an appearance on several dessert menus.

Based on web research, “Mexican chocolate refers to either the round, flat disks of cinnamon-scented chocolate found throughout the land [of Mexico] or the foamy drink made from them.” The local variations are chocolate treats accented with a kick of cinnamon, nutmeg, and in some cases cayenne.

Our work started one night at The Parlour ice cream truck—a second helping led us to the Mexican Hot Chocolate flavor, a vegan option. Perhaps not as creamy as the dairy selections, this version is made with coconut milk and has an understated element of spice. Not ones to observe many dietary restrictions, we found this frozen sweet to be quite satisfying but were unable to confirm if it makes for a lower calorie choice.
The next stop was Scratch Bakery where we ordered a slice of Mexican Chocolate Pie. Served chilled, the pie consists of three layers—a chocolate cookie crust, topped with a silky chocolate center, topped with meringue. Each layer provided its own texture, and together they created a sweet and spicy delight. The first bite has a traditional chocolate pudding flavor, but just wait as the spice sneaks up on you.
Over on Ninth Street we visited Elmo’s Diner who recently added a Mexican Chocolate Milkshake to its classic menu of shakes and malts. Another frozen variation of the treat, Elmo’s version is offered with the option of cayenne pepper. We went with the extra spice and found this to be the most flavor-intense of the four desserts we tried. However, this spiciness is not the kind that sets your mouth on fire and gives you the sweats—it’s a peppery taste that creates a kick while the chocolate has an almost soothing effect. Due to the intensity and heaviness of the shake, we think this is a good one to share.
GWG is no stranger to Locopops (in a previous post we attempted to eat 11 on a hot sunny day), but this time we stopped in specifically for the Mexican Chocolate pop (which we believe to be the treat that inspired this trend). Admittedly, we’ve had this one before and always enjoy it—the flavor was similar to Elmo’s shake but with a smoother texture and a little less kick. One of these makes a perfect serving for a flavor that can be on the rich side.
At the end of our taste-testing, we give our recommendation to all four of the Mexican Chocolate inspired treats. If you aren’t up for trying them all, we thought Elmo’s shake stood out for the biggest kick factor and Scratch’s pie was the most original take on the theme. If you come across another variation, please share!