Monday, June 21, 2010

just say O.N.C.E. Cheese, or my evening as a non-minion

What do hooves, feet, and chocolate bacon have in common?

A. Nothing. It's like asking why a raven is like a writing desk.
B. You're asking the wrong question. That should be "Which one is not like the others?"
C. No idea. You need to learn to write a better lead.
D. They all came up in discussion at O.N.C.E. Cheese.

The answer, of course, is D. (C is debatable, but but D is the better choice.)

O.N.C.E. Cheese, the latest in JJ Gonson's One Night Culinary Event series, was a spectacular celebration of local cheesemakers: ten courses built around ten different local cheeses. During the course of the evening, the conversation covered hooves, feet, and chocolate bacon - and their relationships to cheese.

I first heard whispers about O.N.C.E. Cheese at O.N.C.E. Beer. When the event announcement went up, I talked a few friends into making reservations, and I e-mailed JJ to let her know that I would be definitely up for playing minion. JJ had mixed news when she wrote back. The bad news: she couldn't fit any more bodies in the kitchen. The good news: should I be interested, I would be welcome to join my friends in the dining area for dinner instead.

Well. I wasn't going to turn down an offer like that.

Which is why, come Saturday evening, I find myself booking it down Prospect St and stealing nervous glances at the clock on my phone. It seems that I'm destined to be late (or in danger of being late) for all food blogging events at which I don't do any cooking myself.

Salvation comes in the form of a timely bus headed in the direction of Union Square. I make my way to the usual O.N.C.E. event space, where I'm cheerfully greeted by JJ at the door. She waves me in, and I join Matt and Nathaniel (remember Matt and Nathaniel?) and their respective significant others at a table right by the open kitchen.

The traditional chalkboard menu has been augmented by a printed copy at each table, and I entertain myself by matching the goings-on in the kitchen to the various dishes. I can see Emily picking over greens (probably for the second course), and Kat stirring a pot of what I'm guessing is polenta (fifth course). It's giving me mixed feelings about where I am. On the one hand, I am about to eat delicious food in the company of interesting people. On the other, I could be preparing delicious food in the company of interesting people.

My thoughts are interrupted by JJ's call for our attention: she welcomes us to O.N.C.E. Cheese and introduces us to Vince, the cheesemonger from Formaggio Kitchen who'll be telling us about the cheeses featured in our meal tonight.

JJ hands around platters of our first course, fresh chevre blintzes topped with rhubarb compote, and leaves us in Vince's capable hands. The chevre, he tells us, is made in very small batches at Hillman Farm, a tiny operation in the Berkshires with a herd of just thirty goats. It's a very simple cheese - "letting the milk speak for itself."

It certainly does. The blintz wrapper is appropriately tender, but it's just a vehicle for the smooth, delicate cheese, the richness of which is cut by the tangy rhubarb compote. Appetites whetted, we watch the kitchen eagerly as the crew plates the next course.

(No photos here. LimeyG always does a writeup with beautiful photos, so I feel no guilt whatsoever about leaving my camera at home.)

The next course is a salad of arugula, Bibb lettuce and radishes accompanying a small wedge of Weybridge, a cheese from Jasper Hill in Vermont. The cheese has a soft, bloomy rind and the classic unctuous texture of brie, with a certain sharp, almost bitter aftertaste. It's well complemented by the bitter arugula, the sweet lettuce, and the peppery radishes.

The third course is something I recognize: the Welsh rarebit had a previous incarnation at O.N.C.E. Beer as a fondue with pretzels for dipping. This time, though, it's made with Pawlet from Bardwell Farm in Vermont. Vince describes Pawlet as a solid "American cheese," though it doesn't bear any resemblance to the plasticky substance I remember from college dining hall grilled cheese sandwiches. This cheese has weight and body, and mixed with beer to make a melty sauce, it's delightfully gooey.

Course four is where the hooves show up. The dish, a frittata with a side of sauteed bitter greens and pea tendrils, contains a cheese called Riley's Coat from Blue Ledge in Vermont. It's a raw milk aged goat cheese, and Vince explains that the name comes from the resemblance between the color of the rind and the coloration of the cheesemakers' first dog, Riley.

JJ then confesses that she, personally, doesn't like Riley's Coat. "I don't like hoofy cheese," she declares, explaining that she can taste the goat - grass, hooves, manure and all - in most goat cheeses, and that Riley's Coat is like having goat hooves running across her tongue. I've heard many colorful descriptors for cheese, but I have to admit, "hoofy" is a new one.

I have no complaints. I love strongly flavored cheese, and this one gives the frittata a savory edge. I also love the sauteed pea tendrils, which are fresh and grassy, and come complete with tiny sugar snap peas.

The fifth course is the halfway mark. Jen brings out big bowls of creamy polenta sprinkled with grated Landaff, a raw milk cheese from New Hampshire modelled on Caerphilly, a traditional Welsh cheese.

I've been looking forward to this dish. Polenta and cheese is one of my favorite comfort foods, and this version is a delight. The polenta is of medium grind, but a little uneven, giving it a toothsome texture almost like that of slow-cooked oatmeal. It's deliciously buttery, with just the right amount of salt from the cheese. I'm glad to see that there's extra in the serving bowl: there's no question about having seconds.

The aroma of sizzling beef, garlic and onions fills the air, and we come to, if you'll pardon the pun, the meat of the matter: Philly-style cheesesteak with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, topped with sauteed garlic scapes and onions.

Vince begins his explanation of the Cabot Clothbound with the declaration that it's the most important cheese he sells. He goes on to explain that the Cabot co-op in Vermont wanted to produce an English-style, clothbound cheddar, and approached Jasper Hill to discuss the possibility. The cheese is aged at Jasper Hill, which also markets the cheese, but it's with Cabot's full backing. The Clothbound comes in huge wheels, and when shipments go out, smaller cheeses from smaller producers can piggyback on them, resulting in lower transportation costs, which ultimately means lower prices for the consumer - and more revenue for the small cheesemakers.

I'm familiar with the Clothbound Cabot: I cut a big block of it to make ploughmen at O.N.C.E. Beer. But cheddar on crusty bread, even with homemade chutney, is very different to cheddar melted on thin shavings of eye round beef, topped with sauteed scapes and onions. The beef is wonderfully juicy, and I definitely prefer the sweet, fragrant garlic scapes to the traditional green peppers. (They're not in season, so JJ got creative.)

Course seven is another I'm excited about: roasted Hakuri turnips with Ascutney Mountain cheese from Cobb Hill in Vermont. A roasted Hakuri turnip half and a tiny wedge of cheese don't look like much on the plate, but eaten together, they're fantastic: the turnip is just a little crisp on the outside, and soft and tender inside. Ascutney is styled after Gruyere, and it has a wonderful sweet nuttiness. (JJ uses it in her "world's best breakfast sandwiches.")

I can't help but think that Vince missed a sales opportunity: if he had come with a cooler full of cheese, I would put down money for a half-pound of Ascutney right now. I'd have the self-control to not eat it immediately. I think.

Our last savory course is one that everyone has been oohing and aahing over: mac and cheese with a potato chip topping, made with Butterwick from Twig Farm. Butterwick is a washed rind cheese, and like all washed rind cheeses, it gets its strong smell from certain bacteria that also cause body odor. It's why, explains Vince, people will describe particularly pungent cheeses as smelling like feet.

I adore particularly pungent cheeses. Even so, I'm not very excited about this dish: mac and cheese usually has a bland, overcooked, wet texture that puts me in mind of lumpy mashed potatoes. When the bowl is passed to me, I take a very small spoonful and put fork to plate more out of duty than anticipation.

The first mouthful is startling: this mac and cheese is made with big, thick ziti that have remained satisfyingly chewy. The dish is flavorful, and barely wet at all. I can't say I like the potato chips, but I love the edges where the pasta has gone brown and crusty. I end up taking a second spoonful from the serving bowl.

Course nine is what JJ describes as "first dessert," but it's really more of a bridge between the savory and sweet courses: the ever-evolving "Bacon is Meat Candy Tart."

JJ introduces Matthew Stein of Happy Pig Salumi to explain the bacon she used in this iteration: "chocolate bacon," which is not the same as chocolate-covered bacon (or bacon-infused chocolate, for that matter.) The bacon is cured with cocoa nib dust (a byproduct from the chocolate-making process), and then smoked over cocoa shells.

Matthew and JJ swear that the bacon smells like chocolate when it's frying, though to tell the truth, I can only taste bacon. Excellent bacon, but no chocolate. Then again, the bacon is just one topping on an oat cookie base. There are also caramelized vidalia onions, Bayley Hazen Blue cheese, and caramel drizzle vying for my tastebuds' attention. The tart should, by all rights, be complete and total overkill, and yet it's a spectacular combination of salty and sweet.

Finally, we come to dessert: a semifreddo made with Capones fresh ricotta in a pool of strawberry and pinot noir soup. Strawberries and cream, of a sort. The semifreddo is light and creamy, and the strawberry soup bright and glorious. I can't help but think the same recipe, tweaked just a little, would make for wonderful sorbet.

A little while after we're done with dessert, the rest of my table decides it's time to call it a night. That's my cue to start stacking plates and clearing tables. I want a chance to catch up with the kitchen crew, and ask JJ about O.N.C.E. Oregon. Though I did enjoy my evening in the dining room, it's just not the same as the kitchen.

Besides, it wouldn't feel like a proper O.N.C.E. if I didn't stick around to crash the afterparty.


Lindsey @ pickyeatings said...

This sounds like quite the experience...I can't even imagine consuming that many kinds of cheese at sounds magical.

adele said...

Lindsey - The ONCEs are great fun. If you're curious, check out JJ's blog (Cuisine En Locale, in my sidebar). Next one is in late July.

Mary said...

I'd be curious to ask you a few questions about the event at some point.. I'm musing throwing an underground affair at some point in the next couple of months and would love to talk about people's experiences with them.


adele said...

Mary - Sure. Drop me an e-mail with any questions you have - thebasilqueen AT