We are living in the greatest time in history for American cuisine. Small farms are popping up everywhere, fueled by CSA memberships and community involvement. Chefs are reinventing American classics in the most wonderful and fresh ways with locally grown organic produce and thoughtfully raised livestock. Blogs and magazines covering exciting food stories and recipes can be found anywhere you are. There is not one but two network television channels entirely devoted to cuisine. But the saturation of food television and magazines are something of a distraction—they are veering our attention away from the true heroes.
Does anyone remember what it was like just 20 years ago, before this explosion of interest in food? Sure, there were a few pioneers like Alice Waters who were preaching the gospel, and a scattering of great, small-time food makers. But mostly we ate stodgy, staid American food produced by an industrial complex. The change we’ve seen in such a relatively short time is due largely to small artisanal producers who have focused on craft. It’s the farmers and butchers and cheesemakers who have given us the options we have today—those food options that we’re all so excited about. But, because of the large and distracting personalities on TV (you know who I’m talking about), their praises go mostly unsung.
I just met a pair of these quiet visionaries. Sue Conley and Peggy Smith are taking a weekend away from Cowgirl Creamery, their artisan cheesery, for an East Coast visit, which they more than deserve after over 15 years of curding and wheying. To put things in perspective here, these two started working with real food the year before I was born. Before diving into organic cheesemaking, Peggy cooked for the aforementioned Ms. Waters for many years and Sue ran a restaurant in Berkeley. They’ve put in their dues. I just feel lucky to have met them.
We sat and talked (with some cheese, of course) for over an hour, but the one thing I found so refreshing about the Cowgirls is their absolute lack of snobbery. Yes, Sue told me, she likes to eat good cheese straight, but who doesn’t love a perfect grilled cheese or creamy lasagna? In fact, one of their cheeses, Wagon Wheel, was created (again, for Ms. Waters) to melt in just the right way while still holding on to its complex character.
Sue and Peggy have culled their cheese-cooking tips in a collection of recipes that is due out later this fall. They proudly showed me some pictures from the book as we talked about how small-time American cheese producers have proliferated since they got started. I just sat there and drooled, honored to be near them.
Here’s my favorite recipe for a grilled cheese—but stay tuned for the Cowgirl Creamery Cooks, in which the girls share their favorite version.
Makes 2 sandwiches
3 tablespoons finely chopped mixed fresh herbs, such as basil, chives, dill, oregano
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
3/4 cup grated melting cheese, such as Cowgirl Creamery’s Wagon Wheel or aged cheddar
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices sprouted grain bread
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Stir together the herbs, mayonnaise and cheese with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Divide the cheese mixture between 2 slices of the bread, topping with the remaining 2 slices of bread. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat until it is melted, then place the sandwiches in the skillet. Cover the skillet and cook until the bread is golden. Carefully turn the sandwiches over and continue to cook, covered until the bread is golden and the cheese is melted. Serve.