Whey to Go

Chefs create new cheese dishes for appetizers, entrées and desserts.

By 
Pamela Parseghian, Contributing Food Writer

Mozzarella rolls, hand-made by Chef Bob Clark at
eBay’s headquarters.

When it comes to cheese, it seems many chefs never tire of dreaming up new recipes. Some even say they now find success with cheese substitutes that fill growing requests from vegans and lactose-intolerant diners.

“We serve a lot of cheese,” says Ida Shen, assistant director culinary, Cal Dining, University of California, Berkeley. “Students love cheese. I think it is their comfort food. It is a big part of their diet.

“Mac and cheese is a must every two or three weeks,” adds Shen, who offers some out-of-the-ordinary takes on the dish. One recent rendition included smoked gouda and a large dose of spinach. Besides adding more healthful benefits, the spinach helps cut costs. Since many cheeses are expensive, she limits her use of it.

“There’s only so much we can do with our budget,” she explains. Catering to those who don’t eat cheese, she serves stuffed peppers with vegan cheese and a vegan imitation cheese pizza.

The vegan cheese Shen selects, which is made mostly with soy milk and oil costs her a bit more than real cheese. But it works well as a substitute, she says even though it doesn’t have the same elasticity of some real cheeses.

“It has a nice flavor and gives the dish a similar experience,” Shen says. “I think even if you are a vegan or are dairy intolerant, you still need your cheese.”

Versatile element: “Personally, I love cheese and add it sparingly to almost everything,” says Michael Scaturro, operations manager and executive chef at St. Francis Hospital, in Roslyn, N.Y. “It’s so versatile that I add it to appetizers, salads, sandwiches, sauces, soups, platters, dips, cooked foods such as quiche or pizza and even desserts.

“Eating certain cheeses like aged cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack and brie after meals, or as a snack, has been shown to have legitimate health benefits,” Scaturro adds. “Besides healthy bones and teeth, it has even been linked to cancer prevention. Just remember it can also contribute to weight gain and high blood pressure.”

Adhering to his after-meal theory, Scaturro adds cheese to desserts such as cream cheese cookies, peanut butter pie, carrot cake cupcakes, mascarpone brownies and chocolate chip cheesecake dip with brandy, which he serves with graham crackers, diced pound cake and fruit.

On the savory side Scaturro created a loaded baked potato soup dish based on the iconic appetizer that was offered at most casual chain restaurant in the ‘90s. For it, he blends cheddar cheese, bacon and scallions in a potato soup base. Another dish based on a classic is his Buffalo macaroni and cheese, which includes roasted chicken, blue cheese and sautéed celery.

For an inventive way to load up kids on vegetables without turning them off, De Soto (Wis.) Area Schools offers roasted butternut squash stirred
into the macaroni and cheese. The dish, which incorporates local cheese, recently won a contest judged by kids at a fundraiser to support farm-to-school initiatives. It was such a hit that Marilyn Volden, foodservice director for the neighboring Viroqua Area Schools says she plans to add the pasta to her menu next year.

Volden also incorporates ratatouille prepared with local veggies into dishes that appeal to children. She adds it to pizza with Parmesan cheese. The ratatouille, which she makes during harvest season and keeps frozen during the winter, includes eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, garlic and onions.

“It’s things that you wouldn’t normally see in a school,” Volden says. In 2008, “we first made it when the movie ‘Ratatouille’ was popular, and it worked.”

Typically Volden offers either ratatouille pizza, stromboli or pasta, with the veggies stirred into tomato sauce, for Viroqua’s vegetarian students. Volden says she is seeing more non-meat eaters. So cheese “provides a meat alternative for the school lunch program,” she adds. “Cheese is one of everybody’s favorite foods in Wisconsin. And [ratatouille] adds a little more palatability to the dish. It also makes it more appealing visually.

“Kids are very acceptable to eating vegetables,” she says. “Some of their favorite things are roasted beets and asparagus. It is a farming community.”

Loco for local: Chef Bob Clark, who manages the foodservice program for Bon Appétit Management Co. at eBay headquarters in San Jose, Calif., says he purchases local cheese as much as possible for his diners. He would rather purchase less of an artisanal-style cheese and use it sparingly than buy larger quantities of a lesser quality cheese.

“With a great-tasting cheese you can use just use a little bit and get the flavor across,” Clark says. “We try not to load up everything with cheese.”

For example, on a 14-inch pizza Clark uses about 2½ ounces of cheese, such as a local farm’s goat cheese that he pairs with caramelized vegetables, fennel and tomato. A small hunk of goat cheese or an ash cheese could be packed with half of a hard-boiled egg, celery sticks and a mini bagel or housemade lavender crackers in an item Clark calls, “protein packs.”

Based on recipes he learned at his first job in a deli, Clark also hand pulls locally produced cheese curds to make mozzarella that he forms into rolls with an array of fillings, such as watercress, diced squash, local honey and pomegranate in the winter or cured meats, pesto and pine nuts in the summer. “It’s just another way to use ingredients,” he says.

The mozzarella is sometimes offered on a salad bar or as a pizza topping, depending on Clark’s whim.

In fact, the cheese is such a hit he was asked to demonstrate his mozzarella making for eBay’s 100 top salespeople.