The Wonderful World of Cheese

The variety of cheese being used is growing, as is cheese's overall popularity.

Even as more Americans look to eat healthier, the popularity of cheese seems to be surging. Pizza, mac and cheese and cheeseburgers remain ubiquitous, but chefs also are experimenting with more varieties in more types of menu items.

“It’s not just plain American [cheese] any more; our customer base is much more willing to try different varieties of cheese, like pepper jack, Swiss, provolone and cheddar,” says Mary Anderson, foodservice director for the Wayzata School District in Minnesota. “We make a tomato tortellini soup with Parmesan and a Mexican grilled cheese with pepper jack on whole grain bread with a taco seasoning spread.”

Ellen Hardy, buyer for Dining Services at the University of Nebraska, is also using a wide variety of cheeses, including brie, Gorgonzola and fontina.

“I see more upscale cheeses used in catering,” notes Hardy. “We do thick, fresh potato chips with a warm blue cheese sauce that is to die for. ”

When it comes to cheese, there is no reason to be limited to one type, says Melissa Flood, assistant director of dining services at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma Wash.

Ingredients, cheese, fresh mozzarella“We make a great macaroni and cheese with white truffle oil and cheeses of the world,” she says. “Fontina and cheddar are two mainstays, but I have used as many as 10 different cheeses in one dish. We usually take the leftovers from catered events. Last week I added some smoked Gouda and brie. I top the whole thing with bread crumbs, toasted in butter, and crispy, crumbled bacon. The kids love it. You can use just about any cheese, except maybe gjetost, which is too sweet.”

Gjetost is made from caramelized whey and eaten as a breakfast treat in Scandinavian countries.

“It’s a Norwegian goat cheese that is brown and sweet,” says Flood. “It comes in a small wheel or a cube and can be served after dinner with fruit and crackers. It’s like soft cheddar, like a fontina, to be shaved paper-thin and served with something like crostini and crunchy fruit, a lot like caramel apple or pear.”

Jack of all trades: “The most popular cheese at our university is pepper jack,” says Flood. “We put it on hot or cold sandwiches, burgers and turkey burgers and in our Latin American station. College students can’t get enough of nachos, but the commercially available sauces are full of additives, so our Latin American station cook, Ricky Nieto, created his own recipe.”

“We use shredded cheddar-jack at the salad bar and mozzarella in our vegetarian stuffed peppers,” says John Athamanah, manager and director of foodservice at LaRabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “We also make low-fat cheese pizzas. We were doing a pepper and onion feta pizza, but we found the feta to be too dry, so we sprinkled in a little mozzarella to hold the moisture. We use it as a light coating as a binder on top.”

Ingredients, cheese, queso frescoMake your own: In some non-commercial operations chefs have started making their own cheese.

“We have a new Latin station called Tortilla Fresca that offers made-to-order tacos, burritos and salads, among other things, so I decided to try making queso fresco, which simply means fresh cheese,” says Tim Fetter, executive chef for Parkhurst Dining Services, at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pittsburgh. “It’s ready to use after one day. There’s no need for aging, and it can be flavored pretty much any way you want. I’ve tried sundried tomato and roasted garlic, garlic and chive, cilantro, lime and three pepper, and ancho pepper.”

“I also have been pulling fresh mozzarella cheese,” Fetter adds. “You take cheese curds and heat them in hot water and pull them the same way that you would pull taffy. The nice thing about it is that you can shape it however you want. You can control the amount of salt, and you can make things like roulades with prosciutto and basil.”

Meat and cheese: Beef is big in Wyoming, but cheese often serves as an accompaniment.

“We make a roast beef and blue cheese sandwich that also calls for Swiss,” says Eric Webb, director of dining services at the University of Wyoming. “We toast artisan bread and the meat, then top it with some veggies and cheese.”

However, cheese doesn’t “need” meat, say other operators.

“Cheese is used extensively in our vegetarian entrees,” says Janet Paul Rice, associate director for dining services at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. “In the upper Midwest, meals in the winter tend to be hearty. Cheese gives vegetarian entrées the satisfying fullness that’s sometimes missing when meat is absent. For example, grilled portobello mushroom caps are filled with fresh tomatoes and pesto and topped with cheese, or a simple rotini pasta casserole is ‘beefed’ up with the addition of four cheeses for something satisfying.”

Rice says her department also uses goat cheese.

“We have some delicious hors d’oeuvres such as green grapes wrapped with chevre and rolled in chopped toasted nuts,” she says. “Goat cheese also appears in our caramelized onion and goat cheese tart, which can be full-sized or miniature bite-sized tartlets. We are very fortunate to have skilled bakers on staff preparing wonderful cheesecakes from scratch, like chocolate caramel, chocolate swirl and white chocolate raspberry.”

“Eggplant Parmesan is a campus favorite,” says Rachel Noirot, R.D., nutritionist for dining services at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Our stuffed green peppers are topped with shredded mozzarella, and our breakfast quesadilla, bagel pizza, zucchini quiche and Vermont cheese soup are popular menu additions. We have a Parmesan sauce, which is served with spaghetti squash, and fresh mozzarella that are a highlight of one of our new salad bars.”

Cheese also can be a creative addition to a breakfast menu.

“We often serve a colorful spinach, tomato and feta omelet,” Noirot adds. “Low-fat cottage cheese is served on our breakfast bar, often topped with peaches or berries.”

Not just a filler or binder, cheese can be very nutritious, she notes.

“Cheese and low-fat dairy products are an important component of a balanced diet. It’s one of the richest dietary sources of calcium.

Cheeseheads: “Our focus recently has been on Wisconsin cheese, because it’s regionally close,” explains Nathan Mileski, corporate executive chef at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich. “Wisconsin also has the best variety of cheese makers and products in the country. Two years ago, I was able to attend a cheese tour there. I always thought of Wisconsin as an average, run-of-the-mill basic cheese-making state, but I was wrong and pleasantly surprised.

“We now feature a Wisconsin artisan cheese display on our catering menu and it has become the No. 1 selling item for us. We offer a wide variety on our grill, deli and salad stations. We make sure to offer a minimum of three options daily, our most popular being feta followed closely by Gorgonzola, which is replacing the traditional shredded blend as our most popular. On our pizza, we’re using a five-cheese Wisconsin artisan blend, which has mozzarella, fontina, white cheddar, medium Asiago and Romano, cut in a feather-shred style. This was a ‘secret ingredient’ of a local pizzeria that a student shared with us. We incorporate a wide variety of cheese on sandwiches , like a BLT with creamy Cabrales, which is like a Spanish Gorgonzola; an open-faced, oven-roasted asparagus, red onion and tomato with Petit Frère, a smoky Irish-French cheese; or a beer-braised beef short rib with five-year-old cheddar and spicy pickled vegetables.”

All-time favorites: Traditional uses of cheese in favorites such as pizza, grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese and cheeseburgers is as ubiquitous as ever.

“We haven’t noticed any slowing down on the use of cheese according to our customer demand,” says Jon Brubacher, manager of food purchasing at the University of Miami, Ohio. “Our largest use of cheese on campus is our American singles, which is put on everything from various grilled cheeses to our self-branded hamburgers. For sandwiches at our delis, we’ll use Swiss, pepper jack and marble jack. We also cube cheeses for grab and go with crackers, and shredded Monterey Jack for our Mexican concepts.”

Leo Lesh, executive director for the foodservice program in the Denver City Public School District, also uses cheese in kid-favorite meals like pizza. “We use cheese sticks for our snack program. We have sandwiches, like turkey with American or cheddar. Also, we use provolone, pepper jack and Swiss for different subs. We also dice up cheese for a Buffalo chicken salad and a turkey or ham chef salad. We use American and cheddar for our breakfast toast. We also cut up cheese sticks for yogurt baskets for breakfast.”