In Praise of Minnesota Produce

Strawberries In our humble little cheese shops, we’re not trying to change the world. We’re simply trying, the best we know how, to make scrumptious food and send you home with it. It's no coincidence, however, that one mission can accomplish both. A mission to support our endlessly dedicated farmers brings us the tastiest ingredients. A need to pay homage to the tastiest ingredients roots our cooking in tradition, simplicity, and the elegance of native-grown produce.

Think about the last time you ate a fresh garden tomato or a summer strawberry. Maybe you’re naturally green-thumbed and have had the pleasure of growing it yourself. Was it so juicy that it seemed to spring a leak when you bit into it? Did its deep ruby shade and bright, bursting flavor beg you to enjoy the moment just a second longer? Perhaps it caused an involuntary “mmm…” or “whoa!” to escape your lips. Now compare it to its cloned, out-of-season grocery store counterpart. Maybe the inside was white and spongy or mealy, like it was part edible sand. Maybe there was simply nothing lovely enough about it to be memorable at all.

If we can agree on the beauty and intense flavor of a tomato and a strawberry at their most delicious, we certainly don’t need to ask the question, “Why local?” It isn’t surprising that something grown near us, picked at its peak of ripeness, sugar development, and water retention, packed carefully and driven across town to be used in the following days (not weeks or months) is overwhelmingly more delightful than the alternative. I think I’d be bruised, battered, and lifeless after an international flight, too. A walk around the block is much simpler.

Minnesota Produce

The massive and obvious difference between homegrown fare and the shipped-in variety inspires all kinds of wonder. A small, but palpable phenomenon occurs every time we infiltrate the Cheese Shop kitchen with any neighborhood-procured bounty. Mouths water at the sight of dazzling beet jewels. Questions abound watching garlic scapes being snake-coiled inside pickling jars. Ideas trickle in from unlikely sources and grandmother’s recipes long forgotten. Hilariously-shaped irregular carrots make the rounds to give everyone a snicker. The entire staff anxiously awaits spring greens as their memories of last year's spicy greens already fading like a wispy dream. Text messages proclaiming, “These strawberries are BLOWING MY MIND. They are so red all the way through!”, and the shock and awe of a significant other noticing, “This celery tastes salty and… green? Normal celery tastes like crunchy water.”

It’s hard not to love the people and communities who work tirelessly to bring us such delight. They are often covered in dirt, dressed like camp counselors, a little stinky and sweaty, and smiling from ear to ear when they appear in our kitchen. The pride in offering their life’s work in a cardboard box and sharing it with their community is contagious. It is impossible to say no to the prettiest kale or butter lettuce when it's presented by the guy who tended and picked it. And how could we not order bushels of peaches by faxing an order form and deposit to a farm that still does mail-order?

Our dedication to capitalizing on the heartbreakingly-short Minnesota growing season isn’t always all warm fuzzies and happy days, though. It typically means hard work and long hours. When ripe tomatoes hit and can’t wait patiently for our attention, we bring in hundreds of pounds a day to can, stew, roast, dry, and purée. Then we play Freezer Tetris to try to store it all for use in our roasted tomato risotto throughout the fall. Cases upon cases of Honeycrisp apples overtake our walk-in coolers, prep spaces, hallways, and lives as we feature them in house-made strudel or a signature honey, blue cheese, and apple sandwich, and pair them with cheese plates. Occasionally, you’ll hear the distant mad cackling of a kitchen employee who’s putting away the world’s silliest-looking pile of rhubarb or someone asking, “Are you absolutely sure you want to order $500 worth of ramps?!”

Anyone who’s tried gardening and growing, whether on a small or large scale, can sympathize with how frustrating, back-breaking, and rewarding it is. The committed individuals we’ve gotten to know over the years, not picking machines or shipping companies, are trading their time and energy for your delicious plate. Let’s enjoy it, and thank them by acknowledging (and paying for) the difference between a December tomato and a backyard beauty.

*At the France 44 Cheese Shop, the St Paul Cheese Shop, and the St Paul Meat Shop, you’ll find local produce featured in every way possible, and pick up a local fruit pie every Friday in the Meat Shop! **Special thanks to Afton Orchards, Stone’s Throw Farms & Shared Ground Farmer’s Cooperative, Hidden Stream, and the Minneapolis, Kingsfield, and Fulton Farmer’s Markets

A Vegetarian's Guide to the Cheese Shop // Part I

Vegetarian's Guide Meet Eliza, our cheese shops' resident vegetarian! She'll be showing you around the shop from an herbivore's point of view. This is the first in a multi-part series.

We’ve entered a new era of ethical eating here in Minneapolis. From Wise Acre’s locally-sourced produce, poultry, and meat to our friends at Red Table Meat Co. in Northeast Minneapolis, the Artisanal Meat Renaissance is upon us. Heck, we just opened a brand new nose-to-tail butcher shop in St. Paul! And while I am totally down with these conscientious consumption practices, I find my once thriving cohort of vegetarians quickly dwindling. So this blog post is for you, my fellow vegetable lovers. This is your Vegetarian’s Guide to the Cheese Shop.

As the sole vegetarian among a staff of carnivorous cheesemongers, I’ve come to learn a few tricks about eating at the France 44-St. Paul Cheese Shops. Though it may seem like we have many meat-filled treats, there is always a vegetarian-sized loophole.

1. Vegetarian Surprise With the recent renovation of our sandwich menu, you might have noticed that your go-to veggie sandwiches are now missing. Before you mourn their loss, recognize that this is an opportunity for you to get something totally crazy and new. Order a veggie surprise! From our sweet and spicy pepper onion relish to harissa to garlic pickles, there are lots of ingredients that you’ve probably never had before. Find new frontiers! Explore your palette! Order that veggie surprise!

2. You’re Not That Into Surprises? Well, the vegetarian sandwiches you loved (and a few new ones) are still available on the Unofficial Secret Vegetarian Menu. All you have to do is ask.

Classic Mozz Veg: Oozing with tomato-garlic confit goodness paired perfectly with some refreshing mozzarella and topped off with crunchy greens. I bet you miss this guy, but you know what? He’s still there. Our sandwich line is stocked with the ingredients, so you can order it anytime. Substitute the mozzarella with chèvre or brie depending on your mood.

RGC: This delicious sandwich is spread with creamy house-made roasted garlic chèvre (a.k.a. RGC), dusted with smoky paprika and banyuls, enhanced with caramelized onions, and completed with greens. YUM.

Pear Brie: Yep, I just coined a new sandwich. It's a combination of double-cream Fromage D’Affinois with lots of sweet and savory house-made pear mostarda, a drizzle of honey, and some greens. This is one of my favorite go-to sandwiches and it never disappoints. Try it on a baguette if you feel like getting fancy. [pictured at top]

3. Salad! A little known cheese shop fact--we make lots of awesome salads. Let us put our creative forces to good work and whip up something new and exciting for you! Just order a surprise salad, we’ll know what you mean.

4. The Untapped Land of the Deli Case It’s summertime and that means the deli case at our Minneapolis shop is bursting with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s the best season to be a vegetarian! Now is your chance to capitalize. Check out a few of my favorite items:

Polenta Cakes: These crisped, corn-based cakes are perfect warmed and topped with your favorite cheese, Mexican mole, or salsa. Garnish with cilantro if you’re really feeling fresh.

Snap Pea and Ginger Slaw: Refreshing AND beautiful. Enjoy it as a snack, down it is as a palette cleanser, eat it as a meal. Just make sure you eat it.

Strawberry Kale Salad: Strawberries, cashews, roasted red peppers, hearty kale massaged by hand. Does it get any better?

Song’s Pasta Salad: Tomatoes + Feta + Orzo Pasta + Dill X A hint of olive oil = One perfect summer pasta salad

Okay, have I convinced you yet? The cheese shop is practically a vegetarian’s mecca! Don’t let the meaty facade fool you. There is so much to enjoy. I haven’t even mentioned the bounty of delicious grocery items (hellooooo INNA Jam) or the sweet treats or that refreshing gazpacho. Stay tuned for future blogs posts from your favorite (and only) vegetarian cheesemonger.

--Eliza Summerlin

3 Ways To Up Your Snack Game

salmon_bagel I've always thought the word "snack" was particularly cute. If it were personified, it might be a fluffy, pink-nosed bunny hopping in and out of the edges of your day, softly cooing, "Time for a snack! Time for a snack!" Yes, time for a snack. A mini treat. A pre-meal meal. Something small, right?

A lot of us grow up learning that snacks are innately insubstantial and menial, like a handful of peanut butter M&Ms or grapes or a bag of chips. We think of them as the doesn't-really-count prelude to a steak dinner. But a snack can be so much more. In fact, it can actually satisfy that hungry hole in your belly while being delicious, too.

One of our favorite ways to snack at the Cheese Shop is to get creative with our dips and spreads. Check out these three ways to have a snack that won't leave you wanting:

1. Bagels + Smoked Salmon Spread (pictured above) If you thought bagels were just for breakfast, you thought wrong. Spread a sesame bagel with some classic smoked salmon spread (made with dill and cream cheese, of course!), top it with some crunchy cucumber slices, and YUM.

artichoke_pimento

2. Veggies + Dip Up your veggie intake by dunking raw carrots, zucchini, and celery sticks in our lemony and light artichoke tarragon dip (on the left) or our spicy pimento cheese dip (on the right). That pimento cheese is also wicked when melted on toast.

paprika_pasta

3. Pasta + Smoked Paprika Parmesan And when you need to go a little heartier, toss some hot pasta with a few healthy spoonfuls of smoked paprika parmesan dip and dig in. Not bad with a happy hour glass of wine too, I might add.

Eat hearty!

3 Myths About Parmesan

Cravero Parmigiano-Reggiano Raise your hand if trying to understand the Parmesan vs. Parmigiano-Reggiano debate hurts your brain. Which one is better? Are they the same? Does it matter at all?

It does matter, if you want it to. There's that old saying, You are what you eat. If that's the sort of daily mantra you like to repeat to yourself, and if munching on the most delicious food is your thing, than you're going to want to know how and why parmesan is quite different from Parmigiano-Reggiano. Let's discuss a few myths:

1. The word parmesan means Parmigiano-Reggiano This is true! Parmesan is the English translation of Italy's Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, this doesn't mean that products designated parmesan are made in the same way or of the same quality. The United States has a stinky little history of not following international laws for naming. Much like Champagne and Kobe Beef, Parmigiano-Reggiano must be made to very specific specifications, and under specific circumstances, before it can be christened with that name. Very simply, the rules are: Parmigiano must be made with only three ingredients. Those ingredients are milk made in the Parma/Reggio region of Italy, salt, and animal rennet. It seems so simple, but check the back of the next bag of grated parmesan you buy. If it contains cellulose powder, potassium sorbate, or other ingredients like that, then it's an imposter. No Parmigiano for you.

2. All versions of Parmigiano-Reggiano (real or otherwise) tend to be dry and best for cooking Completely false. If you're seeking out true Parmigiano, you'll find that it's actually wonderful eaten on its own. Cravero Parmigiano-Reggiano (the one we sell at our shops) is particularly succulent, with sweet notes of caramel and cherry. Giorgio Cravero--the man who selects and ages each wheel at Cravero in Bra, Italy--prefers his Parmigiano to have intentional sweetness and moisture. Thank goodness! Because it's lovely and worthy of a spot on your cheese board. Skip the round green shaker of grainy parmesan in favor of a Parmigiano you can actually taste.

3. All versions of Parmigiano-Reggiano are fatty and bad for you, just like most cheeses Oh no. No no no. So long as you avoid the bastardized versions of this cheese that contain anything other than milk, salt, and rennet, you're consuming something good for you. The concentration of pure milk in Parmigiano's paste means it's full of protein, calcium, and phosphorous and is free of additives and preservatives. True Parmigiano is so uniquely nutritious that it's been known to be a staple with astronauts on space missions. So take that on your next portage to the boundary waters, hipsters!

[images via Cravero]

3 Ways To Get More Vitamin D

sunshine and pines Here's the funny thing about that happy-making nutrient called Vitamin D: It's both a vitamin and a hormone your body produces when exposed to sunlight. That's a pretty rad dual status to have, but it also means that when it's too snowy and cold to bike to work or sunbathe, humans must turn to eating their Vitamin D. Of course, few foods are rich in the stuff, which is why lots of breakfast cereals say "Fortified!" on the box. D's a slippery little vitamin to catch. And the negative effects of a Vitamin D deficiency on the heart, bone health, and more are being studied all the time (gory details here).

So how are adult people supposed to scrounge up the recommended 600 IU (International Units) of Vitamin D a day? A united front of several tactics is probably best, from making the effort to stroll outside for 10 minutes every few days to swallowing supplements. But let's talk about the edible tactics right now, because that's the most fun.

Happily, the foods that do naturally contain Vitamin D are the best foods. They're rich in fat and totally classy, giving you a great excuse to dab your mouth with linen napkins instead of paper towels for an evening. Check it out:

Oily Fishes Salmon, sardines, tuna, and herring (pickled herring)! These fatty fishes are the biggest D hitters around, sometimes wielding over 90 percent of the recommended daily dosage for adults. Grab a salmon filet at Coastal Seafoods, a tin of lovely Ortiz Spanish sardines harvested off the coast of Galicia, or some melty line-caught white tuna (you'll never go back to StarKist, promise) from our shop.

Japanese Food Because Japanese cuisine is the master at combining ultra-savory individual ingredients, three of which happen to be fat with Vitamin D: caviar, tofu, and mushrooms. Get your deficient butt to Kyatchi or Origami in Minneapolis and tuck into some salmon roe, deep-fried tofu, or a bowl of hot udon noodles with mushrooms. Maitake mushrooms alone will hand you 131 percent of your daily D, and those succulent beads of caviar will provide you with 20 percent. They also pop in your mouth like salty Gushers, so that's a bonus.

Cheese and Butter And of course, a Vitamin D deficiency is an excellent opportunity for a fondue of melty Alpine-style cheeses like Comté, Appenzeller, and Gruyère. Or, it's a reason to add a little extra Cravero Parmigiano-Reggiano and another pat of butter to morning eggs (also great for Vitamin D!). OR, an excuse to have all of your friends over for a giant, sprawling cheese tasting with lots of wine (which is apparently good for the heart) and mischief.

Happy Supplementing, buddies.