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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 2, 2001

To get smiles at mealtimes just say cheese

By Karen Fernau
Arizona Republic

A soup made with apples and cheddar cheese is often served with crusty bread.

Gannett News Service

Cookbook author Laura Werner was a child when she fell hard for cheese. One bite into a slice of American in a bologna sandwich and she never looked back.

Werner is far from alone in her passion.

From feta to colby, cheese is showing up in record amounts in U.S. refrigerators. In the first six months of 2000, U.S. cheese consumption increased 6 percent, an upward trend experts predict will continue. Today's average American eats 30.3 pounds of cheese a year, an increase from 24.5 pounds of cheese in 1990, according to the American Dairy Association.

It's no coincidence the minirevolution in cheese parallels a boom in U.S. artisan cheesemaking. Ten years ago, artisan cheesemakers were almost non-existent. Today there are more than 200 artisan farms distributing cheeses such as fromage blanc, crescenza and fontina to stores nationwide.

Along with the multiplying selection, Americans are realizing what the French have long known: Cheese cooks as well as it slices. Cheese can be a satisfying and nutritious main ingredient in many entrÚes.

Throw away the box of macaroni and cheese and make it from scratch with white cheddar and Swiss-style gruyere cheese, such as Roth Kase. Toss a salad and dinner's ready.

Cheese enchiladas dressed in a lime-tomatillo sauce are good enough for company. Apples and cheddar pair well for a fragrant bowl of warm soup. To satisfy a craving for Italian, top a mushroom tortellini with a fontina cheese sauce.

"Cheese doesn't have to be something you eat before or after meals. It can be the meal," says Werner, author of "The New American Cheese," a cookbook that profiles artisan cheesemakers from New York to California.

"Even though cheese goes well with meat, like veal parmesan, it really stands well alone. I think that mixing cheese with meat is protein overload."

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Cheese, discovered 4,000 years ago by an Arabian merchant, has become the darling of nutritionists. Health experts, worried about the nation's documented decline in calcium intake and the 28 million Americans who suffer from bone-crippling osteoporosis, are promoting cheese as a calcium boost. Even though the National Academy of Sciences now recommends 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, more than 75 percent of U.S. women, most at risk for brittle bones, get fewer than 800 milligrams.

"Cheese can go a long way in helping meet the calcium requirements. The fact it tastes so good is just a bonus," says Kaye Lunsford, communications director for the Dairy Council of Arizona.

One ounce of cheese, or one slice, provides as much as 20 to 25 percent of the recommended daily calcium intake. In addition, research has identified certain types of cheese, such as cheddar and mozzarella, that might help prevent tooth decay.

The downside is that cheese can be loaded with fat, calories and salt.

"You should not eat cheese with abandon, but in reasonable amounts," says Werner, a former television news producer in San Francisco.

Cooking with cheese isn't as easy as slicing cheese for a sandwich or snack, but it's far from complicated. The most important tip is to turn down the heat. Most cheeses respond best to low and medium temperatures. Cook only long enough to melt the cheese and blend it with the other ingredients.

High heat and extended cooking times lead to stringy and tough cheese.

To help accelerate the blending, shred, grate or cut cheese into small pieces before using for cooking. One of the easiest ways to shred cheese is with one of the fastest-selling kitchen gadgets. Called the Microplane, this $10.95 gadget swiftly grates cheeses into fine, fluffy specks that melt evenly and quickly.

Bake casseroles containing cheese at 350 degrees to prevent overcooking. When broiling a cheese-topped dish, keep cheese four to five inches from the heat and add at the end of baking or broiling. The same applies when adding cheese for sauces.

Although you can use manufacturers' reduced-fat cheeses in casseroles, they tend not to melt as well as fuller fat cheeses. So add a few shreds of mozzarella.

If you have never tried cooking with cheese, begin with simple recipes and cheeses you like. The next stage is to begin experimenting with the artisan cheeses, especially those from California, that are readily available in specialty or gourmet food stores.