It’s been a rocky few days in the kitchen of House Morell. Lots of sub-freezing temps and snow days and ice days. Frozen pipes (no water for days), then burst pipes (water, water everywhere), then no water again (until my hero the plumber arrived upon the scene). One of the kids had a nasty stomach bug (never fun). Finally the dishwasher died (Really? it’s only six months old!)
As my kids like to say: “First World Problems.” (You have to love kids who keep it real).
So… I haven’t cooked much. We threw in the towel and resorted to ordering food in during the many water-less days and nights.
While slurping pad thai from a take-out box one evening, I curled up with a little pile of new cookbooks, dreaming of warmer days and a fully-functional kitchen.
While wandering about Chicago last month, I found myself in Hyde Park’s cozy underground wonder 57th Street Books. There I discovered Amy Thielen’s The New Midwestern Table. I’ve been lost in this book for days. (Amy, where have you been all my life?) I consider myself to be a Midwestern gal. I grew up in Michigan (spending years dressed up as Laura Ingalls in a calico dress and bonnet dreaming I was a pioneer), and four years in Wisconsin, yet realized I knew very little about the rich traditions of Midwestern Cooking. Amy has helped me out, not only with fascinating, drool-worthy recipes, but deeply informative background stories on each recipe, and gorgeous photography – not only of the food, but of the place she calls home. The “traditional” midwestern foods she features have a real sense of the farming traditions of today, and hints of influences from the pioneering days of the Germans, Slavs, Swedes, French, and Italians.
I have a long-standing rule that I have to want to try at least ten recipes from a cookbook before I bring it home. In this book, I want to try dozens. Tagged with sticky notes are Nebraskan Runzas (meat pies), Rosemary-Infused Brown Butter Chicken Breasts, Fire and Iceberg Salad, Cracker-Crust Pizza, Maple Tart Au Sucre, Poppy-Seed Streusel Bars… and the “projects!” and the pies… oh my.
But limping along in my little frozen kitchen, all I could manage this week was this extraordinary little jar of port and walnut covered cheddar cheese. Remember the old-fashioned cheese balls from your childhood served with Ritz crackers? Well, ladies and gentleman, let me introduce it’s hip new grandchild. This version has sharp tangy cheddar, a warm reduction of port, and lovely toasted walnuts… popped in a little glass jar. It’s utterly addictive. Like I was eating leftover cheese smothered with port for breakfast. (Don’t judge. I read somewhere that protein is the perfect way to start a day.)
This is tweaked ever so slightly from Amy’s Old-Fashioned Pounded Cheese with Walnuts and Port Syrup. I tried this a couple of times in the food processor, which is recommended, and it just didn’t work for me, so I popped the cheese and butter mixture into the bowl of a standing mixer and blended it there. Then I spooned it into one of those groovy glass Weck jars… and when I poured the still-warm port sauce over the top, it pooled down into the nooks and crannies and looked quite fab. A handful of toasted walnuts topped it off, and I served it with my cracker crush, Mary’s Gone Crackers. (yum!)
I understand Spring is coming. Someday. Right after the ice/sleet/snow combo forecast for this afternoon… and the six inches of snow forecast for the day after tomorrow… Somehow feels quite Midwestern…
Cheddar, Port Wine and Walnut Dip
Adapted, just barely, from Old-Fashioned Pounded Cheese from The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen
- ½ cup port wine
- 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
- 7 ounces aged cheddar cheese (3 years old or more), at room temperature
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) salted butter, cool but not cold
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- ⅓ cup walnut pieces, toasted
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the walnuts on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, and toast for 10 minutes or so, until golden and fragrant.
- To make the port syrup, combine the port and brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Simmer gently until reduced to a light syrup (it will start to throw bigger bubbles and should be the consistency of maple syrup), about 3 minutes. Let cool slightly.
- Break the cheddar cheese into chunks and drop them into the bowl of a standing mixture with the paddle attachment. Add the butter, mustard, black pepper, and cayenne and beat until well combined and smooth.
- Spoon the cheese mixture into a small glass jar or bowl (I used a 12.5-ounce Weck jar) Spoon the slightly warm port syrup over the mixture letting it ooze into the nooks and crannies of the cheese. Sprinkle the toasted walnut piece on top, and serve with crackers.
Note: The pounded cheese can be made a few hours ahead and kept at room temperature. Or it can be made the day before and kept in the refrigerator; just be sure to bring it back to room temperature before garnishing with the port syrup and nuts.