Oh, Empanadas!

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“Hey, check this out! Alton Brown is in Hawthorne at some Argentinian deli,” Adam called from across the room while flipping channels on the television.

“Grab the car keys!” I replied.

I don’t really need an excuse to drop what I’m doing and head out in search of food. If anything, I need a reason to stay put and not over indulge. But what fun is that, I ask? So with directions in hand and an empty stomach we headed to the city of Hawthorne, just a few miles southeast of LAX. While not the most glamorous part of Los Angeles, Hawthorne and its neighboring cities are filled with small ethnic restaurants serving everything from Peruvian and Salvadorian to Japanese and Eastern European cuisine.

Like most things in Hawthorne and the surrounding neighborhoods, one must hunt to find what they are looking for.  No big parking lots and no flashy signs, just row after row of smog checks, store fronts and courtyard apartment buildings and residential homes lovingly decorated with security gates and iron bars. After checking the street numbers we found Continental Market, located right next to a laundrymat. From the street you’d never know it was a deli and bakery – it appears to be your garden variety Latin grocery store. And even once inside you must navigate through the rows and rows of Latin staples and chips and candy to find the deli counter, but once there, nirvana.

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Continental Market offers sliced cheeses and deli meats, just like any other local deli. But perched on top of the counter in a small hot case was our jackpot – Argentine empanadas. Well worth the hunt, they were just as exquisite as anything I tasted in Argentina (minus the high tops unfortunately–see photo). Heaven happens when you take savory fillings like spinach, spicy beef or flavorful stewed chicken and wrap it in pastry dough. And for 99¢ you taste a variety of these perfect little snacks.

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Adam discovered one of his favorites on the menu – Milanesa. In this case it took the form of a milanesa sandwich, a breaded and fried thin cut of meat that is traditionally served on bread with cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Again, delicious. But my draw dropped and a tear ran down my cheek when I spotted the stacks of one of my favorite things on earth, sandwiches de migas. A sandwich de miga is a very basic Argentine sandwich with basic fillings like ham and cheese, egg, roasted red pepper and butter, the possibilities are endless. The sandwiches feature a crustless edge on white bread–just like a tea sandwich but a bit larger. To me they are the perfect sandwich and I can never turn one down. And when I say I can never turn one down, I found myself eating them last year in Argentina whenever I passed by a bakery. Even if I just crossed the street from another bakery. I’ll never let a good thing pass me by.

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If you find yourself in Hawthorne and in desperate need of an empanada (even if they do not dance), do stop by Continental. Ciao!

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Continental Gourmet Market
12921 Prairie Avenue
Hawthorne, CA 90250
310-676-5444

A Treasured Discovery

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A few years ago I moved into the home of my partner’s grandmother after she passed away. It was decided that the home would remain in the family so in 2004 we happily moved in. Built in 1952, the house is quintessential California 1950s, through and through. It’s also been home to only one family and is where my mother-in-law was raised. Sentimental value and memories are tucked into every nook and cranny in this house, and I love it. Adam’s grandmother Patricia lived through the depression, and like many people her age, she saved every last bit of anything she ever had. This made renovation and clean up a challenge, but it also revealed tons about a family that lived in one home for over 50 years. There were plates and dishes from the 50’s, fondue sets and artwork from the late 60’s, furniture and pottery from the 70’s and masks, paintings, artifacts and shells from all over the tropics where they traveled,  Not much seemed to change after 1978, prompting me to call this home “the house that time forgot.”

But I’m certainly not complaining. I live for the styles of the 1950s through early 1970s, and certain pieces of furniture here in the house make me drool. Having moved in with furniture from the 50s myself, I was happy to have found a small bit of decorating harmony.

Perhaps some of the most interesting things Grandma Pat left were recipes. She was never an avid cook, but the few things she did she did well. I found her handwritten recipe for orange cookies in a drawer, and we regularly bake them using oranges from her backyard. These cookies are so incredibly delicious and unique, and I’m sure to share the recipe here when citrus season arrives.

Just recently I discovered a small wooden box hidden in the back of a closet. I thought I had already gone through the last bits of hat boxes, old shoes and bon voyage cards from cruises past, but somehow this box escaped me. Opening it up I discovered small index cards separated by categories, and after rubbing my eyes I discovered they were all recipes.

Hallelujah!

It turns out my discovery is a 100-year old recipe box, assembled and printed in 1906 in Rochester, New York. For those of you reading from Asia and Europe, you may scoff at the idea of 100 years being old and I certainly would too, but here in the relatively new United States this is considered ancient! Especially in our disposable, toss-after-use culture. It’s sad but certainly true.

The box is filled with pristine cards of recipes broken into the standard categories of fish, eggs, breads, canning and beverages. There are the favorites of the day like pimiento salad and mint lemonade as well as Lobster a la Newburg and Sour Milk Gingerbread.  In fact, there are tons of recipes that I can’t wait to try, and not only will I satisfy my appetite but also give myself a small history lesson in what was considered good eating during the turn of the century. If it’s the small things in life that count then this newly discovered wooden box is certainly full of living. I’m so very happy I found it.

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In the next few weeks I’ll be testing and creating recipes from “The Brown Box”.  I’ll post them and see how they turn out. Which makes me ask: will people be blogging about a Rachel Ray cookbook in 100 years?  I shudder to think.

Weekend Bites

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Food Politics, no thank you: I’m choosing not to blog about my personal views of foie gras, it’s a tired food debate that I’ve become exhausted with. I mean really exhausted with. But I do have a serious question: can foie gras be made from the liver of the animal that has not undergone the process of gavage? No one is banning the sale of eating fowl, and liver is liver, is it not? Sure, perhaps it wouldn’t yield as much and we’d pay 12 times as much for it, but the question has been floating around my brain for some time.

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Early Fall:  May the Man upstairs strike me down for saying this, but I am actually ready for Summer to pack her bag of warmth and sunlight and make way for Lady Fall. I can’t wait for slightly cooler weather, the long yellow rays of autumn light, tours of apple orchards, and things like pumpkins, pears and roasted root vegetables.

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5 Days of Hay: Today concludes our 5th day of dinners crafted from the cookbooks of Donna Hay.  Of course I read her religiously and drool over Con Poulos’ photography work, but I must confess that for years I have actually never made a single one of her recipes. Consider this catching up.   The verdict? While not for the kitchen beginner, I’m adoring her ability to create tasty, relatively simple recipes featuring only a handful of fresh ingredients, dishes that aren’t mired down by a million how-to’s and procedures.

Donna Hay, I think I love you…

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Good Lord I REALLY need to go on a diet: Lara has posted a fantastic entry about the few days we spent together on the set of a holiday shoot last week. I was way more excited to meet her than I could have expressed, and I cannot wait for her to come back down so that I can interview her for mattbites. While she was here she captured some beautiful images, too, full of the simplicity and clarity that lets the food speak for itself. She is so extremely talented. You can read about our day here, but please, go easy on the short balding man with the belly. He’s really nice, I swear.

Groans On Third

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Dear Anonymous Gourmet Marketplace in West Los Angeles,

Hi. I hope this letter finds you and your store well.

I’m writing to let you know that I really like your deli. I mean I really, really enjoy it. Your interior reminds me of something in Europe, your prepared foods are delicious, your cheese selection is rather nice for being such a small location, and your bakery is pretty tasty. In fact, it’s tasty enough for me to drive up from Long Beach to sample your cupcakes, which were rated “Best In LA” by a local publication.

I must admit that they are delicious. We actually bought quite a few so that we could taste all your varieties.

However, I do think they may be even better if you remember to remove all sharp, small wooden objects from your cupcakes that could lodge themselves into a patron’s gums. Blood and chocolate, while I’m sure may satisfy a gourmand vampire’s desire, really don’t mix too well in my mouth.

Hey, I’m in the food business. I know how these things can happen. And I’ll definitely visit you again.

But still.

Ouch.

In the meantime I’m sticking with Sprinkles for all my cupcake needs. They have yet to cause me oral injury.

Sincerely,

Matt

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5 Things To Eat

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I must ask for your forgiveness before I proceed. Lest I sound like a broken record, I have been tagged for a meme from the one and only Melissa of Traveler’s Lunchbox. I’m not asking you to forgive me for participating in a meme (I’m quite fond of them myself), but just for tolerance and acceptance while I rattle on about the brilliance of Melissa.

I love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love her and her blog.

Ok, I may proceed now.

It’s her first meme, and such a brilliant idea (but c’mon now, did we expect anything less from her I ask?) This time around she asks 5 bloggers to list five things they would recommend to others to try at least once in their lives. Titled “Things To Eat Before You Die”, the meme is also known as “The Foodblogger’s Guide to the Globe” and will no doubt yield some unique and savory results. Ladies and gentleman, I now give you Matt’s Five Things To Eat Before You Die:


1. Texas Barbeque from any reputable place in the Hill Country

I learned at an early age to abstain from group conversation about religion, politics, and barbeque preference. I will never participate in the big giant barbeque debate on which state has the best, but then again I don’t have to–everyone knows it’s Texas! I mean really…

Beef ribs, pork ribs, sausages, hot links, sliced white bread on butcher paper, dirty sticky fingers, rings of sliced white onions, Dr. Pepper, brisket, barbequed chicken, I need say not a word more.

2. Chicken Fried Steak

I’m certainly paying homage to my home state with my list, but if you’ve ever had true authentic Chicken Fried Steak you know what I’m talking about. Chicken Fried Steak isn’t chicken at all, but generally a less-that-stellar cut of chuck or round steak that is pounded thin, seasoned and breaded, and fried just like chicken. Chicken Fried Steak is believed to have come from German immigrants to Texas during the 19th century as it is very similar to schnitzel. It’s almost usually served with mashed potatoes and gravy and has been known to cause me to either 1) scream for more 2) faint from happiness and 3) avoid my doctor when it’s time for a physical.

3. Barbacoa

Spanish for the word “barbecue”, barbacoa has a very specific meaning in Texas and parts of Mexico. And if you’ll excuse the grisly image I’ve photographed below, I will tell you that some of the most delicious, mouth-watering tacos ever consumed by man come from Texas–and they come from the head of a cow.

I’ll wait right here while you turn away in disgust or write me hate mail.

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All done?

Barbacoa involves a very slow roast, either in an oven or traditionally in the ground. Once cooked the meat is scraped off the head and seasoned, wrapped in a fluffy flour tortilla and enjoyed on Sunday mornings. I’ve introduced these tacos to dozens of friends with always the same statements: “those have to be the best tasting tacos I have ever eaten in my entire life.”  And it’s true. Barbacoa does not taste like strange organ meet, but some of the most deliciously savory, fatty beef you could ever put in your mouth.

Once you get over the shock.


4. Dry Jack Cheese

The story goes that Italian immigrants brought their cheese-making ways (thank GOD!) to California, but were diverted in the cheesemaking process by the war. Regular Monterey Jack cheese went into storage and inadvertently came out hard and aged. The result is Dry Jack cheese, one of the most heavenly pieces of food you could ever dream of putting into your mouth. Grassy, nutty and full of flavor, the wheels of Dry Jack are rubbed with oil and cocoa and it’s the only cheese I can think of that has the cajones to compare to a true Parmigiano Reggiano.

Today we have Ig Vella to thank for his Dry Jack. When I say I want to be buried with a wedge of his cheese I mean it.

5. Bugey Cerdon

If I offered you a small glass of happiness would you drink it? That’s about the best way to describe drinking Vin de Bugey Cerdon, a sparkling rosé from the area of Cerdon. This gorgeous pink sparkling wine is lower in alcohol with a wonderful acidity that makes it enjoyable with just about anything, but it never seems to last long enough around me and my partner, even when we give it as a gift. It’s refreshing, not too sweet and not too dry, but it’s the color that literally makes me smile. To say it’s the perfect summer sip would be a major understatement, and if you ever see it on the market then by all means pick up a bottle. Or twelve.

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And now I pass on the meme to some new and old friends. I can’t wait to read their selections.

1. My lovely fellow Texan Melissa at A Variety of Fine Pickles
2. David Lebovitz at, um, davidlebovitz.com
3. The One And Only Acme Instant Food
4. Lara at Cookbook 411
5. Mae at Rice And Noodles

When Seasons Collide

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Last week I had the pleasure of running around with Lara of Cookbook411.com  and my dear friend Beth Fortune at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. It was a last-minute attempt to locate something, anything, that would resemble fall produce for a photo shoot. I’ve heard from farmers and growers that this wacky weather and the massive California heatwave has caused Mother Nature to shift a few things around, with some things coming in very late or not really coming in at all.

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But it’s nature, and we take what she gives us. But last Wednesday, what she gave us made us marvel and swoon and I doubt I’ll experience anything like it again.

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Being August there were tons of summer goodies, from heirlooms to beans to plums and peaches. But what caught us off guard were the abundance of autumn fruits and vegetables that have slowly trickled in and occupied the same market and the summer bounty. Winter squash, citrus, some corn, pears and apples. It was as if the seasons called each other and decided to have a party, each asking the other to bring the best of harvest just so us little humans could swoon and marvel in awe.

Of course, the one thing I wanted to have but knew I’d never find right now, no matter how abundant the market was, were pomegranates.

But alas, my prayers had been answered. First of the season pomegranates.

Because they were for photos I was happy to grab what I could, and admittedly they weren’t the large crimson beauties that are available in January. But who was I to complain?  A bit on the smaller side, they still yielded enough sweet pink juice to indulge myself in a few Pomegranate Martinis. Of course, this was after work, naturally. Hehe.

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Lara commented on the bounty of local produce available here in California, and if I ever needed another reason to be lucky enough to live here that surely was it.

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I’m sure you already know this, but that Lara is a wiz at everything she does. I had the best time visiting with her and can undoubtably say that what she is doing for photography and blogs through her site Still Life With is the best resource I’ve ever seen. Hands down. Make sure to check it out.

Truffle Madness

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To say that truffles are an acquired taste for me would be an understatement; I can’t ever think of a moment when these heady gems crossed our family table growing up. Truffles and Tex Mex don’t normally hang out together, you know. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I had my first taste of the powerful fungus, and if you’ll allow me to be dramatic for just one second, it literally knocked me off my feet.

Much has been said about the beauty and rarity of truffles, so I’ll go ahead and leave the praise and culinary history to the professionals. By now you probably already know they are fungi and that they are harvested by dogs and pigs in Italy, France and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. You probably already know that they can fill a room with their aroma, but did you know that I know a Fed Ex driver who curses and swears each time he makes a white truffle delivery? Hey, I could think of worse smells for the inside of a delivery truck, can’t you?

I eased myself into the flavor of truffles by going slow and easy. Any time I’d see it listed on a menu as an ingredient I’d order it, and over time I stocked my pantry with artisan truffle oils, both black and white, as well as truffle salt. But the real blessing (or challenge or curse, however you feel about them) was the first time I had to photgraph them, which meant I’d have a few to experiment and indulge my new love.

And experiment I did! Because I actually had fresh truffles in my grubby little hands I took the advice of a chef friend and cooked them as little as possible, adding them shaved with fluffy scrambled eggs, on top of fresh angel hair pasta, and added last minute to creamy mushroom soup. I even made truffled French fries, adding a sprinkling of truffle oil as they cooled and topping with shaved truffle bits and sea salt. Heaven! But perhaps my favorite way of using them was in risotto; starchy Italian arborio rice is a natural with truffles and even seemed to satisfy the palate of my non-truffle-lovin’ boyfriend.

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All good things must come to and end I know–but I still had truffles left! Knowing that they won’t last forever, I decided on an easy and quick way to store them for future use by adding them to butter. This way I’d always be able to satisfy my taste for truffles (and butter!) by adding a pat to vegetables, steaks, grilled corn on the cob, an omelette or soups and risottos. Of course nothing can ever compare to the fresh flavor of a thinly sliced truffle added to your food, but I think truffles resting in butter will be pretty damn close.

It’s like deja vu all over again: bits and pieces of this post have previously appeared at the old mattbites site.

Nervous Breakdown, Exit Next Left

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I’ve had some pretty funny food experiences in my life. I’ve had soufflés fall, burned my share of meals, and participated in my share of kitchen disasters.

Nothing compares to this one.

Smack dab in the middle of production for a holiday campaign, I’ve been feverishly working with my crew to get as much done in the past week.  Food stylists have prepared turkeys, set stylists have painted and dressed fake rooms, and food makers from all over have generously made sure their product made it to me in time. We’ve had caviar and truffles fed ex’ed in time for photos and scoured farmers’ markets looking for winter gourds in the middle of August. So far so good.

On the third day of shooting I went to the fridge to inspect a few dense balls of black truffles that arrived from Italy. I couldn’t wait to see and smell them in all their glory and to delicately rest them next to the Italian truffle shaver my stylist purchased. The set was ready and the light was good.

But no truffles.

That’s funny, I thought to myself, I know I put them on the top shelf of this fridge. But I must be mistaken. No big deal, this studio has three large refrigerators.

But no truffles in Fridge #2.

And again, missing from Fridge #3.

Ah, no worries. I’ll just look again. Things have a funny way of moving around when you’re shooting food on a big busy set. I rounded up my co-workers and very “colorfully” asked if they could stop what they were doing to help me locate the expensive fungi.

And still nothing.

In less than it takes to say “tartufo”, I felt my blood rising and my chest pounding, only to have it followed with beads of sweat that formed along my brow. My palms melted, my legs wobbled. I felt uneasy. How on earth could these pricey beauties turn up missing? How how how? We looked everywhere – cabinets, trash bins, veggie crispers, pockets, bags and shelves. Since they were so fresh and pungent, I became concerned when my sensitive nose was not led in any particular direction.

And then I feared the worst.

Someone, and I still don’t know who, decided to clean out the fridge the day before. My precious cargo most likely got dumped during the clean up, and that made me a very sad and angry boy.  But like a well-oiled machine, everyone worked together and ran outside and jumped into the dumpster. We took a few bags each, wading through putrid food and filth just hoping to find the missing truffles. I was up to my elbows in rotten gravy and goose carcass. And as luck would have it, as one of us went through the last bag, there they were.

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Safe, sound, whole.  My babies were found! My blood pressure instantly returned back to normal, the foam around my mouth subsided and the horns and claws retracted. Once again I was a very happy art director and photographer, even if I was covered in nasty sticky food goo.

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Somewhere there’s a lesson to be found here, although I haven’t quite figured it out. I suppose it would have something to do with a thousand bucks worth of truffles being thrown in a dumpster before you had the chance to photograph or eat them, or maybe it’s about never cleaning your fridge in the first place. Whatever it is I know I can breathe a huge sigh of relief now and dream of all the things I’m going to do with black truffles in the next few days.

I better not throw out the trash.

Catalogue

Cheese, Please

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The perils of growing older usually involve strange aches and pains, a lack of interest in staying out all night and the desire to just slow things down a bit. However, the pleasures of getting old involve securing a full night’s rest, a certain level of wisdom (yea, right!) and parties that don’t involve keggers, jello shots and hip Hollywood clubs at 4am.

One of my best friends has just turned thirty-something and decided on a rather mature and refined birthday gathering: the Sunday brunch party.

Oh, how I love Sunday brunch. No, I mean, really, I love it. Like I get all excited over it. The glory of a Sunday brunch allows you to sleep in, relax, meet with friends, eat and drink and still be home in time for a nap and dinner. What’s not to love about that? And besides, my biggest gripe with the eating habits of us Americans is that we never really get together long enough to enjoy a long, slow meal. Brunch is the only meal that implies relaxation, and that suits me just fine. It also means there will be champagne involved. God bless the brunch.

The birthday brunch would be a collaborative effort. Knowing my enthusiastic love of cheese, the birthday girl asked if I wouldn’t mind bringing a cheese tray to brunch since she knows my world tends to revolve around cheese. Of course I’d do anything for her, so I gladly accepted. Besides, she’s a lover of all things delicious and she introduced me to her mom’s Cookie Salad, but more on that some other time.

Cheese seems to mystify and confuse people. I hear from friends and family that there are just too many cheeses out there to know which ones to pick. And this leads to a lack of exploration of cheeses. People stick to the yellow stuff and never venture beyond it. You see this tear? I’m crying. It honestly makes me sad.

But don’t be intimidated. It’s easy to explore the world of cheeses.

For most occasions, a selection of 3 to 5 cheeses is sufficient enough to please most guests. Cheese pairing is quite simple–you choose the cheeses you like the most. A great way to select cheeses is to choose contrasting tastes and textures; balance the sweet with the pungent, the firm with the creamy. You may also select cheese from different milk categories, starting with a goat’s milk cheese then moving on to cow’s or sheep’s milk. When it comes time to taste, remember to start with the lightest or mildest cheese first before moving onto your stronger, more robust cheeses.

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If you can’t decide whether to serve bread or crackers along with your cheeses, remember that both are fine and it’s simply a matter of taste. In fact, the differences in texture will enhance the diversity of your cheeses.

And don’t forget fresh fruit, which compliments cheeses well. A selection of ripe fresh fruit such as apples pears, grapes and figs pair beautifully with all sorts of cheeses.

And although it might sound kind of geeky, small tags or a listing of cheeses being tasted always helps out.  I find that people are willing to try new cheeses if they know what they are eating.  A list could include the country of origin, the type of milk, whether it’s a young cheese or if it’s been aged a few years.

I’m happy to report that the brunch was a smashing success– I’m sure the bloody mary bar had something to do with it! The cheese tray was a hit as well, and I take great satisfaction in being able to introduce old friends and new acquaintances to some of my favorite foods on earth.

Here’s a toast to cheese, to my friend Dana, and to getting old. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

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Some cheese bits…

Preparation: Unwrap your cheeses and arrange on the serving platter of your choice at least one hour before guests arrive. This gives your cheeses time to reach room temperature and show their true taste. Some cheeses, like those made from goat’s milk, may require a little extra time.

Timing:  For super soft cheeses such as brie, allow plenty of time to make it runny, but never microwave it. Runny is good! And remember, as freaky as they look, most rinds are actually edible.

Order: Start with the mildest cheeses before moving on to those that pack a flavorful punch. Cheeses such as stiltons and roqueforts overpower many of their delicate, younger counterparts.

Ask! Never be afraid to ask your cheesemonger or sales clerk for a recommendation. I’ve found that people are passionate about cheese and always willing to offer suggestions and tips.

Coming up soon: A few of my favorite cheeses and why I’ll never grow weary of them.