Ever since F&W Best New Chef 1995 Terrance Brennan met his first runny, robust Époisses in the early 1980s, while on vacation in France, he has dedicated himself to promoting—and cooking with—exquisite small-batch cheeses. His New York City restaurants Picholine and Artisanal Fromagerie, Bistro & Wine Bar are famous for their vast cheese selections. Next year, Brennan will open a second Artisanal Bistro in Chicago and is planning Artisanal Tables for Chicago, Boston and New York—casual wine bars where he’ll display cheeses like porterhouses at a steak house, for diners to select for their cheese plates.
It’s pretty easy to serve good artisanal cheeses on a plate: Whether fresh or aged, semifirm or semisoft, they’re delicious on their own. Cooking with them can prove a little more challenging. As Brennan shows in the following three recipes, it’s a question of choosing the right heat for the right cheese.
Brennan has seen how fresh cheeses such as ricotta and mascarpone can curdle if they get too hot, so for a dish of pasta cooked risotto-style with goat cheese and tomato confit, the chef allows the gentle warmth of the pasta to liquefy the cheese. “I like using fresh cheeses in place of butter to finish my risottos,” he says. “They’re lighter and have a great tang.”
When cooking with rich, washed-rind and soft-ripened cheeses like Taleggio and Saint-André, Brennan also takes care not to overheat them, which can make them oily. For his individual puff-pastry “pizzas,” he bakes slices of the buttery cow’s-milk cheese Reblochon in a hot oven for 10 minutes, just until they turn lusciously gooey, the perfect topping along with crisp bacon, starchy potato slices and sweet caramelized onions.
Brennan particularly loves to cook with hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino and aged Gouda, not only because their salty flavors help season food but also because high heat makes them deliciously crisp. Brennan grates a four-year-old aged Gouda into his dough to create addictively crunchy biscotti laced with just the right amount of salt.
Some might think a four-year-old Gouda is too elegant to cook with, but Brennan disagrees. “You want to use cheese at its best,” he says. “You don’t want to cook with bad cheese.”