On Cheese


*Originally published March 2011. If you are just joining me from Heritage Radio Network, welcome aboard! Click the link to Facebook & Twitter up top and I’ll sporadically keep in touch.

I do my best work in the first hours of the day. So depending on when I get up (I am writing this at 7:15am) that usually means that I am looking for a break right around when The View starts at 11am. I met Barbara Walters once and she immediately became my hero and I like having a daily shot of her chutzpah in the arm. I also love Whoopi Goldberg’s face.

The other day I tuned in and a certain “celebrity” chef from a particular food-focused network was teaching Sherri how to healthy-up her lasagna. This included replacing white flour lasagna noodles with whole wheat ones (fine) replacing the ground meat with seared salmon (um…) and the ricotta cheese with no-fat cottage cheese. Other major changes were made, too (omission of tomato sauce, addition of raw baby spinach leaves and awfully out of season tomatoes decorating the top) leaving in its wake a messy pile of food that all would be lovely as individual elements (salmon on a bed of spinach and whole wheat orzo, anyone?)  but being forced into this shell of “lasagna” left nothing that any Roman would recognize. In my time in Italy, I never once saw salmon on any menu, as salmon don’t frequent the Mediterranean Sea and the Italians are generally pretty serious about their eating local thing.

But, let’s talk cheese substitution. Sherri asked the person preparing the dish why they would sub cottage cheese for ricotta. A brief pause betrayed a moment of “I have no idea. QUICK! Make something up!!” And the reply? To millions of ladies trying to slim down?

“Its better for you.”

Really? This guy has a show? I’ve been caught in those moments in front of a class and feel everyone waiting for an answer to a question that I obviously don’t know and I tell the truth. It sucks to be unlike Watson, to not know everything at every moment, but the gracious & human thing to do is say “I don’t know.”

If you are making a statement with your cheese substitution, make sure your people have briefed you on a plausible explanation.

I decided to do a bit of research. I went to the grocery store and I picked up a container each of Fat Free Cottage Cheese and Fat Free Ricotta. Let’s assume brands don’t matter. First, nutrition label fact comparison:

Serving size 1/2 cup

Fat Free Cottage Cheese
Calories: 80
Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 5g
Sodium 420mg
Potassium: 190mg
Fiber: 0g
Sugar: 5g
Protein: 13g
Vitamin A: 4%
Vitamin C: 2%
Calcium: 10%
Iron: 0%

Fat Free Ricotta Cheese
Calories: 100
Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: <10g
Sodium: 160mg
Potassium: 0g
Fiber: 0g
Sugar: 4g
Protein: 20g
Vitamin A: 16%
Vitamin C: 0%
Calcium: 50%
Iron: 0%

Healthier? REALLY?!?

Ok, to be fair, ricotta has 20 more calories. But, if you cut out a 100 calorie packet of Ho-Ho’s, you’ll make up for it and then some. The FDA just recommended we all get our sodium levels down to 1,500mg total a day. You’ve eaten about a a third of that with your “healthy option” cottage cheese. However, it won’t keep you as full as ricotta, as it has only a little more than half the protein, which is the thing that makes you feel full.

Finally: Calcium. Ladies, prone to breaking bones, so says Sally Field, are recommended to take calcium supplements or injections which may actually cause “unusual thigh bone fractures!!!”

Or, you could get some in their IN YOUR FOOD. The way god intended.

Ok, on to ingredients labels. Why, pray tell, is there Vitamin C in your cottage cheese? Because citric acid is an ingredient, an add in, an afterthought. Why? Can’t be for health reasons, or “Now with Vitamin C!” would be emblazon across the label a la the new Trident gum packaging.

Want some absent-minded Vitamin C? Have a blood orange margarita. That will get you about 130% of your recommended daily value.

Cottage Cheese Ingredients:
Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Skim Milk, Cream*, Nonfat milk, Salt, Whey, Maltodextrin, Artificial Color**, Guar Gum, Citric Acid, Carrageenan, Mono and Diglycerides*, Locust Bean Gum, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Vitamin A Palmitate, Potassium Sorbate and Carbon Dioxide Added to Protect Freshness, Enzyme.

*Adds a negligible amount of fat. (Isn’t this the thing that people who are buying this product are trying to avoid?)
**An ingredient not normally found in cottage cheese. (But guar gum and artificial flavors came straight from the cow?)

Ricotta Ingredients:
Pasteurized Skim Milk, Vinegar, Salt, Carrrageenan, Xanthan Gum, Vitamin A Palmitate

In both cases, gums are added to replace the creamy texture lost during fat removal and Vitamin A palmitate, derived from palm oil, replaces the Vitamin A lost in the same process.

Carrageennan has been safely derived from seaweed for hundreds of years. In the ricotta, that leaves xanthan gum, which is created by fermenting glucose, lactose or sucrose and precipitating out the polysaccharide (we all made these in high school chemistry) and used as a thickener and stabilizer in food and cosmetics.

In the cottage cheese, well that leaves everything else on that list. Locust bean gum is derived from the carob tree. Fine. Maltodexterin is derived from corn and used as a sucrose (read: sugar) substitute in “natural” sodas and candy.

Please note: there is nothing natural about soda, which I love, but it ain’t natural. Want nature’s candy? Eat a mango.

Mono and diglycerides? Chemical stabilizers that are derived commercially from either animal or plant sources. Vegetarians take note: they don’t have to tell you which.

Natural and artificial flavors? Preservatives? Enzyme? A little vague for my sensibilities. And now they are in my fridge.

May I offer you an alternative?

Homemade fresh cheese.

Four ingredients, luscious fat and all. I had been calling this “ricotta” but having read up on the actual ricotta-making process, by which excess protein is derived from whey after another cheese has already been made from the curds…

Ok, wait. Let me back up a little in the cheese making process. In a nutshell:

milk and/or cream + acid and/or rennet + heat + time = curds and whey

Curds and whey are separated, curds are strained, pressed, aged, whatever the process to make the delightful fromage that finds its way to your dessert plate or slices of bread.

Whey is the liquid byproduct and true ricotta is made from this liquid, extracting the protein (mostly albumen which is the same protein in egg whites) and then making new cheese.

This recipe is more like cottage cheese in that we break up the curds and whey, and eat the curds. This process results in “fresh cheese” also called farmer cheese, queso blanco, queso fresco, etc.

Whatever you call it, its four ingredients and some cheesecloth.

Fresh Cheese
Makes about 2 cups of finished cheese

4 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp fine grain sea salt
3 T white wine vinegar

1. Cut enough cheesecloth to line a colander so that you have about three layers of cheesecloth. You may have to unfold and refold the cheesecloth, depending on how it came packaged. Run the cheesecloth under cold water, wring out and line the colander. This step prevents the cheesecloth from falling in on itself when you pour the hot curds and whey through in step three. Place the colander in a large bowl so that it is suspended above the bottom of the bowl and the whey has room to drain out.

2. Combine the milk, cream and salt in a sauce pan. Stirring occasionally, bring to a full boil over medium-high heat. Turn off the flame, add the vinegar and let stand one minute.

3. Pour through prepared colander. Let stand at room 30 minutes, periodically pouring off the whey. Use immediately, or store tightly covered in the fridge for up to 4 days.

Done. No diglycerides or carrageenan necessary.

Finally, the taste test. Obviously I have a bias against my own, but I’m going to be as objective as possible. I’m mostly biased because I know that my cheese is actually cheese.

But, Chef Emily, what about all that fat?

What I’m not going to do is sit down and eat the whole bowl. That would mean hours on the elliptical and I loathe the elliptical. A tablespoon isn’t going to kill me. In fact, its going to make my white blood cell production stonger, make fat-soluble vitamins like D and those Omega-3s in the salmon lasagna easier for my body to absorb AND protect my liver from damage from such things as alcohol. Its also going to make me happy, which will make me smile, which will make my skin glow and release all sorts of yummy endorphins, which in moderation, is a good thing.

Something tells me that “enzyme” won’t have the same effects.

First up, cottage cheese. (I was going to do this on video, but it is very early and I am very vain.)

Cottage cheese is slimy looking and when I opened the package, which doesn’t expire for a month, I was hit with a distinct ammonia smell. Yum. Sniff sniff. Yup, ammonia and oily petrol. Taste: Holy salty and not milk-like at all. There is a certain creaminess, thanks to the gums and stabilizers, but no sweet milkiness, which is a primary reason for eating cheese at all, right?

Ok, yuck, enough of that.

Next up, fat free ricotta which I don’t have too high hopes for either.

Upon opening, observe the same look as cream of wheat and is pleasantly unscented, compared to ammonia-smell. Interestingly it expired on Feb 12. It is currently March 1. Thanks, Stop & Shop. Tastes like skim milk. Not unpleasant but has the hollow, vapid flavor of skim milk without any creaminess at all. Is soft-grainy in consistency.

And then, there’s my cheese. It is creamy, not too salty, which, if it was, I could correct for in the next batch. It has a lovely tang from the vinegar. Still sweet enough to make into cheesecake or Guava and Cheese Empanadas, but could just as elegantly make a lasagna or a pizza just perfect.

In the words of my dear friend from afar Michael Pollan:

Eat food.

Don’t eat anything that doesn’t rot.

Eat anything you want, as long as you make it yourself. (Full-fat cheese included.)

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize on a nutrition label.

You won’t need Boniva or a celebrity chef to help you lose weight. You might need a gym membership, but an hour on the elliptical makes all the deliciousness worth it for my vanity. And you’ll want to throw some exercise into your daily routine to keep away all sorts of agings short-comings. Since I’m about to start recipe testing sweet empanadas its a good thing the Gold’s Gym is just down the street.

  • George

    Thanks. I’ve never had success with making cheese but looking forward to trying this.

  • Badalite

    I enjoyed reading this post.  I agree with you & got a great chuckle here & there from your commentary.  Thanks for sharing!

  • JDP sr

    I love this, and can’t wait to try it…. never knew it was that simple. Also glad to have the G and P visiting in the “in” box again!!
    Great writing….