Once, as a grad student and culinary dullard living on the tips I earned waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant, I met a girl I really wanted to impress. We'd already been on a few dates, and had reached the point in our relationship where it was time to take the next, anxiety-inducing step: homecooking. I hoped to knock her socks off (although I have to admit her socks weren't really what I had in mind) by preparing a romantic dinner, something a little different from my usual post-work Whoppers smothered in mayo while watching Law & Order re-runs. So I created a "homemade" pasta sauce of melted cream cheese with bacon. The result was a bit of a stodgy mess, to put it kindly, but the girl appreciated the thought enough to at least remove those socks.
Now that I've learned a little more about cooking and food, I've discovered that some of the great cuisines frequently gild their sauces with dairy, so cream cheese wasn't such a crazy idea. Italians finish two of their most famous preparations, risotto and polenta, with dollops of butter and grated parmesan. A little of both goes a long way, after all. Parmesan adds salty and umami flavours, while butter provides richness and sheen.
This maneuver is such a staple of Italian technique that there's even a native word for it, "mantecare," a verb that means to blend or cream.
Great gastronomic minds think alike, apparently, because the French also exploit the finishing powers of a little dairy. Many French sauces are incomplete without the addition of a little -- okay, a lot -- of butter.
The culinary world has even come to adopt the French term for this technique, "monter au beurre."
For years, Rachel and I finished countless -- not all, but most -- risottos, polentas, and sauces the same way.
That all changed last year. One lazy afternoon, I whiled away my time watching French Food at Home on Food Network Canada. The show stars Laura Calder, a graceful, well-spoken host with a deep love and knowledge of French cooking. In the episode I watched, she made a zucchini and La Vache Qui Rit soup she describes as a favourite comfort food of French children.
I don't doubt it. La Vache qui rit -- it's known as The Laughing Cow in most of the English-speaking world -- is a creamy, buttery-tasting blend of cheeses, though apparently it's mainly Comté, that's easy to enjoy primarily because it is so unchallenging. There are no funky tastes or textures, just a straightforward richness that any child (and most adults) can appreciate.
What makes this cheese so compelling is not simply its taste, however, it's also the dynamite packaging. Not everyone recognizes the circular box with the big smiling cow on its front, but the individually foil-wrapped wedges within are iconic. As a child, I remember going to family gatherings and gorging on this cheese. I especially loved grabbing a wedge, finding the little red pull tab, then pulling back the foil to reveal the delicious triangle of cheese within.
It's no wonder, then, that Rachel and I made Calder's soup shortly thereafter. It is delicious, but after cooking a batch (and enjoying a few snacks here and there) we still had many wedges leftover.
My eureka moment came while reaching into our cheese drawer to get some parmesan for a risotto. While looking for the undisputed king of cheeses I glanced at that beguiling bovine smile and grabbed three wedges (as well as the parmesan) to add to the pot before serving.
Now, I'm sure there are many Italians out there cringing at this little experiment, and I can't say I blame them. I actually feel annoyed when I get served risotto in restaurants that's been finished with a little whole cream; it just feels like cheating to me.
But after tasting the risotto with the laughing cow, we were very pleasantly surprised at both the texture and flavour of the finished product. The effect is subtle, but the cheese adds richness and creaminess. Frankly, I think most people would notice a difference in the dish but would be unable to identify what, precisely, had changed.
Our favourite risotto to pair with La Vache qui rit is a simple trio of leeks, peas, and lardons of crispy bacon. The recipe is at the end of this post.
Having ventured into fertile territory with rice, I decided to expand my repertoire to yet another staple of the boot. Polenta doesn't deserve its stodgy, bland reputation. Prepared with time and care, cornmeal can be every bit as satisfying as risotto or pasta. Of course, we soon discovered that time and care are a whole lot better with two wedges of La Vache Qui Rit. Just stir them in along with any other seasonings, including parmesan, to finish the dish.
Polenta or risotto with La Vache qui rit seems miles away from that first pasta sauce of melted Philly. As for the girl, she liked my cooking enough to stay close. Rachel married me five years ago.
Leek, pea and bacon risotto
1 large leek (may substitute 1 large cooking onion)
225 g bacon (approximately 2, 1 cm thick slices)
200 g (approximately 1.5 C) fresh or frozen peas
350 g (approximately 1.75 C) arborio or other suitable risotto rice
1 L chicken stock (may substitute vegetable stock or water)
200 ml white wine, if desired
3 wedges of La vache qui rit cheese
Slice bacon into 1 cm wide lardons. In a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat, cook lardons until darkened and crispy on the outside.
Preheat chicken stock to a bare simmer.
Remove lardons and all but two tablespoons of bacon fat from the saucepan or dutch oven and, over medium heat, add leeks and cook until just softened, approximately two minutes. Add the rice, and cook until white dots appear in the centre of each grain, stirring frequently.
If using wine, add it at this point, stirring. When it is reduced, add just enough hot chicken stock to cover the rice, stir frequently. The liquid should barely simmer throughout this process. Repeat this step until the rice is al dente, approximately eighteen to twenty minutes. If the stock runs out before the rice is cooked, substitute water.
When the rice is almost cooked, add the peas and La Vache qui rit cheese, and stir until the cheese is completely incorporated into the risotto.
Finish with salt, pepper, and parmesan to taste.
Serve in bowls sprinkled with lardons and with additional salt, pepper, or parmesan if desired.
Makes four portions.