Although the Midwest has been much slower than the East and West coasts to gain recognition for its food and cooking, there has been little doubt about its pre-eminence in terms of cheese production. In fact, the Midwest makes more cheese than any other region of the country. And these cheeses are good.
Wisconsin, as everyone knows, tops the nation's cheese-producing states, but Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and South Dakota all fall within the top 10 as volume producers. Some Midwest signature cheeses are Brick, Colby, Baby Swiss and blue.
It is not generally known that many Midwestern cheese producers are small, specialized cheese makers who make unique farmhouse cheeses. But many specialty food stores are beginning to stock these cottage-industry cheeses; they are worth asking for.
The recipes that follow use high-quality cheeses in just the right quantity--not too much but just enough to give each recipe that essential bottom line: great taste.
The tortellini can be cooked a few days in advance (slightly firmer than usual) and refrigerated, so the weekend is a perfect time to do it. Then, during the week, this great-tasting dish can be cooked in less than 10 minutes . Mild feta cheese is produced in Illinois and Wisconsin, but imported cheese will work just as well.
TORTELLINI WITH FETA CHEESE, TOMATO AND BASIL
5 tablespoons light-flavored olive oil
2 cups thinly sliced leeks, including white and tender green parts
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 (9-ounce) packages fresh tortellini with cheese, cooked al dente
1 teaspoon salt
Red pepper flakes
2 large plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
5 ounces feta cheese, cut into 1/4-inch dice, chilled
16 large basil leaves, julienned
Heat 1/4 cup oil in 12-inch skillet, preferably non-stick, over medium-high heat. When hot, add leeks. Stir until just heated through, about 1 minute.
Add broth, lemon juice and tortellini. Cook vigorously until most of liquid has evaporated, about 3 minutes, shaking pan to moisten tortellini and avoid sticking.
Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and salt. Season to taste with red pepper flakes. Mix well. Add tomatoes, feta and basil. Toss gently to combine.
Cook only to heat through, about 20 seconds. Do not let cheese melt. Adjust seasonings. Makes 4 main-course servings.
Apples and Cheddar cheese are classic combinations, even more suited when the Cheddar is smoked. Here, they are perfectly paired in a grilled sandwich with watercress leaves and an intensely curried mayonnaise. A non-stick skillet lets you "grill" successfully with much less fat.
GRILLED CURRIED APPLE AND SMOKED CHEDDAR SANDWICH
3 tablespoons light mayonnaise
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 1/2 teaspoons chutney (mince any large pieces)
4 thin slices firm-textured white bread
4 ounces applewood smoked white Cheddar, thinly sliced
1/2 medium Granny Smith apple, unpeeled, very thinly sliced
1/3 cup watercress leaves
Butter or margarine, softened
Combine mayonnaise, curry powder and chutney in small dish. Divide between bread slices, spreading to edge.
Place 1/2 cheese in single layer on 2 bread slices. Divide apple slices, overlapping slightly, on cheese. Top with watercress leaves, then remaining cheese in single layer.
Close sandwiches. Press firmly in place (sandwiches will be thick but manageable). Spread thin layer of butter on top surface of bread.
Heat non-stick skillet over medium heat until warm. Carefully transfer sandwiches, buttered side down, to skillet.
Spread butter on top bread slices. Cook, covered, until deeply browned, about 4 minutes. Use spatula to gently compress sandwich. Turn carefully.
Cook, uncovered, until other side is browned, about 4 minutes. Use serrated knife to cut in half. Makes 2 sandwiches.
This is a great opener for a barbecue or informal gathering. Typically high in fat, this leaner version of the black-bean dip has a bright-green layer of "guacamole" made with pureed peas rather than avocados (but almost impossible to tell), an ingenious idea adapted from Michael Roberts of Trumps. A small amount of cheese gives it the final flourish. Using a food processor for this recipe makes the preparation quick and easy (no need to wash the work bowl between the processing of each layer).
HOT LAYERED BLACK-BEAN TORTILLA DIP
4 ounces Jack cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 jalapeno chile, seeded
1 (16-ounce) bag frozen peas, cooked and well-drained
1 large green onion, cut into 1-inch lengths
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons light mayonnaise
Juice of 2 limes
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and well-drained
2 large green onions, cut into 1-inch lengths
3 tablespoons cilantro leaves
Few drops hot pepper sauce
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
3 Italian plum tomatoes, shells only cut into 1-inch dice
Corn tortilla chips
Mince cheese with chile in food processor. Set aside on sheet of wax paper.
Puree peas with green onion until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Add cumin, salt, 1 tablespoon mayonnaise and juice of 1 lime. Mix well. Set aside in bowl.
Puree 1 can drained beans until smooth. Add green onion and cilantro. Process until smooth. Add remaining 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, juice of remaining lime, hot pepper sauce and salt. Mix well.
Transfer bean mixture to 4 1/2- to 6-cup shallow baking dish. Stir in remaining can beans and diced tomatoes. Adjust seasonings. Spread evenly in dish. Add pea mixture, spreading in even layer. Sprinkle jalapeno-cheese mixture over top.
Bake at 325 degrees until cheese just melts, about 15 minutes. Serve spooned on corn tortilla chips, garnished with sour cream and salsa. Makes 8 to 12 appetizer servings.
Note: Recipe may be made day ahead and refrigerated, covered airtight. Bring to room temperature before baking.