The Cream of the Crop

With the bounty of local dairies and artisanal products in New Mexico, you'll be saying "cheese!"

“This isn’t cheese,” my grandson Riley uttered in disbelief when his mom gave him a slice of Kraft American. A precocious two-year-old at the time, he was already a connoisseur of the handcrafted artisanal cheeses from New Mexico that I and his grandfather, Bill, loved. Riley favored Sweetwoods Dairy goat cheese, soft tangy rounds ideal for spreading on crackers. Sadly, the Harrison-Inglis family closed down Sweetwoods in late 2011 after some two decades in the grueling 24/7 business. They educated consumers statewide about the milky goodness of fresh goat cheese and other local farmstead cheeses made by hand from the milk of animals on the dairy farm. Just as important, the family was instrumental in helping inspectors and regulators understand that small family dairies have an important place in the state’s economy. The artisanal cheese business wouldn’t be where it is today without them.

New Mexico’s long history of home cheese production, goes back to the Spanish introduction of La Mancha dairy goats in the early Colonial period. Unlike most other livestock, the goats thrived in the state’s rough terrain and climate extremes. Well into the 20th century, many households kept a goat or two and made simple fresh cheeses from their milk. Today, some of the dairy goats raised for commercial goat cheese are American La Manchas, a breed developed in the 1930s from the bloodline of the original Spanish goats.

Today, New Mexico’s commercial cheeses are made from goat, cow, and even sheep’s milk. There’s a range of enticing varieties that we and Riley, now 14 and still a discerning cheese enthusiast, enjoy.

South Mountain Dairy
Talk about a hobby that got out of hand. Donna Lockridge and Marge Peterson retired from the corporate world and bought a couple of goats to gobble weeds on their property at the base of South Mountain, east of Albuquerque near Edgewood. Smitten with their weedeaters, the duo decided to invest in a few pack goats. When the newly born kids weren’t drinking all of their mothers’ milk, Lockridge and Peterson turned the excess into cheese, but they had more than they could eat. To sell the extra, the operation needed to become a licensed dairy. The duo soon found themselves back in the business world, albeit with four-legged workers.

South Mountain’s Queso Lizette replicates the simple queso de cabra made by New Mexicans of generations past, often served back then with molasses or sorghum syrup. I especially like the dairy’s feta, which is hand-rubbed with kosher salt rather than being soaked in brine. The subtle distinction offers big results in balanced flavor and uncommon creaminess. Also seek out the lightly aged Ash Mounds or Lizette’s Crottin, a small, firm, ivory round modeled on one of my favorite dried and ripened French cheeses, Crottin de Chavignol.

The dairy welcomes visitors each Sunday in April and for part of May, a delightful chance for the whole family to enjoy an afternoon in the country. Donna, (505) 280-5210; Marge, (505) 379-9926.

Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese
Nancy Nathanya Coonridge, New Mexico’s 2009 Organic Farmer of the Year, began making goat cheese in the state’s western high country more than 30 years ago, and sells much of her product at fairs and festivals. Coonridge has lived off the grid since way before it was considered enlightened. Directions to her dairy, way outside of Pie Town, include landmarks like faded sweatpants dangling from a tree.
After daily milking, Coonridge’s La Mancha and other goats graze free-range on creosote, wormweed, and other wild plants. To convert their milk to cheese, she imports vegetable rennet (enzymes that cause milk to separate into curds and whey) and cultures from Europe, and uses a “long-set” method, relying on only the natural warmth of the milk immediately after it comes from the goats to develop her cheese’s distinctive tang. Whether raw or pasteurized, plain or flavored (try Scarborough Faire, with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme), the cheese is packed in jars and covered in sunflower and extra-virgin olive oils. Meant for room-temperature storage, the cheeses make perfect picnic fare. (505) 250-8553, (888) 410-8433.

Old Windmill Dairy
Flavored cheeses seldom impress me. The added ingredients can overwhelm the cheese’s pure milkiness or attempt to disguise a mediocre product. The Great Caper is a lovely exception—a young chevre enhanced with briny capers, and the first cheese I sampled from the Old Windmill Dairy, near Estancia. Cheesemakers Ed and Michael Lobaugh have expanded from their original fresh farmstead line to aged goat cheeses such as Manzano Blue Moon and McIntosh Cheddar. The Lobaughs raise dairy cows too, quartered in Bernalillo. That milk goes into asadero, brie, manchego, and their wildly popular fresh mozzarella. Look for the cheeses at farmers’ markets in Santa Fe and Las Cruces, and at La Montañita and other co-op groceries.

Stop in for the annual farm tour Sunday, April 15, in the afternoon. Old Windmill Dairy also hosts cheese-making classes (for a fee), where you might get to try your hand at stretching mozzarella. (505) 384-0033.

Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory
Fourth-generation Wisconsin dairyman Chuck Krause started the Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory just north of Route 66, in Tucumcari. Though much larger than the other dairies profiled here, it’s still considered a mid-size operation in the cheesemaking world. Chuck and his wife, Sylvia, bring in cow’s milk from the family-owned Schaap Dairies, a co-op with dairies near Clovis, Portales, and Hobbs. Schaap’s organic farm provides the milk for the factory’s organic line, Native Pastures, which can be found in supermarkets. Try the fine feta, and good melting cheeses such as Muenster, green-chile Jack, and an asadero just right for quesadillas. Tours can be arranged in advance. (575) 461-4045.

Read more on Cheryl's blog. See more of Douglas Merriam’s work at www.douglasmerriam.com.

Green-Chile Macaroni and Cheese

You can, of course, prepare this and the following dishes with brands of cheese and dairy products other than those suggested.
Yield Serves 6 or more as a main dish

Ingredients

Bread Crumbs
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup packed fresh bread crumbs
or ¾ cup dried Panko bread crumbs

Cheese Sauce
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 to 2 tablespoons onion, minced
1 cup chopped, roasted, mild to medium New Mexican green chile, fresh or thawed frozen
1 cup whole milk or goat milk, such as from
South Mountain Dairy
½ cup buttermilk or additional goat milk
¾ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
6 ounces creamy fresh goat cheese, such as South Mountain Dairy’s fresh chevre,
garlic-flavored if you wish
4 ounces Havarti-style cheese, such as South Mountain Dairy’s Chev-arti, grated
6 ounces aged Cheddar cheese, such as Native Pastures Sharp Cheddar or Old Windmill Dairy’s McIntosh Cheddar, grated
¾ pound elbow macaroni, cooked according
to package directions

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter shallow, medium-to-large baking dish.

Prepare breadcrumbs, first melting butter in small skillet over medium heat. Stir in bread crumbs and toast until golden, stirring occasionally. Scrape bread crumbs out of skillet and reserve.

Prepare cheese sauce, first melting butter in large, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir flour into butter gradually (so it doesn’t develop lumps).When flour is incorporated, mix in onion and cook an additional 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add green chile and any juice; cook until heated through. Raise heat to medium-high and gradually whisk in milk, buttermilk, and salt. Bring mixture to a boil and continue to cook until lightly thickened, stirring occasionally (about 5 minutes). Stir in creamy fresh goat cheese until melted into sauce.

Remove sauce from heat and immediately mix in remaining cheeses, stirring until melted. Toss macaroni with cheese sauce and spoon into prepared baking dish.

Scatter bread crumbs over macaroni and cheese sauce. Bake about 30 minutes, until heated through and golden-brown and crunchy on top.

Adapted from American Home Cooking, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (HarperCollins)

Fresh Goat Cheese with Green Chile Chutney

This simple chutney can be made ahead and kept for a week or more. It adds tang to creamy mild goat cheese.
Yield Serves 6 or more

Ingredients

Green Chile Chutney
¾ cup cider or white vinegar
¾ cup sugar
½ medium onion, minced
½ teaspoon yellow mustard seed
¼ teaspoon salt
pinch of ground cumin
1½ cups chopped roasted New Mexican
green chile, fresh or defrosted frozen

10 to 12 ounces creamy, fresh, unflavored goat cheese, such as from South Mountain Dairy, or Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese
(drained of oil), softened.

Directions

Combine vinegar, sugar, onion, mustard seed, salt, and cumin in saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in green chile and continue cooking for about 10 minutes longer, until thickened and jammy. Cool. Refrigerate if not using within a few hours.

Arrange cheese in neat mound or log on small platter. Either pour chutney over cheese or serve in small bowl. Accompany with crackers.

 

Adapted from The Border Cookbook, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (Harvard Common Press)

Creamy Vanilla Breakfast Spread

Biting into this grainy, soft-textured spread feels like nibbling a cloud.
Yield Serves 4

Ingredients

1 cup ricotta cheese (whole or skim milk), such as Old Windmill Dairy
½ to 1 cup plain goat’s-milk yogurt, such as South Mountain Dairy
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 to 2 teaspoons honey

Directions

Stir together all ingredients in small bowl. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to a week.

Adapted from A Real American Breakfast, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (HarperCollins)