Babybel is a cheese made by the Laughing Cow, also known as La Vache Qui Rit in French. It is one of the few French cheeses available everywhere on Earth, along with Brie and Camembert. Unlike those, it has no natural crust due to the cheese's young age and thus comes wrapped in wax in order to protect its moisture.
Babybel is a product that looks similar to many products made by Kraft, which contain no cheese at all not even any form of dairy (we'll talk about those in a future post). As opposed to Kraft's products, the Babybel contains milk. Actually fresh milk is the only ingredient, along with salt. What I like about it is that it has flavor, it's natural and it's a nice snack.
Be careful though! the Laughing Cow makes many products that you'll find in your local stores; products that might look much more sophisticated than the Babybel and that contain more chemicals than a mountain dew. Popular products of the Laughing cow such as spreadable cheese are labeled as "real cheese", a true but incomplete statement. Do you know what happens to those unsold cheeses? they're thrown into a machine (with their aluminum wrapping and all) that blends and compresses them. Add some milk and then you get spreadable cheese! While it is pasteurized and made from initially natural cheeses, the result is still a blend of toxic aluminum foil and chemicals.
The way I see cow cheeses is that they're great for cooking. They usually have a strong flavor, they are cheap and can be kept for a while. Here are some cow cheeses I want to talk about that are the most used in cooking and the most available:
Emmental is my favorite, it comes from the French Alps and like all the others listed above, is made of unpasteurized milk. It is made in very large round blocks and is sold as slices. It is semi-hard and for those of you who never tried it, it is basically like a slightly harder "swiss cheese" with actual flavor. Unfortunately it is not available in most American stores, but you'll find it at Whole Foods. It is by far the most used cheese in France. People use its slices in sandwiches, grate it on top of pasta and use it in various dishes, even Mac-n'-Cheese. An advantage of this cheese is that it melts easily and helps form a tasty crust on baked food, hence why the French choose Emmental when making pizza.
Another great cheese is the Comté. In very short, it is a more fancy version of the Emmental. It has no bubbles, it is a little harder and has even stronger flavor. People would use slices of this cheese in fancier sandwiches, such as the sandwiches sold by Paul, premium French bakery chain. I don't recommend too much you melt this cheese, the harder the cheese the more fat you have. When you melt a hard cheese, the fat tends to easily separate from the dairy, resulting on dairy floating in a pool of oil. Just like Emmental, this cheese can be found easily at Whole Foods.
Raclette cheese is a semi-hard cheese also from the Alps. Raclette has a pretty special flavor. Unlike Emmental and Comté that are cooked in order to obtain a cheese curd, this one is completely raw. To my knowledge, this specific cheese is only used for cooking and is never eaten raw. Its most popular use is for a dish bearing the cheese's name: Raclette. The cheese round is hung and sliced with a hot electric knife, then poured onto potatoes and prosciutto, stay tuned for more on this dish!
Now probably the most popular Italian cheese, Parmesan. I probably don't need to talk too much about this one. It is as hard as a rock and contain pieces of salt (see the white spots on the cheese in the picture). I really don't advise you purchase a slice as depicted in the picture because you very probably want to grate or shave it and that's not happening easily. Italians shave it on pasta and since it's really dry, they sprinkle olive oil on top, which goes really well. Parmesan is really available everywhere in various forms: sliced, shaved, grated...
The last cow cheese I wanted to tell you about is Mozzarella. It is the easiest and cheapest cheese to make. Originally it was made from water buffalo's milk, but in order to lower the costs it is made from cow's milk, resulting on something very similar. In order to obtain Mozzarella, milk is coagulated into a ball then soaked in brine. My favorite use of it is to simply slice it and eat it raw with basil and tomato. In Italy it is primarily used on pizza and lasagna.
The cheese of the week is Casu Marzu, specialty of Sardinia. I chose it not because you might find it at Shaws and have it at your next week-end party, but because this is probably the most peculiar cheese I have knowledge of. It is basically a derivative of the Italian pecorino cheese. Pecorino is a hard cheese made from sheep milk. The huge difference is that this variation involves having cheese flies lay eggs in the cheese and actually waiting for those eggs to hatch.
Let me walk you through the fabrication process:
- Boil fresh sheep milk
- Pour into round molds to obtain pecorino cheese
- Wait until it hardens then cut open the top, exposing the soft core
- Leave it in open air for 2 to 3 months to let flies lay eggs
The larvae then start consuming the cheese, breaking down the cheese's fats and resulting on a very soft cheese. It is considered safe to eat as long as the maggots are alive. So it's exactly what it sounds like, it is indeed meant to be eaten with the maggots.
I recommend you watch this YouTube video that takes you through the fabrication of the cheese:
What kind of college-y column would I be writing if I didn't mention the perennial food of the impoverished university denizen, ramen? Yes, I can be a snob, even about the cheapest of cheap food. Here is a quick overview of the various types of ramen I have tried, in the form of one-sentence quips! (Explanations to follow)
- Shin Ramyun: King of the Cage
- Nissin: Two-faced
- Maruchan: For white people
- Mama: For anorexics
- Noodle King: Super douche
- Maggi: Currific
And now for the explanations for anyone who could possibly care... Shin Ramyun (made by Nong Shim) is by far the best across the board. The portions are decent, and the noodles are good. Also the mock-broth is excellent, though not for the spicy-intolerant. It does get old after about 10 days in a row, which is the record for the most instant noodles I've eaten anyway. Did I mention the packs are a decent size? On the opposite end is Mama ramen, whose packs are tiny. For me they're worth barely 3 seconds of slurping; major fail. However, the noodle and flavor quality are solid. Maggi is also good, around the same quality as Mama, though sold to a distinctly curry-based audience. The few packs of Maggi that I've tried have been good. The portion size was average.
On the ass end of the flavor spectrum is definitely Maruchan. I find it bland, generic, and easily soggy. Super super lame. I would only eat this as a last resort. The American Nissin cup noodles are only a bare step above this, though they have the decency to include some dried carrots and corn with the noodles. The Japanese division of Nissin is pretty much a separate brand because of the disparity in quality with the American Cup Noodle franchise, with Demae Itcho being the favorite. I grew up eating this stuff; the little cartoon mascot led to ramen in general being called "the cartoon noodles" in my house.
The "special" award goes to Noodle King. In terms of just flavor and noodles I'd probably give Noodle King the advantage over Nong Shim, but there are several things pulling it back. First is the douche factor: while chicken abalone instant noodles are ungodly delicious, the fact is that they're instant noodles... That are chicken abalone flavored. Second, the price: The cost on these babies is pretty high, probably because of aforementioned douche factor. I will concede that it's probably worth it, but that brings us to the third point... They're a pain in the ass to get; I can usually only find individual packs even in asian stores (I want my ramen in boxes, dammit! BIG BOXES.), and almost never in the flavor and type, between the different flavors and the thin/thick/flat noodle types. Shin Ramyun, on the other hand, is widely available, and is even on Amazon for a decent price, with Prime. You gotta respect them for that. Still, Noodle King will hold a special place in my heart--my last year of high school can basically be summarized by my daily after-school bowl of Noodle King with fish balls, followed by my daily nap.
Conclusion: Shin Ramyun is the staple ramen in the apartment, though I will choose Noodle King when I can get it. When I'm stuck at my parents' place or something, I am usually eating Mama, Maruchan only if I'm really desperate (read: never), and Maggi when I'm feeling whimsical at the local Indian grocer.
Here's something that's become quite popular in our apartment ever since our new roommate moved in: curries. I'm prone to the occasional curry myself, though mine tend to be very much Chinese-influenced--heavy in turmeric, yellow, closer to madras curry than anything. But more on that later. The curries I'm referencing here tend to be more red and tomato-based, and very heavy on various types of chili--chicken tikka, biryani, that sort of thing. Whatever the case, curries are awesome, especially for the hungry college student. They fall into the category of "one pot meals"--just spend a few minutes starting it and a few hours later (during which you can do homework or study, but I prefer to sit around and watch youtube) you have enough food to last a day or two. Or at least two meals, if you're me.
The curry above was made with Shan curry mix. Now, I know I'm fairly conservative and normally deride shortcuts like pre-made mixes and such, but in this case I can't really object, especially when the ingredients are taken into account (click to embiggen):
The ingredients are all good old-fashioned spices, so I don't really see any problems. Also notice there are about five million of them. Now I COULD have each and every spice ground up in my kitchen separately (I actually do, but only about half of what's in that list), but this is a perfectly acceptable economical alternative. Not to mention Shan products are high-quality; this isn't just some homogeneous gray powder. You can often find whole cloves, cardamom pods, etc, in packages. In fact, there were dried plums and pits in the biryani mix. Where the hell do I find me some of those separately?
That aside, what makes this brand of curry so interesting is the use of yogurt. In biryani, and this particular variation of tikka, the chicken is first marinated in a combination of spice and yogurt. The yogurt serves to tenderize the meat, but also somehow makes the spicy kick more bearable, given an equivalent amount of spice. In other words, the yogurt is there to dampen the effects of spice so we can add more spice. This sort of use reminds me of (roughly translated) "flower peppers", used primarily in Chinese sichuan cuisine, whose primary purpose is to numb the tongue to make it able to endure more spice. I guess we asians are just masochistic like that.
Gastronomical perversions aside, the marination in yogurt does have a very interesting effect on both the taste and the texture of chicken thighs--definitely something I will be playing around with later on. In the meantime, here is a picture of my dinner, the aforementioned chicken tikka with spiced up basmati rice: