Sunday, June 1, 2008

Farmer’s Cheese: Endangered Species

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I would not normally have written about farmer’s cheese, something I buy at the market, except that over the past few years I’ve noticed it has been harder and harder to find. And recently, almost impossible. After a while it occurred to me that the stores were not simply out of stock temporarily, but perhaps permanently. I decided to ask.
As I had begun to suspect, most stores have stopped carrying farmer’s cheese. You may well ask, why? Because it has a short shelf life, I’m told—it doesn’t last. Oh no: it doesn’t have preservatives—the nerve! It’s a real product—let’s get rid of it and just carry the processed stuff with a half-life of a zillion years! There’s no demand, they say, without irony to a person who is standing in front of them asking for it.
So naturally I am inclined to ask, which comes first, the lack of demand, or the unavailability? And  also, to be fair-minded, does it really matter if there’s no more farmer’s cheese?
I say it does matter, and that there would be more demand if there were greater availability and awareness. (Fresh mozzarella, I’m thinking, another not-so-long-lasting cheese, had little demand in the supermarkets until you could, like, buy it there.) Farmer’s cheese has some special qualities. First, it’s a fresh cheese. Fresh cheeses are great for, among other things, spreading on a piece of bread with a little salt and pepper, or accompanied by a sweet or spicy condiment, or mixed with garlic and herbs. Very similar to fresh mild goat cheese, or chevre, but cheaper. (It’s usually made from cow’s milk, not goat, in this country.) Second, it’s light and low in calories and fat as cheeses go: about 50 calories and 2.5 grams of fat per ounce, which is less than cream cheese or soft goat cheese. It also has about 5 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         grams of protein.
But mainly, I need it for certain things. Chief among them is the making of blintzes or the little farmer’s cheese pancakes below—I call them blintz cakes because they use many of the same ingredients as blintzes, but they are actually an old New England griddle cake. I’ve tried well-drained cottage cheese and ricotta as alternatives, but they’re just not the same. And for decades I’ve used farmer’s cheese as a near-perfect substitute for queso blanco, a Mexican cheese that can be hard to find outside of urban neighborhoods or Mexican markets, and that is a must for garnishing all kinds of tortilla-based dishes, especially tostadas. And while I don’t make the Russian Easter specialty paska too often, when I do there is nothing else that works so well, or is so authentic. Ditto for cheese pierogi.
If you go looking for this cheese, therefore, you are most likely to find it in a neighborhood populated by those who use it for traditional cooking: Jews, Russians, Polish, Portuguese. But it is disappearing even in those neighborhoods where, increasingly, the markets that serve them are large chains that deal with equally large distributors of generic goods. So if you find it, get it while you can. In more ways than one, this cheese is not going to last.
Blintz Cakes
These are best complemented by something sweet, like maple syrup or a fruit sauce. I like both together. Serves 2, for about 12 3” cakes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1 cup Farmer’s cheese 
4 T sour cream
4 T flour
2 large eggs
Generous ¼ tea salt
Pull the cheese apart loosely with a fork. In a small bowl, beat the egg lightly then stir in the cheese, sour cream, and salt until just combined. Heat a griddle medium-hot. Butter it, and drop the mixture into small cakes with a tablespoon. When they begin to dry at the edges and you can slide your spatula below, turn them; they should be light brown on the underside; if too dark, lower your heat. Cook on the second side until light brown. The total cooking time, if your heat is correct, should be about 4 minutes; the cakes should be slightly puffy and airy. Serve with butter and syrup and/or blueberry sauce (below).
Blueberry Sauce
Frozen blueberries from inventory are perfect for this. Makes about 1 cup. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
2 tea cornstarch dissolved in 2 tea cold water
½ tea vanilla
1 cup blueberries
A few twists of the nutmeg mill and a dash of cinnamon
Pinch salt
1 drop pure orange oil or 1 tea lemon juice
Heat the sugar and water to dissolve; turn up the heat, add the cornstarch/water, and boil for a minute or so until thickened to a sauce. Add the blueberries, vanilla, and seasoning and cook another minute, or until the blueberries have mostly broken down; strain or leave the sauce as is, which will be a bit textured (this is what I do for something like this). If you want the blueberries whole, add them at the end a few seconds before taking off the heat.
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Don LaVange said...

where I live now (far from my home between MA and RI in Utah) one can always pick up fresh farmers cheese in the mexican markets. They are ubiquitous here, and so is "Queso Fresca", fresh farm cheese.

We buy it regularly.


judymc24 said...

I live in Eastern North Carolina and can not find Farmers Cheese anywhere. I would love to make some Polish Pierogies for my family, but no cheese.


Jane said...

Judy, try this link for possible sources near you. I love pierogies. I also love them with potatoes (if you can't find the cheese).

Anonymous said...

I found fresh famers cheese at WEGMAN'S supermarkets (here in No. VA ... also in western NY ) in their copious cheese area.

Jane said...

Lucky you; no Wegman's in Tucson, but I have occasionally found it in a Mexican market!