A Plea To Waiters

Bon Appetit
Bon Appetit

As if 809 words about cheese and pregnancy weren’t enough on Friday, I’m still stuck on the topic. (Mainly because I’ve been thinking about it incessantly for 8 months.)

I am incredibly appreciative of the cheese shops and restaurants that clearly mark their offerings as raw or pasteurized, saving me from having to ask about every selection. Yet, this scenario has played out more times than I can count:

Me: Is this cheese pasteurized?

Waiter: Hmm, I don’t know. 

Me: Silence as I wait for him to offer to find out

Waiter: Silence as he stands there staring blankly at me

I know that servers are busy and that I’m not their only diner. (After all, I did waitress at a Lone Star Steakhouse during college. I’m not even going to pretend that I was good at it. I spent the entire summer “in the weeds.”)

But this is my plea to all waiters out there: if you don’t know whether a cheese is made with pasteurized milk, please go ask the chef or whoever was responsible for putting it on the menu. (Especially if it’s on a cheese plate.) You have every right to roll your eyes as you’re walking away, but diners should also be able to know exactly what they’re eating.

A Soft Cheese Hiatus

I’ve never been happier than the day I found out I was pregnant. Still, when my doctor issued a moratorium on soft cheese, I was barely able to make it out of his office before I started to cry. 

Yes, perching on the edge of a flowerbed on 83rd Street while blubbering over my inability to eat my favorite cheeses seems somewhat dramatic in hindsight. I’ll give you that. In my defense, my hormones were completely out of whack and I had just been thrown a major curveball.

“But the FDA says it’s ok,” I kept repeating as Dave patted my back and kindly tried not to look at his watch.

The concern over cheese during pregnancy is due to possible contamination by listeria, a type of bacteria that may be found in refrigerated deli meats or foods made with unpasteurized milk. Outbreaks of listeriosis are rare. Nationwide, only 1,651 cases were reported between 2009 and 2011, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet, pregnant women are advised to be vigilant in avoiding potentially contaminated foods because listeria can have devastating effects on a fetus, including miscarriage, stillbirth, mental retardation or paralysis. The scariest part is that in most cases, people who become infected never feel sick. If they do, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear.

To prevent an infection, the Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant women not to eat soft cheeses like feta, brie and camembert, blue-veined cheeses, or queso blanco, queso fresco, or panela, unless they’re made with milk that has been pasteurized, a process that uses heat to kill harmful bacteria.

My doctor is even more conservative, banning all soft cheeses even if they are pasteurized. Mold-ripened and blue-veined cheeses are moister and less acidic than harder, aged cheeses, providing an ideal environment for listeria to grow if the cheese is contaminated after the pasteurization process, for instance, during aging or shipping. My doctor doesn’t want his patients to take the risk, a stance which I do understand but which pains me nonetheless.

Yet, he and the FDA are in total agreement when it comes to cheeses made with unpasteurized, or raw, milk — they are deemed completely off limits for pregnant women.

While there’s a common misconception that all cheese made in the U.S. is pasteurized, in fact, many artisan and farmstead cheeses are made with raw milk. Cheesemakers often argue that raw milk produces a more complex cheese with more intense flavor than pasteurized varieties. I tend to agree. The FDA simply requires that cheese made with raw milk be aged for at least 60 days before it is considered safe to eat.

Several times throughout the course of my pregnancy, I’ve received a lecture when approaching a cheese counter with a request for a sample of something both hard and pasteurized. Cheesemongers often believe that raw milk cheeses have been aged long enough that the acids and salt in the cheese naturally kill any harmful bacteria like listeria. They’re not alone. The U.K.’s health safety agency deems hard cheeses like cheddar, emmental, gouda, gruyere, parmesan and stilton as completely safe for pregnant women even if they are unpasteurized.

So, where does all of this conflicting information leave a pregnant woman? Completely confused.

If left to my own devices, I would probably eat every cheese I wanted to. After all, I’ve been eating a truly massive amount of soft and raw cheese for well over a decade and have never contracted listeria. But I’m not a medical professional, so I’m going to play it safe and listen to someone who is.

When I get a hankering for soft cheese that just won’t go away, I make a baked camembert or goat cheese (those recipes will be posted soon). Heating the cheese till it steams eliminates the risk of bacteria and satisfies my cravings.

My advice to pregnant women is to ask your doctor what he or she feels comfortable with you eating. Then completely ignore the well-meaning friends, family, cheesemongers or waiters who want to share their opinions or who inevitably point out that pregnant French women have been eating all sorts of cheese for centuries.

A side note: I am thrilled to say that I have a mere six weeks to go before I have both a daughter and free rein to eat whatever gooey, stinky, raw cheese I want. (Of course, I already have a list of cheese that I expect my sister to bring straight to the hospital when I give birth.)

Until then, I’ll mainly be profiling the hard, pasteurized cheeses allowed by my doctor. Any raw or soft cheese that I’ve written about up until this point is one that I sampled pre-pregnancy. I’ve kept a very detailed cheese-tasting diary for quite some time and have relied upon that for any descriptions of temporarily-forbidden cheeses.

Mac Shroom from Macbar

Mac ‘Shroom

While running errands in SoHo the other day, I stumbled across Macbar, a macaroni and cheese shop run by the owners of Delicatessen next door. I could definitely do without the tiny restaurant’s macaroni yellow-colored interior, but my lunch was pretty darn good.

I had the mac ‘shroom,’ which boasted “roasted ‘magic’ mushrooms, fontina, mascarpone and truffled essence.” It was not light eating (as evidenced by the thick crust of fontina below.)

Mac Shroom from Macbar

The flavor combination seems like one that could be easily replicated at home. I don’t think I’d go out of my way to return for this dish but I would stop by again if I were in the neighborhood and craving comfort food. Next time I’d spring for the mac ‘quack,’ which features duck confit.

Macbar, 54 Prince Street, NYC, 212-226-0211

Astoria Bier & Cheese

Astoria Bier & Cheese

I have to admit that I don’t get out of Manhattan a lot. There’s so much to see, do and eat in these 24 square miles that it doesn’t often occur to me to check out what the other boroughs have to offer.

But when I read about Astoria Bier & Cheese, I decided to enlist Dave for a trip to Queens. Frankly, it didn’t take much convincing.

Me: Do you want to go drink beer and eat cheese in Astoria? I’ll drive.

No response from Dave necessary as he’s already grabbing his coat.

What we found was a very cool shop/bar/cafe boasting an impressive selection of dozens of cheeses, hundreds of bottled beers and 10 craft beers on tap. What was intended as a pre-dinner snack quickly turned into us hanging out for three hours. (Randomly running into a college friend and his girlfriend was an added bonus.)

Here’s what we ate:

Astoria Bier & Cheese Cheese Curds

Vermont cheddar cheese curds with sourdough and black olive bread

Astoria Bier & Cheese Beer Cheese

Housemade beer cheese with hot pretzel and mustard

Although I was so enamored with the beer cheese (basically a creamy, boozy cheddar) that I could have eaten three servings, the real standout was the beer and cheese pairing plate:

Astoria Bier & Cheese pairings

For $18 we got four surprisingly unique and beautifully presented cheeses paired with generous tasting portions of craft beers. It’s perfect for sharing. Here’s what ABC was serving that night (from left to right):

Bra Tenero (Italian cow’s milk) and Firestone Walker Pivo Pils

El Romeral (Spanish sheep’s milk) and Ommegang Rare Vos Belgian Pale Ale

Tete de Moine (Swiss cow’s milk) and Stochasticity Project Grapefruit Slam IPA

Stilton (English cow’s milk) and Brooklyn Brewery Fire & Ice Porter

I was so impressed with the well-curated selections and the cheesemonger’s enthusiastic explanation of each pairing in front of us. (I also thought the beer flight boards were pretty cool. Dave, who dabbles in woodworking, claims he can make some for me. Stay tuned for pix of that project.)

With the pairings changing regularly and us too full to try the grilled cheese, we will definitely be back to ABC soon.

Astoria Bier & Cheese, 3414 Broadway, Astoria, 718-545-5588


Parachuting Grilled Cheese Coming To NYC

When I first heard about toasted cheese sandwiches delivered by parachute, I thought it was obviously a joke. But it seems that a couple of enterprising Aussies are actually doing this — and will soon be bringing their float-down business to NYC, reports online environmental magazine Grist.

The pop-up sandwich service is called Jafflechutes. (“Jaffle” is apparently Aussie slang for a toasted sandwich.)

Here’s how it works: Diners pay via PayPal — AUD $5 for cheese and tomato or AUD $6 for cheese and ham — select a time, and then wait on an ‘X’ marked outside at a mystery location for their jaffles to float down from the sky, the Jafflechutes website explains.

Photo: Jafflechutes via Facebook
Photo: Jafflechutes via Facebook

Sure, I could make a toasted cheese sandwich in my kitchen. But the Jafflechutes concept is just gimmicky and quirky enough to get me excited about standing in an alley looking upward for my lunch. Luckily, I won’t have to wait long.

Jafflechutes’ Facebook page pegs their NYC arrival in May/June. Who’s with me?

(Top photo: popupcity.net)

Swiss Emmentaler Crowned World’s Greatest Cheese

Best Cheese in the World
Carrie Antlfinger – AP Photo

A Swiss cheese took home the top prize at this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest in Wisconsin.

Cheese maker Gerard Sinnesberger from Gams, Switzerland, won the title last night with his Original Schweizer Rohmilch Emmentaler, a large-format, big-wheel Swiss. An international panel of judges chose Sinnesberger’s cheese out of more than 2,600 entries from 22 countries.

An Austrian cheese earned second place, while a Swiss Gruyere took the third spot. U.S. cheese makers had a strong showing, earning gold medals in 59 of 90 categories judged.

Unsurprisingly, Wisconsin dominated among U.S. states with 33 gold medals. Vermont and New York both earned five golds, while California, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey and Ohio each took home two. Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania and South Dakota snagged one gold a piece.

Arizona’s $25 Corn Dog

D-Bat Dog
Photo: Arizona Diamondbacks via ESPN

Every once in a while I see a new food item so crazy that I just have to write about it. Case in point: the new $25 corn dog that the Arizona Diamondbacks will be hawking at concession stands this baseball season.

For that price, I expected it to be filled with foie gras. Not so much.

According to ESPN.com, the “D-Bat Dog” is an 18-inch corn dog stuffed with cheddar cheese, jalapenos and bacon, served with a side of fries. No, that length is not a typo.

As regular readers of this blog know, calorie-laden foods don’t scare me. I’m not ashamed to say that I own a deep fryer. But this corn dog looks like a heart attack in a paper boat — and that’s if the sky-high price doesn’t knock you over first.

ESPN quotes the team’s president as saying that its larger concession items are “really about sharing with the family.” Hmm. While I suppose 18 inches of deep-fried processed meat could feed a family of four, doesn’t it seem like passing one corn dog back and forth between four people would be a bit unwieldy?

If you should happen to sample this stadium delicacy and survive, please take pictures and let me know!