Imagine a warm crouton topped with goat cheese laced with thyme and lavender … or a salad of fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella layered with spicy basil leaves. Or, how about a towering soufflé accented with sharp cheddar and dill?
Herbs and cheeses are natural partners in the kitchen. Just as the variety of fresh herbs available to American cooks has grown dramatically in recent years, so has the selection on our cheese board. Not only do we have access to a huge variety of cheeses from all over the world, but now that the artisan cheese movement in North America is flourishing, we also have superb local cheeses that can compete with the finest European wheels.
Sharp, pungent or mild, there’s an herb for every cheese. The fun comes in discovering the most winning combinations and trying them out in the endless number of dishes that have cheese as an ingredient.
When you start to experiment with herb and cheese pairings, begin with the familiar. The next time you grill a cheese sandwich, toss a bit of chopped dill or chives on the cheddar or Swiss. Making homey macaroni and cheese? Try adding a few tablespoons of chopped fresh marjoram or tarragon. And your Greek salad of feta, tomato and olive will get raves if you toss in some torn mint or basil leaves.
My golden rule for any type of herb and food pairing is to match the robustness of the herb to that of the ingredient or dish. For instance, a delicate ricotta cheese filling would team well with lemon thyme or chervil, while a strong pecorino would be complemented by hot Greek oregano or strident rosemary.
But with cheeses, there are plenty of chances to break the rule, especially because mild cheeses can be a wonderful vehicle to allow any sort of herb to sing out, even the most assertive ones.
Don’t let the sheer variety of cheeses bother you; you can keep it simple by categorizing them into broad styles, such as cheddar, Swiss and chèvre. Consider how these common cheeses traditionally are used in cooking for clues about how to pair other cheeses in that category with specific herbs. Thyme seems to go well with nearly any cheese, including blue cheeses, as do chives and dill. Cheeses have such an ability to complement herbal flavors that it’s difficult to go wrong no matter which herb you choose.
Jerry Traunfeld, author of The Herbal Kitchen (William Morrow, 2005), is the former executive chef of the Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, Washington. He received the James Beard Award for Best American Chef of the Northwest in 2000.
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