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BANDA: From Parmesan to Gruyere to ricotta, here are ways to eat and appreciate this palate pleaser

Fresh made ricotta crostini with honey thyme, cherry tomato, strawberry jam, and Calbrese salami toppings created by Nyanyika Banda. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 3
Caesar salad with Parmesan crisp created by Nyanyika Banda. Clint Austin / Forum News Service2 / 3
Spinach goat cheese salad with strawberries, walnuts and dried cranberries created by Nyanyika Banda. Clint Austin / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH — My love affair with cheese began when I moved to Wisconsin as a teenager with my family. Before that, the only time I enjoyed cheese was when it was on pizza or placed between two pieces of bread that were buttered and then grilled. In fact, macaroni and cheese repulsed me, as did the idea of consuming anything called "blue cheese."

But like many things in life, as I got older, my palate developed and I began to explore the world of cheeses. You can now find me gushing over cheese plates of soft brie, camemberts and chevres. As well as hard, aged cheddars, Parmesans and Gruyere. In my world, a taco is not a taco without some queso, and pasta should always be accompanied by grated Parmesan.

Cheese is becoming a new food trend in China.

Chinese chefs are treating it the way Americans treat truffles, an ounce of cheese added to a dish adds extreme value. A few months ago, I was working an event in Madison with some of my former instructors from culinary school. The city was hosting some Chinese diplomats, pastry chefs and dairy distributors who were investigating dairy production and had been touring various dairy farms in the state. We were demonstrating some western style recipes using milk, eggs and cheese. It was fascinating to learn that while I'm learning about Chinese cooking, they are now beginning to incorporate more global influences in their own.

Author Clifton Fadiman describes cheese: "milk's leap toward immortality." Of course, he is referring to the ripened (aged) varieties — curds that have been drained and cured. There are also fresh cheeses like ricotta, which is milk that has been cooked to a curd using an acid and then drained and seasoned. Cheese can be made from a variety of milks from cows, buffalo, sheep and goats. Goat's milk cheese, also known as chevre, is one of my favorites. It's creamy and tart, and I enjoy crumbling it on top of a salad with nuts and dried and fresh berries like craisins and strawberries.

Parmesan Crisps are a simple garnishment for Caesar salads and make a delightful snack. Any hard cheese, like Gruyere, can be a substitute. I spent a winter holiday season in Switzerland and at my bed and breakfast, the morning meal was bread, cured meats, fresh fruit and Swiss cheese. I was in heaven beginning my days with such decadence.

Gruyere has layers of flavor from nutty to woody, and it melts to creamy goodness. It is named after the valley in Switzerland found in the Canton of Fribourg. There is also a special kind of Gruyere that is only made from cows that graze on high Alpine pastures.

Many pasta dishes, like ravioli and lasagna, use ricotta cheese. This is a very easy cheese to make at home on the stovetop, and it makes another nice snack atop crostini or crackers with fruit compote or jam or salami. It is believed that ricotta — from the Latin word "recocta" which means to re-cook — came about because there was an overabundance of whey in Italy as a result of its large cheesemaking industry.

Hundreds of types of cheese exist from countries all over the world. The origins of cheese predate any recorded history, but the earliest archaeological proof is from 5,500 B.C. in Poland, where archeologists discovered strainers that showed evidence of milk proteins.

It was European immigrants who arrived to Wisconsin in the 19th century that began to establish dairy farms in the state. Anne Pickett established the first commercial cheese factory in 1841, beginning the industry that would bring the state fame.

On one of my last days in Massachusetts before we moved to Wisconsin, a friend said, "Have fun with the cows!"

It's been 20 years, and all I can do is chuckle because these cows (and goats) and the cheese their milk produce brings me so much joy.

Goat Cheese Salad

4 ounces herbed goat's milk cheese

¼ cup chopped walnuts

¼ cup craisins

4 strawberries sliced

1 cup mixed greens

2 ounces red wine vinaigrette

Toss mixed greens in dressing and top with cheese, walnuts, craisins and berries. Serves 1.

Fresh Ricotta

2 quarts whole milk

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons lemon juice

A fine mesh strainer, or sieve, and mesh cheese cloth

Line the sieve with a layer mesh cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl. Slowly bring milk, cream and salt to a boil in a 6-quart heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Add lemon juice, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture curdles, about 2 minutes.

Pour the mixture into the lined sieve and let it drain 1 hour. After discarding the liquid, chill the ricotta, covered. Season with salt and pepper. It will keep in the refrigerator 2 days.

Parmesan Crisps

1 cup shredded Parmesan (or other hard cheese like Gruyere)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Take a large pinch of shredded cheese and spread in a circle on the pan. Repeat, keeping each mound to a 2-inch diameter and not touching. Bake at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes or until crisp is golden. Cool completely on baking sheet. Remove from baking sheet using a thin spatula.