Market Chef : Claudia Lucero
While everyone I interview for the Market Chef series has something new and interesting to bring to the table, my conversation with Claudia Lucero wins the prize for flow, giggle, and overall bubblyness. She seems to strike that perfect balance between being a person who just really knows her stuff (in that science-y, brainy, perfectionist way) and being a funny, friend-crush worthy, totally cool human being. Speaking of science, I’d like to scientifically point out that therefore it’s likely there is a direct correlation between the amount of time a person spends thinking about, making and eating cheese and said person’s overall awesomeness. A terrific way to test this theory would be to buy one of Claudia’s DIY Cheese Kits and use myself as a test subject. But I digress.
So, other than a super neat person, who is Claudia and what’s up with these cheese kits? Well, she’s a lot of things! Growing up in a small town near the Mexico/California border (on the California side), her family didn’t have a lot of money, so scratch cooking was a given. Though things were tight, Claudia describes a childhood rich with food memories; “ I grew up pretty healthy, and with a taste for these traditional foods. We had to cook from scratch a lot — my grandmother was the cook of the family and I just feel so lucky that she let me cook with her, even from a really young age. Just this week, I ordered a 1/4 beef, and I was thinking what I’d do with it and felt so grateful that I just grew up with this kind of stuff stuff; using tongue, liver, everything. Growing up like this, it instilled in me this curiosity.”
Although her family lived in “super paved” apartment complexes, many of them retained remnants of their agricultural past — mulberry trees in the parking lot, little spurts of cilantro growing by the garden faucet — and Claudio was inspired from a young age to fiddle around with ways of growing her own food. By high school, she had zeroed in on a (pretty weird for a teenager) long term goal: to own her own house and grow lots of her own food. In light of that, do we even need to address how she ended up in Portland?
Her cheesemaking passion, however, was more of a late-bloomer. One fateful year, her CSA box was particularly heavy with beets and cabbage. Multiple weeks in a row. Lucero decided to look into pickling as a way to preserve the bounty, and fell hard for the old-world magic of fermentation and preservation. Cheese was just one step further — as she desribes it in her totally awesome Etsy video, beginning with a quote from Cliff Fadiman, “‘Cheese is milk’s leap towards immortality’ — it’s a preservation tool, something to get really creative with. Whatever you have that’s excess in your home or farm, that’s what you preserve.” Clearly, Claudia has a gift for synthesizing something that can seem complex into a single, beautifully simple idea and out of this gift, Urban Cheesecraft was born. After a lot of recipe reading, internet trolling and a healthy dose of trial and error, Claudia began to have success with cheesemaking in her home. Friends were immediately curious about how she did it. Her first ever cheesemaking kit was born as a gift to a friend who wanted to spend a day playing around with cheesemaking with her mother, but felt overwhelmed at the prospect of figuring out the nitty gritty details of the process herself.
Etsy has been an amazing outlet for the kits, and Claudia says she was almost immediately overwhelmed by the level of interest. In September of 2011, Urban Cheesecraft became her full-time job. In April of this year, business exploded when Williams-Sonoma (after testing every cheesemaking kit on the market) chose to carry her fabulous kits. “ The really fun part of growing is that I’m finally to the stage of getting to test new kits – I get to make new cheeses, which will eventually mean new kits! I’m just not comfortable with putting one out unless i’ve tested it repeated for at least a year so I know everything that could go wrong, so it’ll be a while, but I’m excited to get back into the kitchen.”
Lucky us, she’ll be cooking up some cheese in our Market kitchen this Sunday — probably a simple farmers cheese; “Something that will come together quickly so everyone can have tastes”. Free cheese! Need we say more?! See you at the Market!
Start with a gallon of whole milk and 1/4 cup of raw apple cider vinegar or lemon juice.
Line a colander with cheesecloth. Be sure to either quadruple the layers of regular grocery store cheesecloth or use actual cheesemaking cloth called butter muslin so that your curds do not go right through the holes. You can also use any other clean, lint free cloth (boil in water for 5 minutes if necessary).
Heat the milk in a pot until you hit 185df checking the bottom of the pot and adjusting the heat to prevent the milk from sticking.
Drizzle the acid in until you see a very clear separation between curds (white clumps) and whey (yellowing and clear). You may not need all of the acid.
Very gently move the curds around the pot to assist in even acid distribution, do not stir vigorously or you may break up your curds. Allow the curds to cook this way for a full minute. Turn off heat.
Carefully spoon or pour the curds through the cloth (catch the whey with a large bowl if you intend to use it to make ice cream, smoothies or cook rice). Allow most of the whey to drain and then add sea salt, chopped herbs, cracked pepper or anything else you fancy to taste (taste pinches of the curds once you stir the tasty bits in to check).
At this point your cheese if done, congratulations, you made cheese! Feel free to immediately spoon some over a platter of fresh tomatoes and basil for the simplest version of a “Capreasy” salad- drizzle all with olive oil and sprinkle more sea salt and pepper over everything. Since this makes almost 2 lbs of cheese however, you have plenty to press and pan fry…
To press- Twist the corners of the cloth in the colander making a tight bundle of your curds. Place a flat item like a small plate on top of your bundle, place a weight like the milk jug filled with water on top of the bundle and allow the cheese to form a rustic loaf in the cloth as it cools and releases more whey.
When the cheese is quite firm (15 min.-30 min.), slice it into short strips or place it in the fridge for another hour or so if it feels too creamy to slice easily.
To fry- Once it is firm and cool, slice it and fry it in a hot cast iron pan in some ghee, sprinkle with salt, garlic, chili powder or curry powder for a special treat. Flip using a metal spatula and brown until golden and crispy on both sides. The cheese will not melt but rather get crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. You can eat this as is with a nice dipping sauce, use in stir fry or curries like you would tofu or paneer or place on a crisp green salad like you would grilled chicken breast.
Cover and refrigerate any leftovers and use within a week.
You can easily reduce this recipe down to a quart to make it within 15 minutes- enjoy! Visit www.urbancheesecraft.com for more recipes and tips.