Several years ago, my job required that I occasionally fly here and there for conferences and, oh, they were not fun. I know that many conferences today are wonderful events where wonderful people meet and expand their professional horizons but those for me were all about windowless conference rooms, buzzing fluorescent lights, and all hopes that I would be able to “get out!” and “see a new city!” dashed when I realized I would, in fact, need to file articles from my hotel room that night. On the lowest of these trips, I found myself gazing at a painfully unappetizing room service menu and came across an item called a “fried cheese collage” and this, I am sad to say, was the last straw.
“What is WRONG with this world?” I grumpily, nay, hangrily told my husband over the phone. “Fried cheese? Why does cheese need to be breaded and fried? Isn’t cheese lovely without breading? Without frying?”
Well, it turns out, I do. I need to fry cheese. Flash forward many years and a more charmed career later, and I was invited a couple weekends ago to a brunch gathering of well-dressed people with websites (okay, that wasn’t the focus, just something I noted; related: I have no idea why they let me in) and well, I actually had to leave really early because we had other plans for the day but I did get to sit down for the salad course. Plates of salad were passed around, each topped with what I assumed was a seared scallop but turned out to be so, so much better. It was, in fact, a Panko-crusted round of goat cheese that had been fried to a crisp edge and melted, oozy center. Fried cheese. Fried. Cheese.
I had to make it, as soon as humanly possible and when I went on my fridge-cleaning bender before our current vacation and found a dated log of goat cheese and, well, not a whole lot else in the fridge to use up, I found my chance. But that’s the brilliance of this crouton. You could take anything you had around — aging salad greens, some languishing rings of pickled shallot from a different recipe and the saddest hyperbright cherry tomatoes you ever did see — and with the addition of this golden, crunchy, warm topping, turn it into salad nirvana.
If you’ll allow me to digress further, let me tell you why I think this is so important. I don’t think you need anyone’s help making peak-season, farm-fresh produce, gleaming with dewy, organic newness taste good. It just does. Shaved thinly or chopped roasted whole with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a showering of coarse sea salt later, dinner is served, and heavenly so. But where I live, most of the months of the year are not, in fact, the growing season. By January, it’s mostly bagged lettuce mixes and when, in April, my longing for a tomato is so intense that I’m willing to wing it with those aforementioned cherry hyperbrights, and these, my friends, take some good cooking, some good recipes, to make sing. A little melty crouton magic could be just that thing, the trick you keep in your back pocket to zip out for a Mother’s Day brunch, dinner party or a better-than-expected lunch when the thought of another sad little off-season, flavorless salad is too much to bear.
One year ago: Leek Toasts with Blue Cheese
Two years ago: Oatmeal Pancakes
Three years ago: Endive and Celery Salad with Fennel Vinaigrette, Rhubarb Cobbler and Broccoli Slaw
Four years ago: Martha’s Macaroni and Cheese and Crispy Salted Oatmeal White Chocolate Cookies
Five years ago: Corniest Corn Muffins, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake and Pickled Garlicky Red Peppers
Guys, when I get a recipe from someone and it works exactly as it is supposed to with no drama or adaptations needed the very first time, I am overjoyed. It is a very good day, and this was one of these. But did I fiddle? Of course I fiddled. I fiddled only enough to adjust the cheeses to amounts that were more easily purchased (i.e. most goat cheese comes in 4 ounce logs, that kind of thing), using a little more soft cheese and a little less of the firm stuff. The result is a softer crouton that melts more easily. We didn’t mind.
Usage: I already made my argument for why I think this could perk up even the saddest excuse for a salad you could summon from the depths of your fridge (or, mid-winter produce aisle). Now, since it is indeed spring out there, imagine it on this salad (minus the parmesan) or this one (minus the feta) or atop grilled ramps, or gently wilted spinach, or… you name it.
Makes 4 croutons
4 ounces goat milk Gouda, coarsely grated*
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, softened
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1/4 cup Panko** breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon coarse or sea salt
Olive oil, for frying
Freshly ground black pepper
Mash together cheeses in a bowl, mixing until combined. Form the mixture into four balls then smoosh each slightly into thick patties. Arrange three small dishes for dredging stations: Place the flour in the first one, beat the egg lightly in the second, and mix the breadcrumbs and salt in the last one. Heat a healthy slick of olive oil (the original recipe suggested 3 tablespoons; in a tiny skillet, I used closer to 2) in a small skillet over medium heat. Once hot, fry each patty until golden and crispy, about two minutes per side. It’s going to get melty (I’m not sorry) and seem pesky to flip once warm. I found using two forks made this easy-peasy. Briefly pause the crouton on paper towels to drain excess oil, before landing it on top of your salad of choice, then finish the whole thing with freshly ground black pepper. Repeat with remaining croutons. Eat at once.
* Gouda, a Dutch cheese, is traditionally made with cow’s milk. You can buy it young (smooth, semi-firm and mild flavored), or aged (harder, darker, stronger-flavored with crunchy flecks), smoked, light, and even more ways. However, if you can find the goat milk gouda suggested here, perfect for goat cheese-phobes, it’s really amazing in these croutons, absolutely worth swinging by a cheese shop or grocery store with a great cheese counter for. (It’s also sold online from a variety of stores.) If you cannot get it, you could replace the gouda with another semi-firm cheese good for grating and melting, like a young cow’s milk gouda, gruyere, etc.
** If you can’t find or don’t want to buy Panko, here’s how I fake it: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Tear one to two slices of soft, crustless white bread into 1-inch pieces and pulse them in the food processor until coarsely ground. This will make a generous half cup. Transfer crumbs to a rimmed baking sheet and bake until just barely golden brown and dry, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool. Use.