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Elements / One ingredient, one dish

There's a bunch of blue cheeses to choose from, but only one can be king.

Roquefort's had that reputation since Roman times, when Pliny the Elder commented favorably on the semisoft sheep's milk cheese, with veins of blue mold. Charlemagne was a big fan too, historians say.

Today, European law states that Roquefort can only be aged in a series of natural caves inside Mount Cambalou, in southwestern France.

Its spicy, pungent creaminess makes it a favorite for creamy salad dressings, or at the end of a meal, with port and walnuts. Roquefort is aged three to nine months, and can be identified by a red sheep on its foil wrapper.

Underground sensation: The curds that become Roquefort cheese can be produced elsewhere in France, but the natural molds and other atmospheric features of Mount Cambalou's limestone caves are required to finish the genuine article.

Here, Roquefort adds richness, character and salt to a bed of blanched fennel, a classically minimalist recipe from Mark Bittman. Use sliced sweet onions, or blanched sliced carrots, cauliflower spears or broccoli spears with equal success.

Since the rest of the recipe is so simple, treat yourself to fresh bread crumbs, just old bread or rolls whirred up in a food processor or blender. Their toasty crunch makes a dramatic improvement over old store crumbs from a canister.

> Fennel gratin

1 fennel bulb (about 1 pound)

1/2 cup coarse bread crumbs

1/4 cup crumbled Roquefort cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a pot of water to a boil.

Trim the fennel, then cut it into 1/4 -inch-thick slices and cook in the boiling water until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and layer in a shallow baking dish. (You can also finish the dish up to two days later. Drain vegetables, then stop their cooking by plunging them into ice water, then drain again and refrigerate. Increase baking time to 20 minutes.)

Top the fennel with bread crumbs, then with the cheese; season with pepper to taste. (Hold off on salt because of the cheese.) Bake until cheese melts, about 10 minutes.

Run under broiler until crumbs brown, checking every 30 seconds or less. Serve hot or at room temperature.


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