Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The discreet Cowgirls

I didn't take this picture of some Cowgirl Creamery cheese. 
After reading this pieceI had the idea that Cowgirl Creamery Cooks by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith was a hybrid cookbook/memoir and decided to read it cover to cover. But it turns out the book isn’t a memoir at all. The narrative backstory is roughly eight pages long, which is a shame because there's enough spicy material crammed in here for ten Tom Robbins novels. 

See if you don't agree: After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith spent six months driving cross country in a baby blue ‘67 Chevy with $700 cash in their pockets. They stopped at county fairs and music festivals and along the way picked up a jazz singer named Rhiannon who invited them to crash with her in San Francisco where she lived in an old Victorian with a circus juggler. They arrived in 1976 and the two young women threw themselves into the nascent Bay Area food scene. Sue worked at one of the last Basque boarding houses in San Francisco and then opened a diner in Berkeley. Peggy became a chef at Chez Panisse. Eventually the pair started making cheese in an old barn in Point Reyes Station, one of the prettiest places on earth. Their cheese is renowned and they have been hugely successful.

See? Interesting. 

But they clearly didn't want to write in any kind of detail about their lives. I respect that, but, as a reader, I'm sorry. Cowgirl Creamery Cooks isn’t a memoir/cookbook. It's more of a cheese primer/cookbook. 

And as a cookbook, so far so good. Yesterday, I made recipe #1, a deconstructed French onion soup that they call “panade with gruyere and onion-garlic confit.” Fancy name for a super-easy soup. You saute onion and garlic until soft and then simmer this with some parmesan broth. When it’s hot, pour the soup over bread and shredded gruyere. It’s very similar in principle to the boiled water soup I made a few weeks ago.

Here’s how it went over:

4:45 p.m. - text from Isabel: What is for dinner?
4:46 - text to Isabel: Onion soup
5:40 - text from Mark: I’ll be back at 6:40 and am hoping to watch college football finish. 
6:15 - decide to eat on my own since Mark will be watching football and Isabel hasn't surfaced.  Invite Owen to join me. He isn’t hungry. Eat soup. Like soup. 
6:50 - serve Mark and Owen soup. Hear that Isabel has to decided to dine at Cheesecake Factory. Retire to bedroom to read NOS4A2
9:15  - go upstairs for a cold drink. Ask: So what did you think of the soup?
Mark: It was ok. It was kind of hard to eat.
Me: Hard to eat? In what way was it hard to eat? 
Mark: The way onion soup is always hard to eat. All the bits. Kind of slippery.
Me: Onion soup is not hard to eat. 
Mark: Ok, don’t get annoyed. You asked what I thought and I told you.
Me: What is this? (full bowl of soup atop which other kitchen scraps have been tossed)
Mark: That was Owen’s attempt with the soup.
Me: He didn’t eat any of it!
Mark: He said it was too “sharp.”

There’s no disputing tastes, but in my opinion the onion soup from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks is neither “hard to eat” nor “sharp.” It’s very tasty and if you like French onion soup, you will like this. I’m not sure how crucial the parmesan stock is to the soup’s success, but to make parmesan stock you need one cup of parmesan rinds. This is easy to come by if you run a restaurant or cheese shop, as the Cowgirls do, but collecting those rinds could take an ordinary cook months or even years. I haven’t explored the book thoroughly enough to know whether this kind of disconnect is pervasive. To be continued.


  1. Hunting for disconnects might be fun. Alice Waters' memoir actually hooked me into cooking (which I am interested in, but still have yet to get very good or adventurous with). I can only imagine that the story of anyone involved in the early days of Chez Panisse would be fascinating. Also, I Googled parmesan broth (the Food52 linked bugged out on me, although its back now), and my search revealed that Smitten Kitchen posted on parmesan broth yesterday! What a koinky-dink. She apparently has rinds a-plenty just hangin' round her kitchen. (Oh hello, I just read her fine-print and she buys them at Whole Foods or cheese shops!) OK, it's late and I'm rambling rudely now. Love this post!

    1. Heh, I just came back here to post the same thing. Deb says: "Lady, where do you think I’m going to get a half-pound of Parmesan rinds? Don’t worry, I don’t think anyone goes through that much Parmesan, not even you. I probably wouldn’t even be writing this recipe up had I not made the discovery that you can buy Parmesan rinds-aplenty at a handful of stores. Both Whole Foods I’ve gone to in NYC stock them, thus I’m sure most locations do, as do other grocery stores and many cheese stops — essentially, if a place sells freshly-grated Parmesan, they have a supply of rinds somewhere. If they’re nice, they’ll give them to you for free. If they’re business-smart, they’ll charge you, but still significantly less than you’d pay for the cheese itself. However, in the future, please promise that you won’t throw away any Parmesan rinds (or pecorino Romano, or… actually, if you add cheese rinds to soups, I’d love to hear your favorites); you can even keep them in the freezer, as you would other good soup “bones,” until you need them."

    2. This is good to know and I will look around for rinds in various supermarkets to see what is available. I'm sure there is nothing at Safeway, but there are enough high end markets around here that there must be rinds. I suppose they would be cheaper than beef bones or chicken bones? I wonder. I also wonder how parmesan broth compares nutritionally. I always save rinds!

  2. Tell me what you think about NOS4A2. I have seen it and wondered, but didn't want to get into it if it's needlessly gross in an Oprah-Book-Club-ish way.

    1. It's great. Not gross at all, at least not yet.

  3. Looking at the banner on your website reminded me of your chickens. Any updates?

    1. I just went outside and gave them the uneaten bowl of soup from last night. They're good. We currently have 14. We had some losses a few weeks ago after a raccoon got into the hen house, but we added fortifications and I think we've got it under control, at least until the bobcat returns. Then they won't be able to range anymore.

    2. Thanks! Oh, that bobcat. He's a wily one.

  4. I am not a big fan of onion soup, but I admire it, if that makes any sense at all. It is a lovely concoction. The back story does sound fascinating. I wish I had done something like that when I was young, but I was never that adventurous, unfortunately. However, I am still here, so perhaps I shouldn't be so wistful.

    1. I know what you mean about regretting your not-misspent youth. It just wasn't our style, I guess.

  5. who knew.....parmesan rinds ...so just throw into the pot like bay leaves then? Hmmm I will have to give that a try. From now on they are going into the freezer. Never knew what to do with them...it always seemed wasteful to just huck them into the compost. Well ...now I know!!!

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