Sue Conley and Peggy Smith opened Cowgirl Creamery back in the early 1990s. Both had strong backgrounds in the Bay Area restaurant scene, with Sue at Bette's Diner and Peggy at Chez Panisse. Inspired by life in bucolic West Marin and ready for something new, they decided to open a food store in Point Reyes Station; and soon after that they developed their first cheese: the delicious, creamy, elegant triple cream named Mt. Tam after nearby Mount Tamalpias.
Things took off from there and today Cowgirl Creamery has three cheese stores, located in Point Reyes Station, San Francisco's Ferry Building, and Washington D.C., as well as several award winning cheeses. Mt. Tam is still one of their most popular along with Red Hawk, an incredible washed rind triple cream that could only come from West Marin.
In a few weeks, Sue and Peggy will release their first cookbook, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks. The book will draw from their years of cooking in restaurants, offering 75 recipes that either use cheese or accompany cheese on a cheese plate. (Note: This is not a cheese making cookbook.) Also included will be helpful information on how to shop for and store cheese, and how to plan a cheese course.
After consulting with her co-founder Peggy, Sue Conley spoke with us about their 5 essential things for the home cook, with an emphasis on cheese, of course!
5 Essentials for Home Cooks from Cowgirl Creamery
1. The Essential Cheese. Peggy and Sue feel the most essential cheese is a hard grating cheese like parmesan because you can both eat it by itself and grate it on all sorts of dishes (vegetables, noodles and pasta, a rice dish) to bring up the flavor and add salt and richness.
What to look for in a parmesan? "If you want a true parmesan, it should have Parmesan Reggiano stamped onto the side. There are different grades — the Italians are very partucular about this! The ones that are aged for over one year are usually of a higher quality. Just like a wine, it should have good structure and balance. That doesn't mean the younger ones are bad — they're delicious, too!"
The other important factor is when it was cut from the wheel. Cowgirl Creamery carries an organic parmesan from a small producer in Italy and the best time to eat it is right after the wheel has been opened. A beautiful aroma comes up because the cheese is at its very best moment. When shopping in a supermarket, try to look for a wedge that hasn't been sitting around in the cold case for a long time.
Of course, there are other good grating cheeses besides parmesan, such as Vella Dry Jack or Ricotta Salata or a nice, well-aged pecorino.
2. You Need a Sturdy Grater. "We use an old fashioned cheese grater at home," says Sue. "Like the one that your grandma had, otherwise known as a box grater. Microplanes are good too! They make a very fluffy, lightly textured grate. For shaving off long thin slices, try a vegetable peeler."
3. Garlic and Onion. "For cooking, almost every dish starts with garlic and onion so we always like to have them on hand. They're so very versatile. An onion is great raw as well as cooked down into a confit where it brings such a sweet, meaty taste to a dish. We have a recipe in the new cookbook for an onion confit that we serve with cheese on a cheese board, especially with cheeses like gruyere or our own Wagon Wheel. Deep brown, luscious flavor."
What about garlic? "You just have to have it! No more explanation needed!"
4. Fearless Attitude. "Julia Child said to never apologize for your food. I think that's so true. You shouldn't be afraid that you're going to make a mistake because cooking is a process and you can start and stop and adjust along the way. As long as you're tasting, tasting, tasting then you're going to end up with something that might not be what you had in mind in the beginning but will still be delicious. We need to try new things!"
5. A Grateful Table. "It's no fun to cook for people who aren't paying attention, who aren't appreciating what is offered. And that can be the simpliest thing — a grilled cheese sandwich, for instance! Lots of people are talking this about these days: eating together, enjoying all the aspects of the meal, the company, the conversation. And paying attention to the food.
"We really have a lot of that here in Northern California. We have a real connection with our farmers and producers and all the parts of the food system. Our community is so deep and rich, and it's so wonderful to see other places in the United States starting to come alive in that way, too.
"We have a store in Washington D.C., an area where Peggy and I grew up. It is a political town and people are often very distracted with making their deals or introductions. There's a great movement there for local, sustainable food but the connection that we feel that is so deep — one that the next generation here is picking up and growing — is getting started there, too. It's pretty exciting."
Bonus Tip: If possible, try to purchase your cheese from a shop that has a cheesemonger on staff, someone who is paying attention and understands about when to rotate the stock and when to sell you your cheese at the best time.
For more information on Sue and Peggy, and to view their cheese making facility, check out their website and our Maker Tour of Cowgirl Creamery. Look for their first cookbook, to be released October 30, 2013, at your local independent bookseller or via Amazon: Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.
(Images: Gina Bianciello; 3rd image courtesy Cowgirl Creamery)