Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Catapano Dairy: Commitment and Care Yield Award-Winning Goat Cheese

A seasonal spread featuring farmstead chevre goat cheese - flavored with lavender and honey - from Catapano Dairy Farm in Peconic, Long Island.

It is the unofficial start of the summer season. I celebrate the glorious weather by dining outside with a delectable spread of fruit, honey, nuts, Long Island wine and goat cheese flavored with a hint of lavender and honey from Catapano Dairy Farm in Peconic, Long Island.

The fresh chevre cheese is alabaster white and decadently creamy. I spread it thick on slices of fragrant golden semolina bread with rosemary from Junda’s Pastry, Crust & Crumbs in Jamesport. The cheese is velvety smooth, with a seductive, rich mouth feel. It tastes bright, tart and sweet like country-fresh cream at dawn.

For this moment of edible bliss, Karen and Michael Catapano have labored 365 days a year.

Catapano Dairy sits on the North Road in Peconic, New York, in the heart of Long Island wine country.

Catapano Dairy Farm has the distinction of being the only goat dairy on the North Fork of Long Island, and one of only two dairies producing farmstead cheese on the East End. One might actually miss the entrance sign, set beneath several large shade trees on the North Road, and nestled amidst a burgeoning wine industry. But, that would mean missing a chance to sample extraordinary goat cheese twice-honored with the highest award given by the American Cheese Society. When you talk with Karen Catapano, you appreciate that there is nothing effortless about creating award-winning artisanal cheese. It is a year-round effort.

Assortment of fresh farmstead goat cheese from Catapano Dairy Farm.

Karen is tall and slender with auburn hair. We sit down to talk in the midday sun at a café table adjacent to the animal pens. An occasional “Baaahh” floats musically through the air. Nearby is a small shop, painted robin’s egg blue, where the couple sells fresh goat cheese and premium soap made from goat milk. Shortly into our conversation, I am reminded that an artisanal cheese enterprise is also an animal husbandry operation, and quite labor intensive. When the couple purchased an existing dairy with 18 goats in Mattituck, Long Island in 2003, they discovered that the bucolic dream of dairy ownership and the intensive upkeep were often in conflict.

“We were like normal people with regular jobs and it just seemed like a totally great lifestyle,” Karen recalls. “We bought this cute little idea of a farm and really had to redo the entire thing.”

Both were healthcare professionals, Karen a nurse and Michael a physician. Their personal interests seemed perfect for the venture. Michael had dabbled in cheese making and Karen was breeding dogs and cats. So they enrolled in cheese making and animal husbandry classes at a farm in upstate New York. Every day was a learning process.

“Our first year was total chaos.” Karen says. “I actually thought I could still work as a nurse a little bit and kind of take care of the goats on the weekend. It was really wild. But we got through it.”

Karen Catapano with the goats at Catapano Dairy Farm.

The investment of time and effort paid off. “We were working 24/7 to get it going and then the second year, we did very well. Everybody knew us,” she says. But, they were constantly adapting the existing dairy to new demands.

“It’s such a totally encompassing business and there are so many facets to it,” reflects Karen. “If I was to do it now, I would do it completely different. I would start with the best of everything, like we have now.”

In 2005 when Michael entered Catapano Dairy Farm Chevre in the American Cheese Society annual competition and won first prize for best goat cheese in the USA, the couple once again needed to reconsider their approach to the business. Success required further investment and expansion.

“We were so happy but we were so not prepared for it,” says Karen. “Now all these droves of people from New York City were coming out. At 2 o’clock on Saturday, I’d be totally out of cheese. We put all our efforts into finding a new property. Either that, or we’d have to give it up.”

They established the current dairy in Peconic in 2006 and are now beginning their fourth season on the property. Large roaming pens are home to 96 goats including Saanen and Alpine breeds. Gentle kids with pristine white coats welcome visitors at the fence line. There is a state-of-the-art dairy kitchen on the premises.

Catapano Dairy Farm is home to 96 goats and a state-of-the-art dairy kitchen.
“There is no other place like this, because of the uniqueness of being on the North Fork, and in a lot of ways, we did it at the right time, because now goat cheese is really cool,” says Karen.

How does Catapano Dairy achieve its luscious, award-winning flavor? “The food is of paramount importance,” says Karen. “I think that’s why we won, because we feed the goats so carefully.” Similar to other aspects of the operation, they found the right nutritional balance with some experimentation.

“The feed is not only important for the taste of the cheese, it’s important for the health of the goat and the whole backside of it that people don’t see,” she explains. “I actually hired a goat nutritionist, and she came and did a whole protein analysis of the hay and matched the grains accordingly and added the vitamins in for me.”

The herd of goats at Catapano Dairy Farm includes white Saanen and Alpine breeds.

Of course, the skill of the cheese maker is a significant factor in the flavor. Michael Catapano maintains a medical practice to support the farm, and creates the award-winning cheeses. His “Peconic Mist” blue cheese was awarded first place in the American Cheese Society’s 2008 competition. He is constantly testing new recipes.

“He is never bored,” says Karen. “He has everything written down, and he loves his variables. It’s like a big chemistry experiment for him. This is his passion.”

Their favorite cheese recipe has yet to be sold. Michael has been experimenting and has produced seven huge wheels of an Italian-style Parmigiano-Reggiano.

“It’s to die for, but he’s not had the time and we haven’t had the surplus of milk to make it,” says Karen. “I think this new cheese is probably going to be our favorite.”

During the winter months, the couple tends to repairs, and Karen is kept busy with “kidding season” in early spring. She also produces a line of handcrafted soap and skin care products called “The Delicate Doe.” Goat milk is rich in proteins and naturally occurring fats which makes it an excellent moisturizer.

Their reputation continues to grow. Catapano Cheese is offered as a cheese share at the Sang Lee Organic Farm and will be sold this summer at a regional food market just opened at the South Street Seaport in New York City. North Fork restaurants offer the cheese on their menus and one even features a Catapano Burger. Karen and Michael Catapano have earned their place in the agricultural fabric of Long Island’s North Fork.

Pristine white Catapano goats greet visitors.

“When you see our cheese, I think that you think of Catapano Dairy Farm, a small goat dairy in the heart of wine country,” says Karen. “That’s really what we are.”

Catapano Dairy Farm is located at 33705 North Road (Route 48), Peconic, NY, 11958.
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Big Apple Burger Banter – HB Burger

I’ve dubbed them the “Burger Babes.” It’s okay. I checked with Zany and Mad Me-Shell, and they love the moniker. I think they’re even getting business cards made.

You may recall that some time ago, my colleagues Mad Me-Shell and Zany first came up with the scheme of checking out the best burger joints in our Manhattan neighborhood. They get to eat, offer witty commentary and I get to write it up as a public service to anyone who can still afford lunch in Manhattan. There may be something wrong with this picture.

Perhaps you also remember that at the time of our first scheduled outing, Zany suddenly came down with a severe case of the deadlines. So, Mad Me-Shell and I promptly left her slaving away in the office and went out and gorged ourselves on burgers. Not very charitable.

Zany still hasn’t forgiven us. In fact, up until now, she’s been refusing to acknowledge that the previous lunch ever took place. But then, the emotion just suddenly pours out of her – violently – like when you stomp on one of those little plastic packs of ketchup.

“It was one of the darkest days of my employment,” she admits, with as much rancor as someone from Eerie, Pennsylvania can muster. “I was very depressed. The smell from the burger restaurant on your clothes when you returned made me cry. I had to go to the vending machine and get a pack of Milano Cookies.”

Meanwhile, guilt is not our only reason for this lunch date. Mad Me-Shell – who views burgers as a medicinal requirement – is looking a little pale.

“I need some iron to boost myself,” she explains feebly. “I’ve been trying to save up calories for this excursion, but I think it has depleted my energy levels, so I don’t want to have to go to the doctor.”

For some unexplained reason, Zany, who is engaged to marry a prolific baker, has chosen the approaching weekend to shop for THE dress.

“It was a spontaneous decision,” she says, “But we’re going to have a burger today and do the first round of trying on wedding dresses soon after.”

“It’s Zany’s carnivore’s guide to wedding dress fittings,” says Mad Me-Shell.

Mostly out of pity, we’ve allowed Zany to pick today’s restaurant. She has settled on HB Burger at 127 W. 43rd Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue. The deciding factor in her decision is the availability of fried pickles on the menu. “I’ve never seen them on a New York City menu until today,” she says, trying to contain her excitement.

Zany explains that fried pickles are sort of a delicacy where she comes from and can be found on the menu at Freeport Restaurant in North East Pennsylvania. “There, they serve chip pickles,” she says with a lilt in her voice. “But, these are spears instead of the chips, and there’s a big difference with the dip that we’re getting verses ranch dressing which is a necessity.”

This is fried pickle connoisseurship 101.

The décor at HB Burger is classic tavern shtick – dark wood paneling, black and white tile and tin ceiling, although it’s all clearly brand new. Mad Me-Shell thinks it’s a little like PJ Clarkes. “It makes me feel as if we’ve stepped back to the 1950s,” she remarks.

Here I must point out that I’m the only one in the group that even comes close to recalling the 1950s, and technically, even I missed it.

“We’ve seen pictures,” says Mad Me-Shell

“And, movies!” adds Zany.

Our meal starts with a sampling of the fried pickles. Zany provides narration, as if she were hosting a Martha Stewart cooking segment. “They’re crispy to the touch. This is good. You know there’s going to be some crunch.”

The crowd grows quite and Zany takes a bite. “It’s perfect. The pickle is warm. The pickle is crunchy and the outside is crunchy too. I like it.”

I’m almost inspired to applaud. Almost. It is pretty tasty, and I ask Zany what has prompted this fried pickle obsession.

“I ate a lot of bread and butter pickles growing up, but I didn’t like the dill pickles. It was not until I had the fried goodness around it, along with the ranch dressing, that I really began to pick up this vegetable. This could be one of your five servings of vegetables for the day.”

We quickly come to the conclusion that HB Burger may excel at sides, but the burgers are not quite as impressive. The servings are just a tad light for a place that claims to be a honking burger joint. Our tasting menu includes the Taco Turkey Burger, the Special Buffalo Burger, and the Mini Burgers. As per our agreement, we slice and share, so everyone gets a taste of everything. Our collective reaction is somewhat underwhelming.
Zany thinks the mini burgers score high on presentation, but are perhaps overcooked. “They’re not juicy – I’m not overwhelmed with stuff coming out of the bun. They’re a little dry.”

Mad Me-Shell makes her pronouncement on the Taco Turkey Burger. “Mine is very dry. It’s got a nice char but no salsa flavor and barely a cheese flavor. No taco flavor until you’re well into the burger.” She’s also not sure if she can clearly identify it as a turkey burger. However, the hand cut fries get her approval. She gives the Buffalo Burger “good marks for flavor.”

The servings are just a bit too conservative. Overall, we’re just not feeling any afternoon nap quotient, which is half, no, three-quarters of the fun of a burger excursion.

“I just feel like I’m going to leave here, and not have that coma feeling that you guys had before,” says Zany.

Dining ennui can make people do strange things. At this point, the meal takes on a more adventurous, dare I say, reckless feel. Zany suddenly begins mixing the ketchup and the mustard together and starts dipping her fries into the gold rouge mélange

Mad Me-Shell is appalled. “I can’t support that, I’m sorry.”

“I came up with the idea on my own,” explains Zany. “I was hoping someday to patent it. You know how they have the peanut butter and jelly combined in a jar?

I throw caution and fear of indigestion to the wind and dive in. I can’t even photograph it. It looks so bizarre. The tomato and the mustard are kind of colliding with the vinegar. It is exactly what you would think. It’s not like the two wholes are greater than the sum of their parts. They’re actually the sum of their parts. It’s more of a convenience food than anything else.

Summing up, we give HB Burger kudos on the décor and the atmosphere, and make a mental note to return some afternoon to try out the boozy milk shakes on the menu when we are in need of an afternoon snack. We rate them well on speed of service, but serving sizes are conservative, not extravagant.

“The plates are clean,” adds Zany. The fried pickles are kind of a revelation and they really seem to have a creative flair when it comes to the sides - handmade sodas, hand cut fries, spicy chips, and the new experience of the ketchup and mustard merger, which Zany one day hopes to market under the brand name, Mustup.

Having gone all condiment crazy on us, Zany seems to have gotten over any residual resentment she harbors and dubs the meal a success.

“A delightful meal,” she says, “And I feel very comfortable walking into the dress store this weekend to try on wedding dresses. Very comfortable. I feel good about myself.”

Mad Me-Shell says, “I feel comfortable about going out to dinner tonight.”

The Burger Babes have spoken.
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Suburban Homestead Cheese

My sophisticated Manhattan friends - and even some who live in Brooklyn - think that I live in the boondocks. In reality, my home is only a mere 45 miles from Manhattan, but I gave up fighting their provincial perceptions a long time ago. Instead, I embrace the idea. I live in the country. I get up at dawn. And in the time-honored tradition of country life, I bake my own bread and I make my own cheese. The only thing I’m missing is a cow and a couple of chickens in the back yard.

Making my own cheese at home is a relatively new development. It’s something I’ve wanted to try since my tour of duty at Cheese Boot Camp. There are lots of resources to help get started. Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll is considered the Bible, and the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company offers a full range of ingredients and tools.

For my first suburban fromage foray I tackle a simple recipe – fresh ricotta cheese. The ingredients include one gallon of milk (preferably not Ultra Pasteurized), at least ¼ cup of fresh lemon juice and Kosher salt. The tools – a large pot, an instant-read thermometer, some cheese cloth and a colander. There are a range of different recipes, and most are similar in terms of ingredients but vary in terms of the ratio of milk and acid.

I combine the milk with the lemon juice and slowly heat the pot to a temperature between 185 degrees and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the project becomes the proverbial watched pot. As the temperature rises, the acid in the lemon juice begins to coagulate the proteins in the milk solids creating curds.

Patience is a virtue in cheesemaking. The pot must be heated slowly and a gallon of cold milk does take time to warm. As the temperature increases, the curds release more liquid and become increasingly firm. It starts to resemble a milky cottage cheese soup.

Once the pot reaches 195 degrees Fahrenheit, I take it off the heat and let it sit covered for 15 minutes. At this point, I still don’t have what the cheesemaking experts refer to as a clean “break” of curds and liquid. I add a bit more lemon juice and immediately see the curds separate from the whey, a clear, golden liquid.

The curds are drained in a colander lined with a cheese cloth. The cheese cloth is wrapped into a bag, squeezing out additional liquid, and then the bag is hung in the refrigerator for several hours.

The result is a firm ball of chalky-white ricotta …

…. which is seasoned with Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper and chopped dill.

The taste is fresh and clean and the texture is slightly chewy with none of the saltiness of commercial products. I layer the ricotta on homemade slices of artisan wheat bread and garnish with sun dried tomatoes for savory, baked open-face sandwich. I’m also considering a frittata with diced ham and fresh ricotta.

So, is home cheese making science or art? I do feel a bit like Bill Nye the Science Guy, hovering over the range with a thermometer for what seems like the bulk of the afternoon. There is also the question of what to do with the abundance of whey? Seasonings aside, there’s not a lot you can do to customize the results of fresh cheese, and it’s got to be eaten within three days, as it is quite perishable.

The final yield of cheese is only about two cups, which doesn’t seem like a lot considering the investment of time and the volume of ingredients. It would require a vast supply of time and milk to turn this into a regular hobby. So, a back yard cow would make a difference. An aging cave in the basement would help, too, if I really wanted to get into the good stuff like blue cheese.

Still, I now have a greater appreciation for the cheese making process, because I’ve now had a hands-on experience. It will certainly enhance my admiration of artisanal cheeses and the efforts of individual cheese makers who create distinctive products.

Will I do it again? I’m not sure, but I still have this hankering to make my own fresh goat cheese. It would taste outstanding with a cold, crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Foodbuzz Takes Manhattan

The terrific team at Foodbuzz swarmed the Big Apple this week to host an extraordinary party of New York-based food bloggers, celebrating 1 million posts for the delectable worldwide foodie community.

The champagne flowed at David Burke Townhouse on East 61st Street and heads turned with each new gastronomic creation - from tingly ceviche on the half-shell to whimsical truffle pops…

It was a sweet treat to catch up with Foodbuzz team members Devon O'Donnell and Ryan Stern …

... and to meet face-to-face with so many bloggers with whom I've chatted frequently online. Conversation ran the gamut of cupcakes, ramps, foraging for mushrooms and home cheesemaking. How great to make connections and spend some time with the authors of The Constable's Larder, No Recipes, Chez What?, Stacey Snacks and Cupcakes Take The Cake.
Imagine the blinding camera action in a crowded room full of food bloggers as each amazing dish is paraded through. Hungry paparazzi, indeed!

Cheers to Foodbuzz for throwing a delicious party and giving a weeknight some much-needed buzz! Here's to the next 1 million posts!

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 10, 2009

New Roots at Restoration Farm

Bunches of Red Russian Kale sprout at Restoration Farm in Old Bethpage, NY.

The rain has been endless – seemingly 40 days and 40 nights. The ground squishes as I traipse along the path at Restoration Farm, a certified organic farm at Old Bethpage, NY.

Somebody told me a while back that Community Sponsored Agriculture is a bit like life. You’re constantly planting and harvesting. Indeed. The constant planting and harvesting in life has created more demands and far less time. This has also meant a necessary change in my CSA membership, but with that, brings the opportunity for new experiences and the chance to plant some new roots.

A fine mist blankets Restoration Farm.

Head growers Dan Holmes and Caroline Fanning lead a large group of visitors down a rutted and gently sloping wooded path toward Restoration Farm. Their work clothes are streaked with mud, and they wear water proof boots. They are a friendly, enthusiastic and convivial couple, beginning their second growing season at Old Bethpage. It has been a busy winter season for Dan and Caroline. They married and are expecting their first baby in June.

A fine mist blankets the farm as we emerge from the woods. There is a pond and pasture to the left, and vegetable fields outlined by rustic split rail fencing extend up the hill on the right. A red-winged blackbird alights on a fence post. I can see several people bent over, working in the field. It is like stepping into another era, and with good reason. Nearby, sits an historic farmhouse, and in the distance one can see a tall white church steeple. Restoration Farm sits on the property of Old Bethpage Village Restoration, a living museum of 19th century structures depicting life in a Civil War-era Long Island farming community. The CSA was established in 2007 as part of Nassau County’s “Healthy Nassau” campaign to encourage healthy eating and a healthy environment.

Green splotches of color are visible in the dark, loamy soil at Restoration Farm.

There is a very personal connection for me in this place. Old Bethpage was established in 1970, and our family would visit regularly from the time it opened. You could get a gingersnap cookie and a glass of birch beer at the Noon Inn Tavern, and learn about 19th century farming practices, forging iron and making straw broomsticks. As an adult, I have often returned for old time baseball, Civil War battle reenactments, Independence Day parades, Temperance Picnics and historic celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, complete with candlelight and period music. Old Bethpage helped inspire my deep love of local history, and now the land will also be the source of my local produce.

Restoration Farm Head Growers Dan Holmes and Caroline Fanning explain strategies for growing organic produce.

Dan and Caroline walk us through each field and tell us what we might expect. Green splotches of color are visible in the dark, loamy soil. There are neat rows of carrots, spinach, onions, lettuce and kale. Tender pea shoots are staked and reaching toward the sky. At the edge of one field, steam rises off mountains of manure that will be used for fertilizer, much of which comes from the cattle that are kept at the historic Powell Farm. In the distance, I can see the familiar steeple of the Manetto Hill Church, built in 1857.

We walk past antique barns, pigs and sheep and stroll down a country lane to visit the flower garden and the new berry fields where strawberries, blackberries and raspberries will be available for picking later in the summer. There is a volunteer working in a field. He is quite wet and covered with grass clippings but tells a visitor how happy he is each time he steps onto the fields of Restoration Farm and begins to work.

A place that inspires a love of local history is now a source of local produce.

We return to the distribution tent where a book called “From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce” is available, along with a spread of homemade blueberry muffins, jam and fruit salad. As the morning concludes, I’ve learned about planting cycles, fertilization, crop rotation, care of berries, flowers and herbs, and I feel a connection with the farmers who have graciously shared their knowledge and commitment for their work. I’m already counting the days until the first harvest.
©2009 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Who Needs To Knead?

I know I’m late to this party. I mean, everyone and their brother has gotten on the “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” bread wagon. The book, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois was published in 2007, after all. What can I say? I’ve been busy. “Too busy to bake,” as a colleague of mine would say.

But just a few days ago, Barnes and Noble nailed me with one of those “you might like this” email solicitations. (Who has a cookbook addiction? Me?)

“Five minutes?” I said. “Surely I can find five minutes this weekend to make bread.” I can now report that I actually spent more time on the checkout line at Target today than it took to prepare this bread dough.

Now granted, the math is a little “fuzzy,” as George Bush II used to say. The five minutes is the amount of time it takes to prepare the dough, and shape the loaf. The baking takes about 30 minutes (just slightly less time than I spent on the checkout line at Target today). But, let’s not split hairs. Considering the fact that I’ve never been able to convince bread to rise in my kitchen, “Five Minute a Day” Bread is quite an innovation. There’s no kneading at all. Just mix the flour, water, salt and yeast, and let rest.

Since I usually skip the introduction of most books, I’m not positive as to why this works. It has something to do with the ratio of flour, yeast, water and resting time. It’s high-moisture bread, and that seems to be the innovation.

The dough mixture rests in a covered container for two hours or more, and then you can pop it in the refrigerator and just use what you need. The dough lasts for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. The dough is similar to a sourdough – it builds flavor and character as it ages.

So while I’m out running errands in the pouring rain, there’s something growing in my refrigerator …

As dinner time approaches, the dough has risen nicely. I cut off two handfuls and shape them into round loaves.

Then, I make a few slashes across the loaves with a sharp knife, pop them into the oven atop a hot pizza stone and within 30 minutes, I have two crusty, golden, piping hot loaves of artisan bread – my daily bread for the week ahead.

I think the “scallop” slash results in the most attractive loaf. I’ll admit, I probably screwed up the “tic-tac-toe” pattern slash, but the clock was ticking and I was feeling pressured.

The loaves literally “crackle” as they come out of the oven. The taste is fresh and yeasty, the crust is chewy and crisp, and the texture of the crumb is beautifully uniform. This proves I can work 9 to 5, bring home the bacon, and bake the bread, too.

I’m not sure why it works. Who kneads to know, really? But it sure tastes good, and the process left me plenty of time this afternoon for a movie and a nap. What could be better? Count me as the latest fan of “speed baking.”

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved