Cheese, please: Regional traditions turn into others’ trends

Count our squeaky and deep-fried curds, plus the South’s pimento spreads, among the beloved cheese traditions that are gaining attention far away from home.

Classic pimento cheese spread – known as the “caviar of the South” – is a chunky blend of shredded cheddar, mayo, cream cheese, chopped pimentos, salt, pepper and maybe a kick of cayenne. The popular sandwich filling and topping for crackers shows up in lunch buckets, church picnics, fancy luncheons and major events (Augusta Masters to Kentucky Derby).

Some cooks have a field day with spice blends, ingredient proportions and usage (examples: stuffing the spread into fried chicken, grilling pimento cheese sandwiches). A Kentucky cousin, Benedictine spread, mixes cream cheese and mayo with chopped cucumber, onion, salt and a dash of hot sauce.

It’s tasty stuff, but savvy chefs have long known that Wisconsin is the state to watch for ongoing cheese excellence and trends. Wisconsin cheesemakers won more than 40 percent of the recent World Championship Cheese Contest awards, more than any other state or country.

That showing includes a sweep of 22 of 120 competition categories and five of the 20 finalists for overall World Champion. In total, 3,402 entries came from 26 countries and 32 U.S. states.

The NPD Group, a market research company that studies what consumers buy, says cheese is the fastest-growing savory, between-meals snack. That is driving Wisconsin cheesemakers “to think beyond the mozzarella cheese stick and develop sophisticated snacks made with Wisconsin specialty cheese.”

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board says uniquely flavored cheeses are fast-growing segments of the industry. Swiss, burrata and gouda are sneaking into cheese blends on pizza.

Then there’s fascination with ordinary excellence, such as pimento cheese. Kevin Anderson of Schreiber Foods, Green Bay, reported triple-digit growth in cheese curd sales during a food trends seminar at the Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s recent Midwest Foodservice Expo.

He says business as usual in the Badger State seems new and unusual along both U.S. coasts. Diners unacquainted with fried cheese curds might cut into them with a knife and fork. Chefs might dress them up with a balsamic glaze or bury them in a poutine-like gravy.

Brewpubs operated by Gordon Biersch, based in California, sell white-cheddar curds with candied bacon and a creamy bacon dip as an appetizer. Mom’s Kitchen and Bar in New York City matches beer-battered curds with a spicy pepper jam. Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub, Minneapolis, dips smoked curds into a waffle batter before frying.

Curdtown in Minnesota makes cheese curds coated with a light panko breading. They are shipped from California to North Carolina. “Bite-size pieces of sunshine” is how the ready-to-fry curds are described, and they come in two versions: original and Cajun. A sales brochure suggests adding fried curds to burgers and burritos – not on the side, but between the bun or inside the tortilla.

Curdtown cheese comes from Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, in a village of 3,200 in Pierce County. Former Gov. Tony Earl declared Ellsworth as “Cheese Curd Capital” in the 1980s.

What else is on the radar of food prognosticators?

“The next evolution” of beer cheese soup or dip involves “a rotation of craft beer,” Anderson says, perhaps made with a stout one night and a pilsner the next.

He expects an uptick in ethnic-tasting yogurts and new uses for yogurt that go beyond parfaits and smoothies. The restaurant Blue Hill in Greenwich Village serves beet, squash and tomato yogurts.

Breakfast will continue to become more of an all-day, international meal. Think beyond breakfast burritos to flatbreads, tortas, tacos, scrambles, skillets and frittatas that scramble unconventional ingredients into eggs.

Expect more restaurant entrees to arrive in a bowl instead of a plate. “A bowl can be anything, served at any time of day and with almost any menu item,” Anderson says.

Menus for children will get more extensive and interesting. “Not just an afterthought,” he says. Go beyond chicken nuggets, or mac and cheese. Purple Café and Wine Bar in Seattle, for example, offers flights of flavored milk (chocolate, strawberry, caramel).

Classic and simple fare will trump the pretentious and odd. Anderson mentioned the lack of “crazy ingredients” on burgers at Au Cheval, whose specialty is “diner fare” served in a stylish but casual setting in Chicago.

Creative cooks compete in the annual Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 28 at the Harris Park pavilion, 600 N. Bennett Rd., Dodgeville. Admission is free.

Entrants are split into amateur and professional contest categories. All are judged on presentation, taste and style. Registration before the event is required.

Ages 12-17 compete in a division for young chefs. Adults compete in up to four sandwich categories (classic, classic plus one extra ingredient, classic plus unlimited extra ingredients and dessert). grilledcheesewisconsin.com, 608-935-9200

Make it an overnight. The Wisconsin Cheese Experience, 6-8:30 p.m. April 27 at Dodger Bowl, 318 King St., is an appetizer reception with an opportunity to meet cheesemakers and sample their specialties. A $20 ticket ($30 at the door) also includes two drink tickets and music. dodgeville.com, 608-935-5993

Stakes are much higher when entering the 2018 Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Recipe Showdown, a nationwide event by the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Academy (affiliated with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board). Grand prize is $15,000.

There are four sandwich categories: open class (anything goes, just so it includes Wisconsin cheese), classic class (for up to six ingredients), junior class (for entrants under age 18) and fan favorites (for video entries). The deadline to enter is May 15. Details (and winning recipes from previous years) are at grilledcheeseacademy.com.