2010 March: Feeling Blue?

To say blue cheese is an assertive cheese is to put it mildly. At its best, blue cheese is creamy, pungent, acidic and complex. It works well with other strong flavors, like fiery barbecue sauce, garlic, onion and bold spices. One of blue cheese’s many dimensions is sweetness, which plays well against tart ingredients, such as green apple and dried cranberries. The question is: which blue cheese works best on a menu?

A natural fit on an Italian-themed restaurant or pizzeria is Gorgonzola, a cow’s milk cheese named for its place of origin, Gorgonzola, Italy. Prized for its creaminess and savory, slightly pungent flavor, Gorgonzola is generally considered a milder blue cheese that still brings a lot of body to the plate. Both domestic and imported varieties are available for foodservice.

Roquefort is a French blue cheese made from sheep’s milk exposed to a mold known as “Penicillum roqueforti,” and aged for three months in limestone caverns near a village in Roquefort, France. Like Champagne, only blue cheese from this area can be labeled Roquefort and is prized for its salty, pungent, rich flavor. Its price point makes it a rarer-seen cheese on menus.

Stilton is an English blue cheese, and gets its name from an eponymous village that first sold the cheese … but the village never produced the cheese. Made throughout England, Stilton cheese is a cow’s milk cheese renown for its rich, creamy and somewhat crumbly texture and its deep, pungent profile. Because of its texture, Stilton is mostly seen on cheese boards, often paired with a glass of Port.

The U.S. makes some wonderful blue cheeses, including the famous Maytag Blue Cheese, out of Newton, Iowa. Wisconsin, California and Vermont cheese purveyors also make blues that rival those from Europe.

Opportunities for blue cheese exist on the menu beyond bluecheese dressing or blue-cheese dipping sauce for wings. Some operators are taking advantage of blue’s strong personality, adding the cheese to pizzas and salads with great result. At Mezza Lunna Pizzeria in Eugene, Oregon, Gorgonzola is the pungent cheese of choice, found in three dishes and also listed as a pizza topping.

“We go with a domestic Gorgonzola,” says Sandy Little, co-owner of this 45- seat shop that specializes in New York, gourmet-style pizzas. “It’s got a great profile for pizza — it’s milder than most blues without that back-of-the-throat sharpness.” He goes through a five pound bag of crumbled Gorgonzola (divided into one-pound allotments) about once a week. “It’s really consistent, and ordering it crumbled makes using it very easy,” he says.

The Boot is their specialty pizza featuring house-made Italian sausage, Gorgonzola, roasted red and yellow peppers, onion, roasted garlic and tomato sauce. It consistently performs in the top five out of 16 specialty pies.

“The Gorgonzola works really well with the sausage, and stands up to the roasted flavors of the peppers and garlic,” says Little. He also features Gorgonzola on the Spin Chicken Pizza, a pizza that also boasts fresh spinach, chicken sausage, roasted red and yellow pepper, garlic, mozzarella and tomato sauce. “The chicken sausage has a sweeter, milder flavor than our other sausage, but the spinach has some tooth, which helps bridge the flavors between the sausage and the Gorgonzola. The Spin Chicken falls in the top 10 in sales.

“We use the Gorgonzola on both of these pizzas as a finishing cheese,” he says. “It doesn’t melt like mozzarella; it’s a bit chunkier, but people who like blue cheese like that.”

Mezza Lunna’s salad called “Fruits and Nuts” relies on Gorgonzola to complete the overall desired profile. Leaf lettuce, dried cranberries, candied pecans, Gorgonzola and balsamic vinaigrette play together, balancing flavors of sweet, tart and creamy. “The blending of flavors is what works here,” says Little.

The Bristolian Pizzeria in the college town of Bristol, Rhode Island, sources a domestic Gorgonzola for The Swoop Pizza and Gonzo Salad. The Swoop ranks in the top fi ve out of 12 gourmet selections at this 14-seat shop, which does most of its business through take out and delivery. The pizza stars a house-made Buffalo sauce, shredded chicken, red onion, mozzarella and Gorgonzola. A large sells for $14.25 and runs a $7 food cost.

“The Buffalo sauce is spicy, and the cheese just stands up to it really well and adds a whole other layer of flavor,” says owner Rob Shaheen.

For the Gonzo Salad, fresh spinach shares space with chopped walnuts, slices of green apple, crumbled Gorgonzola and sliced red onion, and is finished with a balsamic vinaigrette.

“The balsamic vinaigrette balances the sharpness of the Gorgonzola,” says Shaheen.

He sources a five-pound bag and portions out the blue cheese into sealed one-pound. bags that he stores in the walk-in cooler.

“It’s better to portion it out, so you’re not opening and closing the large bag all of the time,” he says. “We go through about five pounds in 10 days. The cheese is really fresh and has a great creaminess when melted. It’s just a fantastic cheese to work with.” ?

Sweet Onion/Mushroom and Gorgonzola Pizza

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 large red onions, thinly sliced
1½ cups thinly sliced button mushrooms
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Salt to taste
1 prepared pizza crust
1 ¼ cup grated mozzarella
2 tablespoons pine nuts
4 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat; cook onions, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until soft. Add sugar and vinegar; cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat; season with salt. Let cool.

Place pizza crust on sheet pan; brush with oil. Spread mozzarella, then sweet onions and mushrooms over top; sprinkle with pine nuts and Gorgonzola cheese. Bake in 400 F oven for 7 to 10 minutes or until cheese is bubbly.

Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.