Saturday, May 21, 2011

For the Love of Cheese

I love cheese. I can hardly think of a more interesting and unique transformation of one food into another where, by employing different techniques and processes a single food item-- milk, takes on a completely different identity. Part of the miracle is that cheese has so many identities! From the soft spongy texture of fresh buffalo mozzarella to firm, smooth yet grainy texture of a good aged cheddar and everything in between, cheese provides so much experience diversity.

In the spirit of good cheese and good times, here are some tips on creating a glorious cheese platter as well as one of my personal favorite cheese platter combinations. If you enjoy wine with your cheese, ask an expert recommended pairings. The right pairing makes all the difference!

Choose three types of cheese for your platter. It is important to serve some cheeses them within a day or two of purchase. Ask a cheese monger when your cheese is best consumed.

  • Soft ripened cheese/ semi soft cheeses: Brie is the most common soft-ripened cheese, but I would recommend something different such as Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, Delice de Bourgogne or La Tur or Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor (actually a bit crumbly and dry)
  • Hard Cheese: Most common is the classic Parmigiano Reggiano. Others include dry jack, Mizithra (semi-hard), and my favorite Pecorino Romano.
  • Semi Hard: Fiscalini Farms Purple Moon is a wine soaked cheddar, Bravo Farms Silver Mountain Cheddar or a grass-fed New Zealand cheddar are all delicious
  • Blue cheese can vary from semi hard to soft and creamy to dry and crumbly. What gives it the blue striations and kicky flavor is penicillum that is injected into what would be a perfectly normal cheese if left alone. Pick one that contrasts the other cheese textures. Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog is a soft ripened goat’s cheese. Some crumbly favorites are Maytag blue and Rogue River Blue. There are also blue cheddars that many people really like.
  • Fresh cheeses undergo a short process are not aged and usually very high in moisture, but consumed right away. I love Cypress Grove’s chevre with herbs, fresh Buffalo Mozzarella and high even homemade Ricotta with honey or maple syrup.

Choose 5 accompaniments:

Fresh honey, high quality balsamic vinegar, apple or pear butter or a wine jelly

Dried fruits: apricots, dates, figs, cherries, high quality raisins, prunes

Fresh berries (raspberries top my choices), new crop pink lady or gala apples, any fresh stone fruit (peaches, etc), muscat grapes

Toasted walnuts, almonds, and pistachios

Fresh basil, dill, mint, chives

A really good baguette or crackers if you prefer. A good baguette has a non-competing flavor a more pleasant texture than crackers.

Plating your cheese:

I like to use my favorite big cutting board. You can use a legitimate cheese serving board or you can use a pretty plate that is relatively flat.

Bring cheeses to room temperature at least 1 hour before serving. Arrange cheeses on your plate while they are cold and firm. At room temperature, the oils that carry flavor are more easily read by your taste buds. Texture is also better because they are softer.

Fill sushi dipping bowls, ramekins or custard cups with any nuts, jams and honey. Just do a little bit. Fruits and herbs make gorgeous garnishes to your plate so wait to add those until you serve.

Simple Cheese Plate

For this combination I chose varieties that are easily found in our foothill area stores. They are also favorite “comfort” cheeses for me.

Serves 4-6

  • 3-4 oz chunk Parmigiano Reggiano, broken into craggy rustic chunks. Mix with 1/3 cup toasted walnuts.
  • 3-4 oz wedge Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, (a semi-soft blue cheese made from goats milk) left whole
  • 2-4 oz Chunk Purple Moon Cabernet Soaked Cheddar, sliced very thinly (it will break when you cut it. That’s okay)
  • Good balsamic vinegar or balsamic syrup. Once you have had truly good Balsamic vinegar, you wonder how the other stuff got such a great reputation!
  • Good quality, fresh (if possible) orange blossom honey
  • 1/3 cup toasted walnuts
  • Dates (pitted and halved) or fresh figs if they are available
  • Organic Gala or Pink lady apple slices. These types are very uniquely flavored and this will make a real difference!
  • Handful of fresh mint leaves
  • A good baguette, 1/3 inch thick slices
  • Blowtorch (yes!) any blowtorch from your hardware store will do

Once your cheese has been out at room temp for at least an hour, place your fruits in small piles between the cheeses. Stick a few bouquets of mint leaves in between crevices in the fruit piles.

On a second platter (or even better a small cutting board) arrange small bowlful of the honey with a drizzler if you have one and ½ of the bread slices. This board can be used as a platform for everyone to assemble their cheese combinations.

Drizzle about 1tsp balsamic vinegar/ syrup over the Parmigiano Reggiano walnut combo. And try not to eat all of it before your friends even make it over.

Some good combos and the blow torch:

-Date halve, mint leaf, smear of Humbodlt Fog, drizzle of honey, walnut

-Parm-Reg chunk, apple slice, balsamic vinegar drizzle

-Baguette slice, Purple Moon slice- now get your torch out! Set the torch to medium flamage, carefully and slowly bring the flame to about 4 inches above the cheese and move it back and forth until cheese melts, then begins to bubble. This is a good party trick. Brenda and I have sold many a catering job just because of this one.

Cheese is adventurous. If you are inclined to try a combination that seems strange, do it anyway! I for instance absolutely love chevre with lemon zest on top of wafers of dark chocolate. Think it sounds crazy? Find out for yourself. Happy cheesing!


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Climbing the Tree of Yoga: Pranayama

Awareness on the breath is an ideal means to connect with the divine. Though breath is involuntary, it can also be a choice. The involuntary breath can be viewed as the divine choosing us. Voluntary breath is a means of choosing the divine.
In my post Climbing the Tree of Yoga: Asana, I explained the significance of the physical yoga postures. In this post I'll move on to pranayama, the fourth limb.

Loosely, pranyama means controlled breath. But it actually translates to something more like "life force restraint". Which sounds strange because in yoga, aren't we trying to cultivate life force? What we are cultivating is balance. Many things can occur in pranayama. Commonly we simply become aware of how unaware we are. With regular practice, we experience increased energy, breathing capacity and better brain function (oxygen!). All worthy gains. And whether we think we are open to it or not, there is a possibility that we begin to realize that connecting to the divine is not only easy, it is inherent. We realize that the connection is not something to be had or chased after or worked toward. It is already there.

Breath gives the yogi a focal point. It assists the mind from talking too much. On the other hand when the mind won't shut up, breath can be a great assistant in showing us that most of what the mind says is of little consequence except that of mis-use of your precious energy. It is much like the chatter of a squirrel, but without the element of judging that chatter. As a sharp saw cuts through the thickest knot in a log, the breath is the tool that cuts through tangled webs of thought.

To practice pranayama, one must essentially decide on a specific breath pattern and practice it. Pretty simple right? It can be, but there are countless pranayama practices that range from simply focusing on the breath to moving the abdominal muscles in what appear to be freak-show like motions. The purpose of each is very specific. My favorite pranayama technique which is practiced in many yoga classes is the ujjayi ("ooh-jai") breath. It is also called the victorious breath.
Most pranayama techniques are not used during asana. Ujjayi breath is the primary breath of most asana. To perform ujjayi, we begin filling the whole body with long smooth inhales creating an aspirant sound through a constricted throat. If you do those things alone, chances are it won't resemble the breath as described in detail by your yoga teacher. What I am saying is not to worry if you try that and it seems strange. The well practiced ujjayi breath is comfortable, invigorating, calming, cleasning and-- here's the cool part, it creates heat in the body which is imperative to practicing any type of asana. The warmer the body, the more relaxed the tissues are. (One reason yoga produces lean definition).

Beyond that, why does it matter?
Well, you could approach yoga from a purely physical angle. And that is totally great. If a person seeks to expereince greater spiritual connectivity, it is easily said as the opening statement.

Different aspects of our physical being can be associated with existential aspects that we view to be outside of ourselves. For instance eating and the process of assimilation can be associated with the aspect of earth as our bodies become the food we have consumed. So breath, as associated with air or ether can be associated with divine creativity, or God. With that association in mind, just think about your breath and everything it connects you to with each and every cycle.

We breathe the same air as everyone around us. When I exhale, that breath goes out mixes with the exhalations of the rest of the world and is in turn, inhaled by other people. When I take another breath in, I in turn breathe the breath of the world. Yet another insight to our interconnectedness unfolds. And in the breath, certain aspects of individual identification and the need to fight to be separate from everyone else is lessened. Through the breath we are One.

Pranayama for me has been the most potent part of my practice thus far. It is also one of the most challenging parts of my practice. Sometimes I avoid focusing on my breath in favor of egoic thoughts about what and who my ego believes itself to be. And even then I am aware of this because I know I am avoiding something. When I give breath first priority, I am allowed to observe those thoughts. Regardless of my physical capabilities during any given moment I know the beauty of the expereince with the execution of every single movement. There is a perfect grace the nuances of fumbling, falling, balancing, bending, trembling, sweating, feeling frustrated, ecstatic and alive. I see it in myself, in every single student and in my peers when I get to join class too. Through the breath that knowing who I am goes from intellectually understood to internally actualized. And that, through pranayama, is the very essence of what yoga is.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Expressing Self Truth in the Language of Yoga

Have you ever tried to learn a new language? Let’s say you are learning to speak Spanish. You could begin by learning how to say hello (‘hola”), please (“por favor”) and thank you (“gracias”). With this starting point, you learn not only words but how to pronounce them through manipulation of the different parts of your mouth and throat. It is a multi-dimensional process and most of us would fluctuate between just saying the words incorrectly to making sounds specific to the language without saying words. With practice the words flow correctly and one day you may even think in Spanish. As in learning a language, in yoga all parts usually do not work at once when the student first begins. The practice of yoga itself is a language and the combined elements of breath and movement are often learned as separate parts of this language before they are used together, let alone understood as a single unit.

Learning yoga, as in learning a language- is a lifelong endeavor. Though I grew up speaking English, I have never stopped learning it. As the English language can be arranged, rearranged and even re-created over and over again, so can yoga; both to a degree. With communication and relationship at the heart of language, we may use verbal skills to communicate to others, and yet our deepest intentions are communicated through tone and body language and eye contact in spite of the words we choose. Intention and words are utilized in flux with each other to refine the messages we send to one other, thus acting as just one part of developing relationships. Whether in asana or any other element our practice, we converse intentionally with every aspect of the self including body, intellect, psyche- every part of what and who we are. We also speak to the world around us.

Enter the yoga studio (or any space for that matter). The first thing you might do is search for someone; maybe your teacher or a fellow student. Your experience might range from the nervousness of trying something new to the excitement of seeing your friends. The point is we are constantly communicating and building relationships through every aspect of feeling and behavior. Suddenly every interaction is actually a profound communication.

Most important is that judgment is futile to yoga language development. At least not being aware of judgment is the one thing that will stunt the learning process. It is not the factor of exactly how things happen, but that your awareness of how they happen that matters. Any entry point into your practice is the right one as long as the awareness is primary, and even without awareness, something sparks the desire to learn and that is the beginning to finding awareness.

In yoga we are making a sort of effort toward marrying communication (behavior and speech) and intention (desire + sense of self worth). When the two are in agreement with each other all that is unnecessary dissolves. So to learn the language of yoga is to learn the language of self-realized living.

In learning the language of yoga asana came first for me, then pranayama (controlled breath). Though breath was definitely a part of my first yoga experience, my body and mind were so distracted by instructions, movements and sensations that it was a real challenge to focus on the synchronized inhale-exhale pattern. Fortunately I really didn't care that I could not do that part so well. And for your own personal comfort you should not be concerned with what is difficult to incorporate right away either. I was just having fun. When I became more familiar with the poses and movement I began paying better attention to my breath and slowly the work of learning and practicing pranayama was added to my set of skills.

With these two aspects of my favorite language now easily utilized, a couple of things have happened. I went from wondering what kind of conversation I was having with myself, to being able to listen to and cultivate self-understanding. From there many other aspects of the language of yoga were more readily assimilated. I have learned about how I wanted to think and behave and this started with knowledge of the rest of the eight limbs, all of which play an active role in my daily decision making.

Whatever your starting point happens to be-- whether meditation, postures, breath or any other yoga practice, it is good to remember that there is no real "getting there" or "knowing it" other than where you are right now knowing what you know right now. It is what exists in your immediate experience that is sacred and profound. All truth is the same truth. We can and will only communicate what exists in our direct current expereince. To venture into the process of learning yoga as a language is to remember that despite words, it is the language of the body, the breath and the gaze that we will always say what is being spoken inside.