Pass the cheese, please

Oct. 29, 2013 @ 09:39 AM

We’ve had dogs, hermit crabs and even a pet rock or two.  But there is a standing rule -- no rodents allowed.
That’s because two giant, voracious mice already live here — Petey and The Kid.  They can never, ever, get enough cheese.
I enjoy cheese as well.  But compared to them, I’m a piker.  I’m not sure if they even know what a plain hamburger is; they’ve never seen a patty without a melting chapeau of cheese.
One of The Kid’s favorite cheesy treats is actually cheese-stuffed cheese, or burrata. It’s a balloon of mozzarella filled with a creamier mozzarella (my little chef has promised to make it for me, once back at home from internship).
Petey is completely indiscriminate.  He eats all and looks down on no cheese.  But he does have a special place in his suburban, middle class heart for Velveeta. And he has no problem eating spray cheese from a can; in fact he relishes both the neon goo, and the looks of horror he gets from wife and child while indulging.
When I was a kid, we would travel to New Jersey on occasion, to visit my mom’s relatives. During our stay, one of the meals would be cold cuts with homemade salads. Back then, most grocery stores didn’t have delis, so this was a special treat that we could only enjoy up north.
There would be a variety of sliced meat, each wrapped in crisp white butcher paper.  And instead of Kraft singles encased in plastic, there was freshly sliced white American cheese. I thought this was the height of sophistication. The Kid and I still think it tastes better than its orange countryman.
When we lived in Puerto Rico, my knowledge of cheese was still limited to the Americans and bricks of Velveeta. One night we went to a dinner party given by some friends of my parents. The hostess had made appetizers for us. 
On the tray were some foil wrapped cubes of Laughing Cow cheese.  This became my new zenith of cheesy glamour — I felt like Elizabeth Taylor.
I’ve become more familiar with cheese. Our fridge always contains a hunk of parmesano Reggiano. I love Mexican cotija, Spanish manchego, and Southern hoop cheese, among many others. 
One cheesy recipe that I make is everybody’s favorite. When I first cooked it, I used canned soup, frozen broccoli, and bag rice. Years ago, I switched over to a scratch-made version, and I’ve begun using brown rice. It’s a great comfort food side dish that combines both starch and veg.
Broccoli Rice Casserole
1 pound mushrooms of your choice
1 yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup white wine
5 cups chicken stock, divided
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup roux; equal parts butter and flour, cooked on stovetop ‘til peanut butter colored
2 heads of broccoli, cut into florets and steamed for 4 minutes
2 cups uncooked brown rice
2 cups water
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper

Cook rice: put rice into medium size pot with lid.  Add 2 cups stock, water, butter, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 40-45 minutes.  After all the liquid is cooked in, take off heat, leave covered, and let rest for 15 minutes.
Make soup: Saute mushrooms, onions and thyme in cooking oil.  Season with salt and pepper.  When lightly caramelized, deglaze pan with wine.  Once it evaporates, add chicken stock. Bring to boil.  Whisk in roux, a bit at a time until it’s cream soup thickness.  Take off heat, pour in cream, and stir.
Assembly: Mix rice, soup, cooked broccoli, and 1 cup cheese.  Pour into large greased casserole dish and sprinkle top with remaining cheese.  Taste for seasoning. 
Bake for 1 hour at 350. 
The Matthews’ house is an extremely cheesy place. Petey and I were watching TV one night, and the host said 75 percent of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. With a catch in his voice, I heard him murmur, “Those poor people. If they can send a man to the moon…”
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is