Warm cheese, fresh herbs make a happy springtime marriage

Jeanmarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

Warm cheese. Fresh herbs. I scan menus for the combination and order it every time — in salads, with vegetables, over pasta, on grilled breads.

Burrata on grilled toast with kale pesto and cherry tomatoes set the mood at a recent ladies lunch. Wood-oven-fired pizza topped with fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella started our night out with the couples group. Recent springtime travels in Spain had us encountering all manner of Spanish cheese and fresh rosemary, thyme, oregano and parsley.

The cheese itself need not be warm to suffice — but it shouldn’t be cold either. Nearly all cheese has maximum flavor and aroma at room temperature. Same for the herbs too. Use them at room temperature, or warm them simply with the heat of the food they accompany.

The first recipe, inspired by a dish I enjoyed at Ariete in Coconut Grove, Florida, pairs room-temperature burrata with a braise of ham and greens. In February, the restaurant served it with braised Brussels sprouts. In spring, I like to use tender dandelion greens, the season’s first snap peas and a shower of the garden’s first mint and chives.

Serve the dish as a simple main course at brunch accompanied by warm brioche rolls. Or, substitute a disk of a soft, ripened French-style goat’s cheese known as bucheron (I like the Montchevre brand from Wisconsin) for a shared appetizer with sliced French bread before a dinner of grilled steak and thinly sliced fried potatoes.

I’d happily make a meal of cheese turnovers topped with salsa verde, the Italian green condiment made with fresh parsley and briny capers. To that end, I keep a container of the salsa in a jar in my fridge and a freezer container filled with the cheese-and-herb-filled turnovers in the freezer.

I admit that making turnovers requires kitchen time and patience, but these turnovers can be baked from their frozen state. So, on rainy spring days, I make a batch or two to have on hand to bake into golden crispy goodness as needed (or craved).

For the filling, I like to use no-salt-added farmer cheese sold in tubs near the cottage cheese. Like a pressed cottage cheese, this spreadable, soft cheese is milky and creamy; it reminds me of France’s fromage blanc. Add chopped fresh herbs (fresh wild ramps if you can find them at your local farmers market) and a bit of garlic, and the filling will keep in the refrigerator for several days. By the way, leftover filling makes a great spread for bread.

The dough for the turnovers contains butter and cream cheese (more cheese!) for an easy to work with, slightly rich, forgiving dough. Even rerolled scraps from this dough yield tender turnovers. The dough can be made in advance and refrigerated for several days. Then, roll out and shape the turnovers at your leisure.

Serve the turnovers warm from the oven with the salsa condiment for dunking. The briny relish also tastes great served over grilled fish, stirred into cooked pasta or as the dressing for a salad with grilled vegetables.

Burrata With Braised Ham and Peas

Note: This is the perfect place to use dribbles from that bottle of expensive balsamic vinegar hidden in the back of the cabinet. Or, use a balsamic glaze in tiny amounts.

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

1 ball of burrata cheese, about 8 ounces, or one 11/4- inch thick disc (6 ounces) goat-milk bucheron cheese

2 to 3 tablespoons fruity olive oil

1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped

1 piece (4 ounces) smoked ham (or pancetta or prosciutto), diced, about 1 cup

4 ounces (about 1 cup) small sugar snap peas, stringed, cut in half if large

1/2 bunch fresh dandelion greens, about 2 ounces, stems trimmed off, roughly chopped, about 1 packed cup (or substitute baby spinach or baby kale)

1 small clove garlic, crushed

Salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons each, chopped fresh: mint, chives

Drizzles of expensive balsamic vinegar or balsamic glaze

Put cheese on a large serving platter, and keep covered until cheese is at room temperature.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat until hot. Add oil and onion. Saute until onion is golden, about 3 minutes. Add ham and peas; cook 2 minutes. Stir in greens; cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds. Stir in salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.

Nestle the ham and greens mixture around the cheese. Sprinkle everything with the herbs. Add a drizzle of the balsamic if desired. Serve right away.

Nutrition information per serving: 312 calories, 23 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 16 g protein, 569 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Golden Baked Turnovers With Farmer Cheese and Salsa Verde

Note: You will have leftover filling; keep it refrigerated to serve on toast or dollop onto a hot pizza or pasta.

Prep: 1 hour

Chill: 1 hour or more

Bake: 20 minutes

Makes: 36 small turnovers

Cream cheese dough

11/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, very cold, cut into small pieces

4 ounces light cream cheese, very cold, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup half-and-half or whole milk

Cheese filling

16 ounces soft farmer cheese (no salt added)

1 cup baby arugula leaves, finely chopped

4 fresh ramps, small wild leeks or slender green onions, trimmed, chopped, about 1/4 cup

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill fronds

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


1 egg, beaten

Green olive and lemon Italian-style salsa verde, see recipe

For the dough, put the flour and salt into a food processor or large bowl, and mix well. Add the cold butter and cream cheese pieces. Pulse the food processor with on/off turns until the mixture resembles small bits. (Alternatively, use a pastry blender or two knives to cut the butter and cream cheese into the flour.) Drizzle the half-and-half over the flour mixture. Pulse the machine, or use a fork to gently moisten the flour until the mixture gathers into a ball. Place on a floured work surface, gather into a ball and flatten with your hands into a thick disk. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least 1 hour (or up to a couple of days.)

For the filling, put the cheese into a bowl and stir to lighten it. Stir in the chopped arugula, ramps (or the substitute), dill, salt and pepper. Mix well and refrigerate up to several days. Use cold.

Lightly flour a work surface. Use a floured rolling pin to gently roll the dough out to a sheet that is about 1/8 inch thick. Use a floured 3-inch biscuit cutter to cut out rounds. Very gently reroll the scraps to cut out a total of 36 rounds.

Moisten the edge of each round with some of the beaten egg. Set a 11/2-teaspoon dollop of the filling in the center of each round. Use your fingers to fold the round into a half moon shape; crimp the edges together to completely enclose the filling. Use the tines of a fork to make a decorative edge at the seam. Use the tines of the fork to pierce the top of each half moon.

Place the filled half moons on a parchment-lined baking sheet. (If working ahead, you can cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and freeze up to a couple of weeks. Bake frozen.)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Brush the tops with some of the remaining egg. Bake until golden, about 20 minutes (5 to 10 minutes longer if baking from frozen). Serve warm with salsa verde for spooning over.

Nutrition information per turnover: 62 calories, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 2 g protein, 85 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Green Olive and Lemon Italian-style Salsa Verde

Note: Use fresh ramps (wild onions) when the farmers market has them in stock. Tender green onions or chives work well too. Don’t add the lemon juice until you are ready to serve.

Prep: 10 minutes

Makes:3/4 cup

1/4 cup very thinly sliced fresh ramps or tender green onions

1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 lemon

1/4 cup finely chopped manzanilla or pitted Castelvetrano olives

1 tablespoon drained capers

1/4 teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground black pepper

Mix the ramps or onions, parsley and oil in small bowl. Grate the zest from the lemon into the bowl. Stir in the olives, capers, salt and pepper. Just before serving, squeeze in 1 tablespoon juice from the lemon and serve.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 64 calories, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 102 mg sodium, 0 g fiber