June 16, 2011

Vegetarians Love Protein, Too!

Cavoletti alla Crudaiola con Mandarino, Melograno e Pignoli- Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Clementines, omegranate, Pine Nuts, and Cheese.
Cavoletti alla Crudaiola con Mandarino, Melograno e Pignoli- Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Clementines, omegranate, Pine Nuts, and Cheese.

By  Student Contributor Ian Williams

I love cheese. Do you remember those old commercials with the slogan “cheese makes everything better”? While it may not be quite true, it hits pretty close to the mark in most cases. And, judging by the reactions of my Product Knowledge classmates to our end-of-class cheese tasting, the rest of you love cheese too. So cheese seems like the perfect starting point to my series of stories about tasty protein options for vegetarian dishes (sorry vegans, no cheese for you, but most of the coming proteins will make you happy).

I do have one sad piece of information I need to share first though: the undisputed king of cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, is not vegetarian. Wait a minute, some of you might be thinking, there is no meat in cheese (though I did see a cheddar with bacon crumbles in it once). While that is true, there’s a bit of a catch. A product called rennet is used in the making of most cheeses. Rennet contains an enzyme called chymosin, which coagulates and firms milk allowing the curds (the part that becomes the cheese) and whey to be separated. Traditionally, rennet is obtained from the ground stomach lining of a calf or other young ruminant.

Unfortunately for vegetarians, this means that cheeses made with traditional rennet are off limits, but there are newer alternative vegetable “rennets” widely available. Many of these are microbial rennets made from a mold called Mucor miehei, though others are also made from plants like nettles or thistles. The real problem for vegetarians and chefs alike is that many, many cheeses sold in markets or online include simply “rennet” or “enzymes” in their ingredient lists, with no indication of whether those ingredients came from animal or plant sources.

How can you know if your cheese is vegetarian or not? There’s a simple rule of thumb that can serve at least as a starting point. If the cheese in question is a European cheese made in a traditional style (such as the aforementioned king of cheese), it is most likely made with animal rennet. But some European cheeses are made with vegetable rennet, so you can’t always use this rule. The very best thing you can do is to acquire your cheeses from a great cheesemonger. The good cheesemonger will know which of his cheeses is made with vegetarian-friendly rennet or will happily find out for you if he doesn’t know already. Murray’s Cheese in New York City has about fifty vegetarian cheeses available for sale at their website murrayscheese.com. Several local cheese makers in New York use vegetarian rennets: Nettle Meadows, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, Pampered Cow, and Coach Farm are a few. If you are familiar with Cypress Grove (makers of sublime cheeses such as Humboldt Fog and Midnight Moon) in California, they use vegetarian rennet for all of their cheeses as well. So give some vegetarian cheeses a try and you might even discover some new favorites.