Remember when mozzarella meant a brownish-yellow cheese that was low-moisture rubbery? A firm, cut-it-with-a-sharp-blade lasagna ingredient?
Thanks to cheese pioneers such as Paula Lambert, now fresh mozzarella cozies up next to cheddar and Jack in the marketplace. Its soft texture and bedsheet-white appearance have become commonplace, sold refrigerated floating in whey-and-water baths in small plastic tubs.
Twisted into braids, balls or knots, fresh mozzarella has musical, polysyllabic names like bocconcini, ovolini and ciliegini. It has a nutty, fresh-milk flavor and silk-tender texture.
Lambert founded the Mozzarella Co. in 1982 in Dallas. According to Lambert, at the time, few Americans knew much about fresh mozzarella. The only place she'd found it in America was in New York City's Little Italy.
To get started, she hired a cheese professor from northern Italy to help figure out how to use cow's milk to make fresh Italian-style artisanal mozzarella in Texas.
"He knew what he was doing and we worked on recipes together, making it for several weeks while he was here," Lambert says. "I'd run out and make deliveries to stores. But it was very hard to sell it. Remember, it is fresh and perishable; it could only last seven days."
She says she would sell 10 balls of fresh mozzarella to each store, hoping that she could go back the next day and sell them 10 more. But most often, they'd sold only one or two. So loads of unsold cheese were donated to local charities. Demand wasn't keeping up with supply.
Lambert knew she needed a new strategy, so instead of stores, she concentrated on local chefs. She figured that if chefs used it, customers would try it and love it.
"Can you believe it? Until I came along, for Caprese salads, chefs were using thin slices of Kraft block mozzarella folded between tomatoes," she says.
Now Caprese salads made with artisanal mozzarella are de rigueur in restaurants from coast to coast. And Lambert's Mozzarella Co. produces at least 500 to 600 pounds of cheese a day, and the product line includes 20 cheese varieties.
The cheeses are shipped all over the country, sold online at mozzco.com and through the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Her fresh mozzarella has been named the best in America six times by the American Cheese Society. The latest of her two cookbooks, Cheese, Glorious Cheese!, contains more than 75 easy-to-make recipes.
Here are a few questions for Lambert about fresh mozzarella - and her answers: How long can I keep it in the refrigerator?
It depends on how it's packaged and sold. Generally, in vacuumed-sealed containers, it lasts up to three weeks if it's salted. Once opened, it keeps about a week. So after it's opened and a week has elapsed, what will happen to the cheese?
It's not going to be bad after that, but it won't taste the same. It starts to sour, but it won't make you sick. Use it in lasagna or on pizza. The texture changes and will get softer and softer. After it's opened, should the liquid be changed every couple of days, with fresh water added?
No, you shouldn't change the liquid; it's not like water out of the tap. The cheese might get slimy. The best thing to do is to take it out of the liquid and wrap it in a new piece of clean plastic wrap every time you use it.
Quick and Easy Chicken Breasts With Fresh Mozzarella
Makes 4 servings
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (1 1/2 pounds, total)
salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup white wine
8 ounces fresh mozzarella roll, cut into 1/4 -inch slices
4 sprigs fresh tarragon
Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Melt butter or oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and chicken breasts; cook 6 to 10 minutes, or until golden brown on both sides, turning as necessary.
Remove chicken to plate and keep warm. Deglaze pan with wine and simmer briefly to reduce to half its original volume. Return chicken to the skillet with any meat juices and cook for 1 minute.
Place 2 slices of fresh mozzarella on top of each chicken breast, and place 1 sprig of tarragon on top. Cover the pan and remove it from the heat. Set aside in a warm place for a few minutes and let the mozzarella soften and begin to melt. If necessary, return the covered skillet to low heat until mozzarella softens. Sprinkle with additional salt or pepper, as desired. Remove the garlic.
To serve, spoon some sauce over each breast.
Note: If the chicken breasts are large, they will take a little longer to cook. Instead of using just salt and pepper to season this dish, you could make a little seasoning blend by combining kosher salt, coarsely ground black pepper, dried red-pepper flakes and dried thyme. If desired, you can jazz up this dish by placing a thin slice of prosciutto on top of the chicken before adding cheese, and/or garnish the dish with diced tomato or slices of Fuyu persimmon.
From "The Cheese Lover's Cookbook & Guide," by Paula Lambert. Recipe analysis provided by the Orange County Register.
Per serving: 320 calories, 29 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrate, 18 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 56 milligrams cholesterol, 890 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber