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Quinoa Salad, Peruvian Influence, & Sargento Cheese

Greetings from Fiji! I’m still gathering and pinching myself grasping the idea that in the last week I’ve traveled 26 hours from DC with a stop in LA and Sydney, spent 8 days eating my way through Melbourne and then hopped a plane yesterday for another 5 hours from Victoria to the most beautiful vista I’ve laid my eyes on. The foodie-themed  jaunts in Melbourne were courtesy of this amazing little custard I make called flan. The decadent little dessert was about to provide me with 2.5 weeks vacation until I got another ridiculously delicious invitation to develop recipes as a taste correspondent for Sargento Cheese as part of their Flavor Journey this entire year. As quickly as I accepted the gig, my concentrated plans to take some much needed R & R was halted by a trip to Wisconsin last month where the cheese masters are headquartered.

Me. Developing recipes with cheese. Lots of cheese. Mucho queso. Exploring a trend. For a year. Oh yes! But, there was a slight conflict I had to quickly resolve.

Right after a trip to Mazatlan, Mexico a 18 months ago, I eliminated a lot of yummy things from my diet. I was mostly inspired by the initial weight loss I enjoyed from drinking bad water while there. The first to go was honey and the minor number of cocktails I typically enjoy during media dinners. The final straw was dairy. All of it. No mas leche with my cafécito, no butter and shockingly, no cheese. I had a great stash my cheese monger friend Tim from Star Provisions in Atlanta had given me to try out. It was all so perfectly selected for my palate. I ate it all with great intensity in about a weeks time and settled into my relatively new diet. I lost a total of 12 pounds. I’ve kept most of it at bay.

But when this unexpected call from Wisconsin came, I literally chuckled at the irony. After almost 18 months of fighting the urge and ignoring the temptations to savor Manchego or our go-to tomato and onion sandwich, I caved. There was no way I could pass up on working with cheese. Not to mention it was the most perfect excuse to reintroduce it to my diet.

(L-R: Shrimp tacos with kimchi and phylo threads; parmesan wheel; truffle and cheddar cheese tray)

During the cheesy visit with Sargento, I got to learn some nifty backend details of how the ubiquitous cheese company started.  I was highly  moved by their community involvement and commitment to treating their employees as family. Our intimate and super laid back breakfast with the President, validated their mission statements. And then we transitioned into the crux of their business: cheese. From  detailing their portfolio to engaging in a 5 course cooking demo by their exec chef, to learning how to grade cheese, I got a great glimpse of just how the master packagers make cheese lovers’ life so delicious.

And I ate a lot of cheese.

I’d guesstimate about 4 lbs in 24 hours.

And every bit of it was divine.

After a busy wintery day hopping from building to building (and eating as much string cheese as possible along the way), we met with Rick Bayless, whom I’ve worked with recently. Do I have to tell you I was totally tickled that he remembered me from NY?! Rick Bayless in an intimate setting, twice within 8 weeks. I was feeling quite special.

His purpose this time was more personal. Chilled back, still in his master chef gear, he  talked to us about his forecast of culinary trends in 2013. He spent a few minutes getting to know each of us and what we do. He’s now the 3rd celebrated chef I’ve gotten to share my flan and pressure cooking tales with.

Surprisingly, he’s never made one in the pressure cooker but promised he’d try and would let me know how it worked out for him. If I’m successful in convincing Rick to try out one of my flans just the way I make them, I will focus on conjuring a trip to Frontera to move about his kitchen the way he does.


(T-B: Quinoa with cheese meatballs; group of tastemakers; raspberry compote puff pastry with Jenni’s ice cream)

Once he entertained our work, he moved into identifying ingredients, cooking techniques, flavors, and cuisines he thought should and would a bubbly effect in the culinary industry this year. My top fave were using habanero peppers and herbs in desserts and fermenting… Neither one are really novel concepts but they’re both seeing an huge surge in popularity here in the States. I’m thinking we’re always so late to the game across the board.  He then revealed our respective trend assignment for the year. How suiting he’d task me with exploring Peruvian food?! How incredibly perfect is this? While I’ve cooked and eaten a lot of Peruvian, I don’t consider myself an expert on their food history or all of their dishes. We all know pink salt from the mountains, cebiche, and quinoa are their gems… even the beautifully colored purple drink, though not so ubiquitous, is awesome.

(Rick Bayless and me via my Instagram)

How will I tie in the cuisine with cheese! Oh, that’s the special piece of all this. My personal challenge is going to be controlling the cheating I’ll be doing on my Cuban food. Not to mention limiting myself to just enjoying one variety of quinoa or potato– two ingredients they boast in abundance. I’m mostly looking forward to working with some famed chefs. On that note, how insanely amazing (and perfectly timed) was the chance to meet and hang out with chef Virgilio Martinez while in Melbourne! If you don’t who he is, look him up or you can sit with anxiety waiting until I write a my series on visiting this part of the world. Needless to say, he was over the moon excited I’d be exploring his native cuisine and invited me to tap him for anything I needed.

I got started on my dreamy project right before I flew to Australia by doing a 2 hour tasting of 7 different Sargento cheeses. This is the kind of work I like — receive a mammoth sized box full of product and then carve out time to just familiarize myself with it — and invite friends over to help you indulge.  The collective fave was the natural extra sharp cheddar, which, aside from it now being a staple in my reacquired eating habits, is one of the best I’ve had… and I’m not even a cheddar afficionado. Equally beautiful in texture and taste was the 4 year old sharp. I’m envisioning using cheddar more than I’d ever anticipate. But, the natural smoked gouda and pepper-infused slices are probably fancying my interest just as much.

(Sargento extra sharp Wisconsin cheddar)

The 2nd half of my my initial R & D started with finding quinoa only because it’s so en trend right now. Everyone’s talking about it but do we really know how indigenous it is to Peru? I visited a few cafés in DC to see if any were using it and sure enough, 4 of the 5  I went to had a small plate or salad of some type using quinoa as the base.

My favorite one was at Le Pain Quotidienne, a cute French-like café. I wasn’t surprised to see this beautiful salad on their menu, but it wasn’t anything spectacular. The particular quinoa grain they used is the the same one we can buy at our local whole market. For $15, I was hoping they’d dress it up with a more unique variety. Barring extreme creativity, the salad was clean and simply composed. Since I’m eager to work with all things quinoa, I wanted to experiment with queso infusions. This salad didn’t have any but I quickly helped myself to some. The chef gave me some bleu cheese crumbles which worked nicely. Ideally, I would have crumbled them down more and blended it well into the grain.

I haven’t completely defined my approach to exploring Peruvian cuisine, though in my head I have visions of traveling to Lima this year. While I work on that,  I can assure myself and you my fabulous readers that we’re going to learn a whole lot about this centuries old food built on respect for the land, the laborers working it and the genius ways earlier Indians used ingredients. For entertainment value, I’ll engage you in creating pretty plates with modern techniques and ingredients we don’t typically gravitate toward. And for sure we’ll end with a spectacular journey through cheese and how it can be the perfect ingredient to make any dish that more stunning.

Like a cheese-based causa… I’ve been sitting on that for 2 weeks now!

For now, enjoy this lovely quinoa salad. No recipe other than the house made vinaigrette the chef shared with me. It was bright and just right for the new season! {update: Uhm, yeah, I traveled all the way over here with the hand-written recipe to include and now I can’t find it! Will update again when I do because I know it’s living somewhere in my suitcases!}

¡Buen Provecho!

Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.

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60 thoughts on “Quinoa Salad, Peruvian Influence, & Sargento Cheese

  1. Bren you live the most amazing experiences! It is awesome that your hard work gets rewarded by fabulous eats, travel and more work opportunities. Blessings to you. Lima is in my travel destinations bucket list. I know they have a Cordon Blue school there and they may teach Peruvian one day classes… thats an idea! even though I am sure you will develop those Peruvian flavors flawlessly.

  2. There was no way you could give up this opportunity Bren. It sounds like an exciting few weeks, can’t wait to hear all about it!!

  3. I’ve had the quinoa salad at LPQ, and it is not worth the money. I love quinoa and hoped it’d be more interesting, but alas, it was not. Love, love, love quinoa in almost anyway! Just had it for lunch today. Look at you and your exciting life. Just soak it all in girl. Soak it all in!

  4. Whoa, I would have gained about 5 lbs also because I love cheese!! Believe it or not I haven’t had quinoa at this point, I will definitely have to try it soon.

  5. Thanks for sharing your amazing experiences. I always feel I’m right there with you traveling the world and eating the best dishes!!

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