I have been eating an alarming amount of cheese lately. Pecorino sardo, a fat baton of which plus five water crackers made my dinner the other night, a snowy, fresh goat cheese eaten at sundown on Sunday night with a nice red wine, a wondrous English farmhouse cheddar that tasted faintly of pears studded with crystals of salt, a Pont L'Eveque set out on the counter, growing stinkier by the minute. I don't know what's come over me. Cheese is usually just a brief punctuation in my meals - a light dusting of Parmesan on pasta, a thin sliver of a nice blue while I cook, just to keep my mouth watering, or a little slice after dinner, to keep Ben company or because I've foregone dessert.
I'm not sure if it's the heat, or the disorientation I still feel from the move. Suddenly, cheese for dinner has become an awfully convenient meal. Plus, we've got a cheese store now, one that smells like the underground cheesemonger my mother used to take me to in Berlin, before prosciutto and mozzarella became household words, when Italy still was a faraway, exotic land, even to the Germans. We'd walk down a set of rickety stairs to an underground lair, cool and stinky, where an old Italian man would gesticulate and talk wildly, selling olives and cheese and cured meats and blocks of dark chocolate, wrapped in wax paper that my mother would store in the cupboards and grate over my yogurt some mornings, shards of it flying around the kitchen table, delighting me to no end.
Our cheese shop in Forest Hills has that similar chill and that old, familiar funk. There are St. Marcellins, wrinkled and gooey, milky mozzarelle from Italy, dusty salamis, and raw milk cheese from France. There are fragrant olives in bins and crusty loaves of bread by the door. Something about standing in this store, the pickled herring in the refrigerated case, the German chocolates on the shelves and the smell that reminds me of another time and place, makes me feel warm and comforted and recognized somehow. Plucking a bag of mozzarella di bufala from its watery bucket feels like second-nature.
At home last night, I thumbed through Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, alighting on a simple August meal he made for himself of grilled fennel and mozzarella. It sounded irresistible. I sliced a bulb of fennel thinly and broiled it on both sides, until the edges were charred and crispy and the fennel was sweet and mellow. In a bowl, I stirred together olive oil, some pitted Nicoise olives and a handful of fresh parsley leaves. The broiled fennel went into the bowl, the heat releasing the aromatics in an invisible puff. I piled the salad on a slice of broiled, garlic-rubbed bread and slid half a mozzarella ball alongside it.
The salad? Un-Be-Lievably Good. Like, This-Is-The-Only-Way-I-Might-Ever-Eat-Fennel-Again Good. It was sweet, salty, grassy and herbal, it was chewy and crispy and soft and even a little prickly, when a parsley leaf got in the way. It was, in a word, perfection. But the mozzarella got left in the dust. It was too waxy, too sour and just not right for the symphony of flavors going on beside it. I forked the rest of my cheese over to Ben's plate and concentrated happily on the remaining salad.
Which is really just as well, as I think my waistline was starting to swell. I'm sort of relieved that the salad broke the cheese spell. And as long as I can eat salad like this every night for the next week, I don't think I'll even miss that other stuff.
Fennel and Olive Salad
2 medium-sized heads of fennel
5 tablespoons of olive oil
24 black olives (I used Nicoise)
1 small bunch of flat-leafed parsley
2 balls of mozzarella di bufala, optional (if you do buy these, only the best, please)
1. Heat a grill or a broiler. Slice the stalks and fronds from the bulbs. Slice the bulbs into thing slices, no thicker than 1/8 of an inch. Grill or broil the fennel, letting it color first on one side, then the other.
2. Pour the olive oil into a bowl and add the olives. Pull the parsley leaves from the stalks and add to the olive oil with some salt and pepper. Take the fennel off the grill or broiler and drop it into the bowl. Toss gently.
3. Divide the salad among four plates. If using, split the mozzarella or slice thickly, then lay the pieces on top of the salad. Drizzle remaining dressing over the cheese or add a little more olive oil.