I grew up mostly eating one kind of cheese. Hoop cheese, they called it; a tangy farmer-style cheese unique to the South. There must have been mozzarella, though I distinctly remember our lasagna recipe calling for cottage cheese as ricotta had yet to make its debut. Parmesan came in foil green cans.
It's not that simple anymore. These days picking the right cheese can be as dizzying as choosing a new paint color. Do you prefer shredded, sliced, crumbled or a chunk? Imported or domestic? Like many of us counting calories and watching our intake of saturated fat, do you want regular or low-fat? There's 50 percent and 75 percent reduced fat cheeses to consider, along with no-fat options as well. For tub cheeses like ricotta and cottage, there's regular, part-skim and fat-free.
To find out what style of cheese offered the best flavor with the fewest calories, I headed for the cheese aisle, and filled my cart. For my tastings, I picked cheddar, the most widely available cheese with the most options.
In general, this category sacrifices flavor for convenience, and the lower the fat, the less satisfying. Full-fat shredded cheddar (110 calories per ounce) melts in the mouth while fat free (at 45 calories per ounce) — hard, odorless and flavorless — just sits on the tongue. Reduced-fat shredded cheddar (80 calories per ounce) naturally falls in between and is a good compromise when every calorie counts.
As a category, these are more flavorful than factory-shredded, but they share the same textural qualities. Full-fat slices (80 calories per ounce) melted slightly better than reduced-fat (60 calories per ounce). Pre-sliced cheeses are ideal for sandwiches.
However, it's worth noting that fat-free sharp cheddar slices are an entirely different breed. Described on the packaging as "nonfat pasteurized prepared cheese product," its calorie count (45 per ounce) is the only thing going for it. Limp and rubbery in its raw state, gluey when melted, this artificial product's ingredient list is well over 20 items long.
For grating and eating, I find block cheese preferable. It's the most flavorful of the styles. It also comes in several varieties — regular, low-fat, 50 percent and 75 percent reduced fat. As with shredded and sliced, the higher the fat, the better the flavor and texture.
Which cheese to choose?
Bottom line: as a food lover who watches (not obsesses) about her calorie intake, I tend to use smaller quantities of regular or low-fat cheese and heighten flavor with cheese naturally lower in calories. My favorites include:
- buttermilk blue
If you're looking to moisten cheese-laden dishes like macaroni and cheese, or pizza, avoid bulking up with large quantities of grated full-fat cheese or rich sauces. Rather, supplement with low-fat fresh cheeses and dairy like:
- Greek yogurt
- cottage cheese
The three recipes that follow exemplify this approach and prove that it is possible to savor great-tasting cheese dishes without running up the calorie count.
The Three Grilled Cheese
A single slice of cheese — particularly the reduced-fat variety — just isn't enough to make a good grilled cheese. Instead of adding another slice of mild cheese, heighten flavor by sprinkling on naturally low-fat feta, goat, or buttermilk blue. Press a little naturally low-fat shredded Parmesan into the buttered bread slices for even more flavor and great crunch.
- 4 slices good quality white bread
- 1 1/2 tablespoons softened butter
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 ounces reduced-fat medium-sharp cheddar cheese slice
- 2 ounces crumbled goat, feta or buttermilk blue cheese
Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet or griddle over medium-low heat. Spread butter over one side of each of the bread slices. Evenly sprinkle two of the slices with Parmesan cheese, pressing it into the butter to stick. Place the two cheese-coated bread slices, Parmesan-side down in the skillet. Lay a cheese slice over each bread slice and evenly sprinkle on your choice of crumbled cheese. Top each with remaining bread slice, Parmesan cheese side up. Grill until golden brown on bottom side, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn sandwiches and continue to grill until golden brown on remaining side, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Halve each sandwich and serve.
A Better-for-You Mac & Cheese
As with the Three Grilled Cheese, I use a little low-fat sharp cheddar for cheesiness, but I heighten flavor with an equal amount of naturally low-fat goat, feta or blue. Instead of sour cream or a rich white sauce I keep macaroni moist with good-for-you low-fat cottage cheese and Greek yogurt.
Makes a 13- by 9-inch pan, serving 12
- 1 pound (16 ounces) pasta shells or macaroni
- 8 ounces reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- 8 ounces crumbled goat, feta or buttermilk blue cheese
- 1 container (16 ounces) low-fat cottage cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 container (16 ounces) Greek yogurt
- Ground black pepper
- 2 cups fresh bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (optional)
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Bring 2 quarts of salted water to boil in a large soup kettle over high heat. Using package directions as a guide, and stirring frequently at first to keep it from sticking, boil pasta, partially covered, until just tender. Drain.
Meanwhile, mix cheeses and yogurt in a large bowl. Add hot pasta; toss to coat. Adjust seasonings, including pepper. Turn in to a vegetable spray-coated 13- by 9-inch baking dish.
Mix breadcrumbs, parsley and butter. Sprinkle evenly over shells and cheese. Bake until casserole is bubbly and crumbs are golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve.
Rather than sprinkle the pizza with lots of grated mozzarella, I spread a little garlic-flavored ricotta over the dough before adding the tomatoes, keeping the pizza moist and flavorful. Sprinkling the mozzarella over the pizzas near the end of baking keeps the cheese moist and gooey.
- 1 pound store-bought pizza dough
- Cornmeal for sprinkling on baking sheet
- 3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 3 medium tomatoes, sliced thin and lightly salted
- 1/3 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 3 ounces grated part-skim mozzarella
Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 500 degrees. Cut dough into 4 equal pieces and stretch each quarter into an approximate 12-inch by 4-inch rectangle, laying all 4 crosswise on a large cornmeal-coated baking sheet.
Mix ricotta, milk and garlic in a small bowl; spread a portion of ricotta over each piece of dough and then top with tomatoes. Bake until pizzas are golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, toss basil with olive oil. Sprinkle pizzas with a portion of cheese and basil. Return to oven and continue to bake until cheese melts, 3 to 5 minutes longer. Top bake until pizzas are crisp and golden brown. Remove from oven, cut into portions and serve.
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