Dining Out - Blessed Be The Cheesemakers

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t the foot of Huckleberry Mountain, just up from the eastern shore of Lake Roosevelt, sits the home of Rick and Lora Lea Misterly and their goats -- and the bucolic setting for the Quillisascut Cheese Company. The Misterlys moved to the tiny community of Rice in 1981 and began serious cheesemaking six years later; today, they have 36 acres of pastureland, 33 milking goats and high-profile customers from Spokane to Puget Sound who clamor for their cheeses.

Quillisascut goat cheese has been a mainstay at several trendy restaurants in the Seattle area since Rick first began marketing directly to chefs there in 1994. The market in Spokane has been slower to develop; when in season (more on that later), the cheese is available at Huckleberry's and in dishes from Mizuna and Latah Bistro. But interest has picked up in the last couple of years, and the Misterlys will soon debut their aged manchego-style goat cheese at the Spokane Farmers' Market as well.

Latah Bistro's executive chef David Blaine has used Quillisascut cheese in his creative bistro fare since before the restaurant opened. He's especially fond of the smoked curado, a product made in small quantities by smoking the aged cheese over jalapeno peppers.

"One of the reasons I got the job, I think, is because of their cheese," he recalls. "One of the dishes I prepared for the DuPrees, the owners of the restaurant, before we opened, was a butternut squash risotto with smoked curado. Normally, I would put some nice applewood smoked bacon in there, but I wanted to show that you could make something lighter that appeals to a different spectrum. By adding the smoked cheese on top, it changed that dish and gave it some earthiness. I love smoky flavors, especially when you're dealing with vegetarian or meatless dishes. It gives it umami, that earthiness, the same way that mushrooms do. I just love it. I love their product."

Now, as the days lengthen and the sun peeps out between rain showers, Blaine is starting to think of new dishes for spring that will feature Quillisascut cheese.

"One thing I look forward to in the weeks of early spring is arugula," he says. "Greens get boring through the winter, and arugula is the first real change. When you get that nice baby arugula, it's peppery without being bitter. And that smoked curado... Think about fresh pappardelle pasta, from Cucina Fresca out of Seattle, tossed with some of that arugula, organic sweet grape tomatoes -- even now you can get sweet grape tomatoes with some punch to them -- and then by adding that smoked curado cheese, you get a certain heartiness, that richness that you want."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he new ideas come just in time, not just for spring but for the new season of cheese, which will begin around the end of April, according to the Misterlys. The production of Quillisascut goat cheese follows the goats' natural cycles. The does stop producing milk in late fall, so the supply of cheese runs low by December -- just in time for the number one cheese-eating month. The Misterlys breed their goats in the fall, and the does "freshen" -- give birth to their kids -- shortly after the first of the year. By February, they're producing milk again, but it's another two months before the cheese is aged and ready for delivery.

When the Quillisascut cheese is available, Blaine creates a cheese plate, both as an appetizer and a light dessert. The baby spinach salad most often features a soft, fresh goat cheese from Cyprus Grove in California, but sometimes the Quillisascut manchego finds its way in. The smoked curado also shows up on the mole chicken pizza, for a tang that balances the sweetness of the caramelized onions.

Blaine is strongly committed to working with small local food producers like Quillisascut; in fact, he now has contacts with so many farms that Latah Bistro can no longer fit the full list of local sources on its menu. More and more, chefs are interested in working with local farms, and farmers want to supply nearby restaurants, but the biggest problem is distribution and delivery of the products.

"I understand [the farmers'] limitations as much as my own," he says. "I can't afford to drive out to the small creameries and make those kinds of contacts, and I understand that they have the same limitations. They can't leave the farm -- they've got to milk the goats, twice a day. So that's what we keep coming back to: distribution. There haven't been any great answers. The best answer so far has been the farmers' market."

Indeed, the Spokane Farmers' Market provides the conduit for Blaine to get his Quillisascut cheese. The Misterlys' farm is located just down the street from Cliffside Orchards, whose owners, Jeff and Jeannette Herman, are fixtures at the farmers' market.

"I go to the market, I tell Cliffside that I'm going to call Quillisascut and tell Rick what I want, and then [Cliffside] will bring it to the market," says Blaine. "Had I not gotten involved in the farmers' market, I never would have made that connection."

An organization called Chefs Collaborative expands on those connections by encouraging sustainable food service businesses and helping chefs link to producers who can't make it to the farmers' market. Now that Blaine has made those connections and built personal relationships through the market, he gets nearly all the local products he wants.

"I rarely find myself seeking out products," he says. "Once you get inside the network -- through the market, through Chefs Collaborative -- one farmer tells another farmer, and I've got people dropping by the restaurant."

The variety of products available then inspires Blaine's creativity, and suddenly his job is way more fun, he says.

"By networking with them, I'm getting educated about products I don't know. Once you get connected, then it's, 'OK, what am I going to do with these yellow currant tomatoes from Dan Jackson, this smoked curado cheese from Quillisascut and this rabbit from Lazy Lightning H Ranch?' From a cook's perspective, it's a dream. This is our sport."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & lthough he's happy to see the progress in developing a market for fresh local food products, Blaine wants to see more chefs and restaurants becoming aware of the local bounty. He'd like to see more local products stay here in Eastern Washington.

"We're the breadbasket of the state," he says. "Not only do we have the lentils and beans, but we have flour from Columbia Plateau Producers, Fred Fleming's group, all the way to local cattle. As soon as we use it, [the farmers] have less incentive to drive it all the way to Seattle. It's already here -- we just have to take advantage of it."

Taking advantage of different local foods as they come into season brings a creative challenge to chefs and restaurateurs and allows them to change menus frequently to keep up with changing availability. (Blaine quips: "Thank goodness for laser printers.") But it's also a challenge and an education to diners: a new way of looking at food, and an awareness that local items like smoked curado and baby arugula may not always be on the menu.

"We don't have to adhere to old traditions," Blaine says. "The holiday cheese ball is one thing, but to me, sitting on the patio on a hot summer night with a glass of wine and a cheese plate seems like a great way to end a meal. Everything fits into a season, and everything makes sense in its natural order."

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