Mac-N-Cheese, Cheese Traveler-Style

Mac-n-Cheese? Yeah we do that. On February 20, 2016, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York held it’s 7th Annual Mac-N-Cheese Bowl competition. The Cheese Traveler, sandwiched in between 30 stations of Hudson Valley cheese-y competitors, served up four-cheese enrobed caserecci pasta curls topped with apple-jack, red wine, and goat horn pepper-braised lamb and garnished with preserved lemon gremolata. Representing The Cheese Traveler, Cheesemonger Ryan Skrabalak and his assistants Morgan and Marina assembled gorgeous little “bowls” of the finest pasta and cheese we could offer.

Around the Siena College Marcelle Athletic Complex basketball court, 2,500 mac-n-cheese enthusiasts wandered through mac-n-cheese laden tables dodging around makeshift lines, elbow to elbow, brandishing muffin pans filled with two ounce “bowls” of the day’s competing mac-n-cheese entries. Since it was the seventh annual Mac-N-Cheese Bowl, many of these folks knew the ropes from previous years, and they brought their own muffin pans to line up, evaluate, and rank the pasta bowls.

At our station, smack-dab in the center of the court, people lined up from midcourt to the sidelines and down the aisle to the far corner. Hundreds of people pushed forward to the table at all sides, hoping to steal a chance to get some of the fast-dwindling supply of caserecci curls. Some waited in line a second or third time for another two-ounce portion. It was heated. It was flying. And it was totally crazy in there.

Our supply ran dry at 12:55 p.m. with over an hour and a half more of the event to go. Did we bring enough to spare? Probably not. We brought eleven pounds of Hessian Hill local, grass-fed lamb shoulder and leg (retailing between $12.95 and $14.95 a pound), over thirteen pounds of bronze-dye cut, fresh-water pasta, hand made by the Masciarelli Pastificio (pasta house), the oldest and smallest pasta producer in Abruzzo, Italy (retails $9.95 a 1.1 lb. package), and a four-cheese medley of Pecorino Fiore Sardo ($23.50 lb.), Tomme Chebris ($24.50 lb.), Edelweiss Havarti ($9.95 lb.), and Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar (donated by Cabot). With the crowd hopping and the mac-n-cheese bowls flying, we could barely keep up with the demand.

If you missed out on this year’s action, you can still try our delicious cheeses and prepared foods. Come out to the 8th Annual Mac-N-Cheese Bowl, or better yet, stop in at 540 Delaware Avenue during business hours. See you soon!


Left to Right: Marina, Ryan, and Morgan Skrabalak


Okay, It’s Official, We’re Cheesemakers Too


This gallery contains 9 photos.

by Alifair Skebe Well…not exactly. Chez Voyageur du Fromage – at the home of The Cheese Traveler – some local Berne Dairy Meadowbrook Jersey cow’s milk va aigre. Young Master Traveler pulled the glass bottle out of the fridge, unhinged the … Continue reading

Are Ramps the New Arugula?


by Alifair Skebe

In 1983, ramps (or wild leeks) appeared on the American fancy foods scene with a recipe or two popping up in food magazines throughout the decade. By the late 90s, ramps reached celebrity status as the new, hip ingredient for gourmet chefs from New York City to Chicago for its versatility, unique flavor, and brief season. [1] In short, ramps are fairly rare and comparatively valuable. However, with over a decade of popularity and exposure, one might well ask: Are ramps overhyped? overharvested? overdone? Have ramps lost their cool?

A rather pedestrian item, the North American ramp (allium tricoccum) grows in deciduous damp woodlands, emerging in early spring, from March in Southern Appalachian states to May in the Northern seaboard and into Canada. Arguably, ramps were never very chic. Their name derives from their Eurasian cousin ramson (allium ursinum) from the Old English hramesan. Loved by brown bears, wild boars, and humans alike, the ramson or wild garlic has been a European and Anglo Saxon staple from antiquity to the present. The wild, foraged plant has a dense nutritional value and has traditionally been used in regional cuisines, notably from Germany to Italy to Russia, each dish unique to the country of origin. Classic British and Celtic cooking pairs the allium with other seasonal greens such as chickweed and nettles, or wild mushrooms, and includes them in soups, fritters, and puddings.

When the pioneers came to the new land, they identified the native American ramp with its cousin and named it accordingly. Some consider the name ramson to come from the “ram” associating the plant with the sign of Aries, the time when the plant grows and is harvested. Most likely the name derives from the Greek cognate krómmyon meaning onion. On the North American continent, the first peoples included ramps in their diet, seasoning their cuisine with its strong flavor. The Menominee called it “pikwute sikakushia” meaning skunk, and the Cherokee developed sustainable foraging practices, replanting the roots to keep the stock growing. To this day across Appalachia, the descendants of the settlers and natives hold festivals to celebrate the Spring ramp harvest.

The ramp has a variety of uses. Its leaves are rich in nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, and selenium, and it is known as a spring tonic. The greens are satisfying after a long winter without fresh foods, and the ramps effectively cleanse the kidney and liver. The 2005 documentary King of Stink highlights the influence and importance of the ramp in the Appalachian diet as well as some of the more interesting products that come from it, like ramp wine and pest control spray (click on the title to view the video).

Close to Albany, NY, home of The Cheese Traveler, some folks are extending the ramp celebration tradition to New York. 2013 marked the Third Annual Ramp Festival in Hudson, NY where fine chefs from Upstate and New York City showed off their ramp creations. For a gorgeous photo album of the event, check out Linda’s blog post at Wild Greens and Sardines. A variety of dishes graced the festival, held in an old, converted 19th century factory. The fanciness of the event and the quality of the foods seemed a leap beyond ramps’ working class roots. The most common ramp festival pairings are, and have been for over a century, fried ramps, bacon, cornbread, and beans, and depending on the region, barbecued chicken or fried trout.

More important than the food itself is the feeling behind what ramps represent. Ramp hunting is a good day or two out with friends and family just having a good time. Processing the ramps is chatting and enjoying one another’s company. Cooking is a celebration of nature’s bounty. Whether or not ramps will stay in fashion in the restaurant world, their presence in folk cuisine and specialty foods remains strong. The resurgence in popularity of ramps for a broader audience brings a classic food item back into the diet.

Ramps can be found in season (April-May in NY) at The Cheese Traveler. When foraging ramps, Suzie Jones of Jones Family Farm in Herkimer, NY, who makes a fresh ramps chèvre, advises to “take only 10% of what is available” to avoid overharvesting. When possible, replenish with the root stock.

For the close of ramp season, we at The Cheese Traveler recommend a simple puree of the leaves and a pickling recipe for the bulbs.

Ramp Pesto

Ramp Pesto


1 cup walnuts

1/4 lb. parmesano reggiano

1 tsp salt

30-50 ramps leaves and stalks, washed and trimmed

1/2 cup olive oil

Pesto IngredientsCut Ramps

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until the mixture is even consistency. Serve over warm orecchiette pasta or smeared on a slice of fresh bread. Add a slice of prosciutto to taste.

Ramp Pesto Sandwich

Pickled Ramps

Pickled Ramps


3/4 cup vinegar

3/4 cup water

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp pickling salt (we used Himalayan pink salt)

1/2 tsp black peppercorns

1/2 tsp dried hawthorne berries or juniper or coriander

Nora chili flakes (Spanish pepper)

1 bay leaf

1 lb. ramps, washed, trimmed, with leaves removed

Combine vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Boil and whisk until granules are dissolved completely.

Clean glass pint jars with hot, soapy water to sterilize. Place spices in the bottom of the jar and pack them with cleaned ramps.

Pour liquid over the ramps leaving a 1/2 inch headspace. Tap the jar to loosen the trapped air bubbles. Wipe lids and apply a clean lid and ring.

Seal jars in a boiling water bath to preserve.

If you prefer not to can for long term storage, you can forgo sealing the jars in a boiling water bath. Place the jars in the refrigerator. Let ramps pickle for at least a week before using. They will last up to two weeks.


The Simple Meal Is a-Plenty

by Alifair Skebe

What do the Quebequoise poutine, chili cheese fries, and Albany’s Bomber’s “piggy fries” have in common?

Each boasts a gravy, a meat, and a cheese drenched over french-fried potatoes. Reach a fork into the mix to pull out a potato and a string of cheese clinging to the plate. The softened potato naturally pairs with a hot melted cheese and meat sauce. This is the beauty of such a meal. It’s so simple yet offers the flexibility of a variety of ingredients in each category. Which gravy? which meat? and which cheese?

The Quebequois have made an art of creating satisfying answers to these questions. Poutine is a national dish originating in the Quebec province of Chicoutimi in the 19th Century. And yes, Quebec takes the invention very seriously. There is an entire website devoted to the poutine: check out Poutineries can be found in every province with long menus of multiple combinations of cheese, meat, and gravy that comprise the dish, and fine restaurants feature their own exquisite variations. Eric and I discovered the wonders of the poutine in May 2010 in Montreal while looking for after-hours eats. We wandered into La Banquise to find what some consider the best poutinerie or the most “overrated” in Montreal. Suffice to say, we were hooked!

Montreal's Poutinerie La Banquise

Montreal’s Poutinerie La Banquise

Back in Albany, only four hours away from Montreal, the closest pub snack we could find to the poutine was Bomber’s “Piggy Fries,” which is a load of pulled pork, BBQ sauce and melted cheddar cheese over french fried potatoes. When Capital City Gastropub opened in our neighborhood, we were stunned by and quite happy with its “finer” version of the poutine drenched in duck gravy. Now the Gastropub features a number of poutines: one with mushrooms and another with foie gras! Check out their fall menu here.

Of course, we also like to make poutine fresh at home with our choice of yummy cheese and potatoes.

We at The Cheese Traveler have created a close second to the poutine: boiled and baked potatoes to cut down on the artery-clogging shot of cheese-meat-gravy and fried carcinogen.

So here ’tis:

Adirondack Blue Potatoes sprinkled in Challerhocker and a pat of Butter.

Challerhocker (which lingers around the cheese cave) is a flavorful addition to these boiled and baked potatoes.

Challerhocker (which translates as “one who lingers around the cheese cave”) is a flavorful addition to these boiled and baked potatoes.


10 small heritage Adirondack blue potatoes (thank you Farmer Jon and DJ Stacey!)
1 small onion
1/2 cup fresh parsley
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup Challerhocker grated (or substitute any one of our good-melting Alpine cheeses)
A pat of butter
Salt and pepper to taste


Boil potatoes in salt. When soft, drain the potato broth to be used in any number of other dishes as a starchy stock for soups.

Mixing up the ingredients.

Mixing up the ingredients.

Place boiled potatoes on a flat baking pan or a big steel bowl as shown here. Mix them with other ingredients.

Putting the potatoes in the oven to melt the cheese...also making toasts from All Good Bakers rye bread. Very yummy together!

Putting the potatoes in the oven to melt the cheese…also making toasts from All Good Bakers rye bread. Very yummy together!

Bake for thirty minutes in a 350 degree oven or until all cheese is beautifully melted over the potatoes. Feel free to turn them once or twice to keep the potatoes coated in butter and cheese.

Squashing the mid-Fall Blues

by Alifair Skebe

Fall is squash season. Butternut, pie pumpkin, cheese pumpkin, acorn, delicata.

What better way to warm the heart and pique the senses than a warm bowl of squash soup? To roast the squash, add lentils, and sprinkle with a nicely aged Sheep’s Milk Cheese!

Hearty Butternut Squash and Lentil Soup

One cooked and pureed small Butternut squash

1 1/2 cup Green French lentils

2-3 cups Vegetable stock (potato stock makes a thicker broth)

1/2 Medium Onion


3 cloves Garlic

1/2 cup Fresh parsley

Salt to taste

1 1/2 tsp Paprika

Dash of Chili Powder

1 tbsp rendered pork fat (or butter or olive oil)

1 cup Hard Italian or Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, grated

Mix all ingredients (except the cheese) and simmer on low, covered for 45 minutes to an hour. Sprinkle grated cheese in last and cook until melted. Add freshly grated cheese on top to taste.

So What Do You Do with Fennel Leaves?

by Alifair Skebe

At The Delmar Farmers’ Market yesterday, Farmer DJ and a customer were talking over the colorful mounds of vegetables at his and Farmer John’s stand. The contention was fennel: what is it? how do you cook it, and then, the point at which my ears perked up: “So what do you do with the leaves?”

Fennel, classic to French cooking and also known as anise, comes from the parsley family and has a taste similar to licorice or tarragon. The entire plant can be used in both cooking and herbal medicine, and the leaves or fronds are particularly aromatic and delicate in texture and flavor. So, I got myself some fennel from DJ and took to the kitchen that night. In this article, you will see two variations on fennel fronds’ use: one with cheese and another a classic fish dish using salmon from “fin.”

The Risotto

A summer risotto with fennel fronds

All risottos use the same method of slow cooking Arborio rice, a highly absorbent rice from Italy, adding a dense stock and white or light red wine, and finishing with a flavorful cheese to create a rich, creamy texture. Because Arborio rice is imported and very fine, it can be costly. This recipe substitutes half of the Arborio rice for pearled barley, which has a similar texture and absorbency. Other ingredients can be grown in your garden and found in a local farmer’s market or specialty foods shop.

In this recipe, the vegetables garlic scapes, spring onion, and snap peas are balanced with the herbs and spices fennel frond and French paprika so as not to overpower the delightful taste of the washed rind cheese used.

Garlic Scape, Snap Pea, Fennel, and “Maggie’s Round” Risotto

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 4 garlic scapes
  • 1 small onion
  • splash of Banyuls vinegar
  • 1 cp Arborio rice
  • 1 cp pearled barley
  • 1 qt stock (vegetable or chicken)
  • 1 cp Pino Grigio wine
  • 1 cp fresh snap peas
  • ¼ cp fennel fronds
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp French paprika
  • 2 oz. Maggie’s Round, Pawlette, and/or Berleberg diced

Melt butter in a pan on medium heat. Heat stock in a separate pan and keep covered on low heat. Cut scapes and onion into butter and sauté until onions are semi-transparent. Add a splash of Banyuls (or similar light wine or rice vinegar). Add rice and barley and sauté in the butter for 1-2 minutes. Begin to add the warm stock, one cup at a time as the rice adsorbs the liquid. Stir often. When the rice and barley begin to plump, add paprika and salt, snap peas and fennel fronds. Add wine. Finish with your choice of cheeses mentioned. Stir until the cheese melts evenly throughout the risotto. The risotto will be done when the rice has taken in all the flavor and is al dente. The risotto will look creamy and generously wet around the rice and barley, neither dry nor runny. Pepper and salt to taste.

Fennel Salmon with Collards and Kale

Fennel fronds and thick greens make a wonderful base for cooking fish, and the flavor of fennel pairs particularly well with salmon. This recipe steams the fish over a bed of greens, and the fish soaks up the flavors as the steam rises.

  • 1-1/2 lbs fresh salmon
  • 2cps fennel fronds coarsely chopped
  • 4 large collard leaves cut in thick strips
  • 4 Red Russian kale leaves coarsely chopped
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • a splash of Banyuls vinegar
  • a drizzle of A L’Olivier Herbes des Provence olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Use a dutch oven or similarly large, heavy pot with lid on the stove top. Heat the pot to medium to low. Line the bottom of the pot with the cut fennel fronds, collards, and kale. Gently place the salmon on top of the greens. Juice the ½ lemon on the salmon. Add 1 tbsp olive oil to moisten the salmon and greens. As the salmon steams, the oil will release into the greens and the greens will protect the salmon from burning. Add a splash of Banyuls vinegar and drizzle of Herbes des Provence olive oil. Let cook until the fish is pink and flakes. Add salt and pepper to taste.