Minnesota dairy’s artisanal chevres and fetas build solid reputation
MINNEAPOLIS It’s hard to believe that Lynne Reeck started making cheese just four years ago.
During that short time, she has forged a reputation for producing some of Minnesota’s most sought-after artisanal dairy products. It’s remarkable progress for someone who launched her cheesemaking career by experimenting on her kitchen stovetop.
“Some of those first chevres were terrible,” Reeck said with a laugh. “But to me, all cheese is magical. The slightest tilt in the process can make a very different cheese. I find that astounding. But goats are magical, too. They take grass and sunshine and they turn it into milk.”
On their 25-acre farm near Nerstrand, Minn., Reeck and partner Kate Wall raise a small herd of goats, and it’s their sweet milk that provides the foundation for the chevres and fetas that are the pride of Singing Hills Goat Dairy.
Reeck’s fresh, snowy white chevre is pure pleasure, with a delicately luscious creaminess and a pristine milky flavor that radiates a this-was-made-two-days-ago freshness. The feta is similarly first-rate: firm yet beautifully crumbly, with a teasingly tangy bite. Aficionados will enjoy the unadulterated varieties, but Reeck also blends them with fresh herbs and seasonings, with winning results.
If a Hollywood type were scouting around for a picturesque Midwestern farm, the couple’s 25 acres would be a shoo-in, on the periphery of the visually stunning Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park. From the goats’ perspective, they live in spalike surroundings, a charmed life dedicated to roaming through roomy, shaded pastures surrounded by a solar-powered electrified fence.
Contrary to popular belief, goats are actually fairly finicky eaters. In the winter, they feed on alfalfa hay, but warm weather finds them grazing a daily diet of about seven pounds of grasses and leaves, including the low-hanging foliage on the farm’s majestic oaks.
“Tree leaves are like candy to them,” said Reeck. “They’ll eat them as high as they can reach on their hind legs.”
The farm’s transformation — from growing vegetables to raising goats — began in earnest in 2009. The clay soil wasn’t particularly suited to vegetable cultivation. But a farmstead dairy? Absolutely. Make that micro-dairy — their term — because, by any measure, Singing Hills is a small-scale operation. A herd of just 26 goats graze the farm’s grasslands; anything larger would require roomier barn facilities.
From udder to cheese
Why goats? One of the many attractions is the animals’ natural curiosity. “Sheep don’t like people,” said Reeck. “Cows, they couldn’t care less. But goats? They’re all, ‘Hi, how are you?’ ”
The farm’s milking does are a Nubian-Saanen mix; the former are prized for their higher-butterfat milk, and the latter produce in greater volume. Twice a day — usually around 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. — six goats at a time (or, as Wall affectionately calls them, “the girls”) dutifully line up inside the milking parlor, lured by the pound of organic grain (a mix of corn, soy, flax and barley) that they feast upon while being milked.
On a good day, a doe will produce roughly a gallon of milk, and it travels directly from udder to pasteurization to cheese. To supplement their supply, the couple also buy milk from a nearby farm.
The cheese plant — roughly the size of an average living room — is equipped with a pair of 22-gallon vats, a minuscule operation in the cheesemaking world. For Reeck, cheesemaking is a six-day-a-week enterprise, and she turns out about 150 pounds weekly. Ninety percent of a week’s output is sold that week, all made with a process that relies on tactile instincts: tasting, feeling, smelling and looking.
“That’s how cheese was made for thousands of years,” Reeck said. But she also depends on the accuracy of scientific measurements. “I like the predictability,” she said. “And science has added so much to the cheesemaking process.”
Reeck’s path to cheesemaking was a long one, with an education that began with coursework in Wisconsin, followed by apprenticeships with another farmstead cheesemaker and a large commercial outfit.
“We need to send her to France,” said Wall. “Vermont would be good enough,” said Reeck.
If only she had the time. Labor — or a lack thereof — is another factor in the farm’s modest scale. It’s just Reeck, who devotes every waking hour to the place (her sisters pitch in with packaging and selling) and Wall, who, when she isn’t immersed in her full-time management job at Northfield’s natural foods co-op, is hard at work at home, tending to the animals and their bottomless needs.
“Vegetable farming is so different,” Wall said. “With animals, there is so much more on the line. The quality of the cheese is directly connected to the animals’ health.”
Reeck and Wall borrowed the poetic name from their go-to getaway, nearby Sakatah Lake State Park; in the Dakota language, sakatah roughly translates into “singing hills.”
GLORIOUS GREEK DEVILED EGGS
Makes 2 dozen.
Note: Pepperoncini are 2- to 3-inch peppers, usually pickled. From “D’Lish Deviled Eggs” by Kathy Casey (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $14.99).
12 hard-cooked eggs
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon freshly minced garlic
2 teaspoons freshly minced oregano
1⁄4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons minced pepperoncini (see Note)
2 tablespoons finely diced red pepper
2 tablespoons finely diced kalamata olives
1⁄3 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tablespoon freshly minced parsley
Halve the eggs lengthwise and transfer yolks to a mixing bowl. Set egg white halves on a platter. Cover and refrigerate.
With a fork, mash yolks to a smooth consistency. Add mayonnaise, yogurt, garlic, oregano, pepper flakes and salt, and mix until smooth. Stir in pepperoncini. Taste and season accordingly.
Using a small spoon, fill egg white halves with yolk mixture, dividing the mixture evenly (or spoon mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain or large start tip, then pipe mixture evenly into egg white halves).
In a small bowl, mix together bell pepper, olives, feta and parsley. Top each egg half with about 1 teaspoon of the mixture and serve.
Nutrition information per each egg half: Calories, 60; fat, 5 g; sodium, 97 mg; carbohydrates, 1 g; saturated fat, 1 g; calcium, 27 mg; protein, 4 g; cholesterol, 96 mg; dietary fiber, 0 g.
BACON, PEAR AND GOAT CHEESE SALAD
Note: From “Bacon Nation” by Peter Kaminsky and Marie Rama (Workman, $14.95).
6 slices bacon
3 tablespoons plus 11⁄2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon plus 11⁄2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 small shallot, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ripe but still firm Bosc pears
About 4 handfuls Bibb or Boston lettuce, rinsed well, dried and torn into bite-sized pieces
20 sprigs watercress, rinsed and dried
5 ounces chevre, at room temperature, sliced into 4 pieces
12 raspberries (or 4 large strawberries, stemmed and cut in half)
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
Line a broiler pan with aluminum foil. Place broiler pan rack over pan (over the foil) and arrange bacon in a single layer on rack. Bake bacon until it is browned and most of the fat is rendered, about 11 to 14 minutes (exact baking time will depend on the bacon’s thickness). Transfer bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. When cool, break bacon into 1-inch long pieces.
In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil and vinegar. Add shallot. Season with salt and pepper to taste and reserve.
Using a paring knife, cut each pear in half lengthwise. Remove core, stem and blossom end, then cut pears lengthwise into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices. Place lettuce and watercress in a large bowl. Add dressing and toss well. Divide salad greens equally among 4 salad plates. Divide pear slices, goat cheese, bacon pieces and raspberries (or strawberries) equally and arrange on top of salad greens and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: Calories, 330; fat, 25 g; sodium, 420 mg; carbohydrates, 17 g; saturated fat, 8 g; calcium, 93 mg; protein, 12 g; cholesterol, 30 mg; dietary fiber, 4 g.
GOAT CHEESE GNOCCHI
Note: From “New Vegetarian” by Robin Asbell (Chronicle Books, $19.95).
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 cup chopped onion
1 rib celery, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
3 cups chopped broccoli raab
1 cup vegetable stock
Juice from 1⁄2 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
1 pound chevre, at room temperature
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat olive oil and sauté onion, celery and carrot. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 25 minutes or, if you have the time, up to 30 minutes to fully caramelize the onion. Add broccoli raab and just enough stock to cover. Simmer until all vegetables are very soft, then puree them in a food processor or blender. Add lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
In a large bowl, using a potato masher or big spoon, mix eggs, salt and 1⁄2 cup of the flour into the chevre. Gradually add flour to make a very soft, slightly sticky dough. Chill for 30 minutes. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Spread flour on a work surface and lightly over a baking sheet.
Pinch off a 1-inch piece of dough and roll it in flour to make a ball, then shake off excess flour. Drop the single gnocco into boiling water and wait 1 minute, then gently stir to make sure it is not stuck to the bottom of the pot. When ball floats, remove it using a slotted spoon. Let it cool slightly, then taste; if gnocco falls apart, or if it is so soft that it turns to mush, add more flour to the dough. If gnocco is tender, proceed with forming the rest of the dough (if desired, press each against the tines of a fork to make characteristic markings) and place them on the floured baking sheet.
Drop 12 or so gnocchi into boiling water at a time. As they come to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon. Place gnocchi in a casserole dish and drizzle with olive oil, shaking gently to distribute.
Reheat sauce. Carefully toss with gnocchi and taste for salt and pepper. Top with grated Parmesan and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: Calories, 440; fat, 27 g; sodium, 1,040 mg; carbohydrates, 26 g; saturated fat, 15 g; calcium, 185 mg; protein, 23 g; cholesterol, 116 mg; dietary fiber, 2 g.
Note: From “Mollie Katzan’s Sunlight Cafe” by Mollie Katzen (Hyperion, $29.95).
6 to 8 eggs
3 tablespoons freshly minced mint
1 tablespoon freshly minced flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon freshly minced oregano
2 tablespoons minced green onion
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cup (packed) spinach
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 cup diced ripe tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk eggs until smooth. Stir in mint, parsley, oregano and green onion and grind in a good amount of black pepper.
Place a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. After several minutes, add olive oil, wait 10 seconds, then swirl to coat pan. Increase heat to medium-high, add spinach and saute until spinach has wilted and turned a deep green, about 2 to 3 minutes. Pour beaten eggs into pan. As eggs begin to set, push the curds from the bottom to one side, allowing uncooked egg to flow into contact with pan, blending the spinach in with the eggs. When eggs are mostly set but still slightly wet, sprinkle in crumbled feta. Continue scrambling slowly, allowing cheese to melt slightly into eggs. After about 1 minute, stir in tomatoes. Cook for a few seconds longer, or until eggs are done to your liking. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: Calories, 260; fat, 19 g; sodium, 530 mg; carbohydrates, 5 g; saturated fat, 9 g; calcium, 250 mg; protein, 16 g; cholesterol, 310 mg; dietary fiber, 1 g.