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Manchego Cheese, the superstar ingredient of this dish, hails from Spain.  Or, at least, that’s what wikipedia tells me.  I’m a bit ignorant when it comes to cheeses, but I’m learning fast, and I relish the chance to poke through the extensive cheese cabinet at Moore Wilson’s downtown.  I only found manchego (two kinds, one made in NZ and one imported from Spain) when I knew to look for it.  I’m also on the prowl for Idiazabal, but haven’t spotted that one yet.

At first glance (and first bite), this dish is more or less a things-paired-with-a-cheese sampler platter. The little nuggets of goodness under the sheets of melted cheese include roasted peppers, sourdough croutons, olive oil pudding (which is intensely delicious and oddly sweet), dehydrated crispy black olives, roasted garlic cloves, and anchovies.  (I should point out that the dish is supposed to be garnished with rocket, but I was too busy fussing over my lighting to remember to do this last step, which would have added a sorely-needed level of visual complexity to the dish).  When I made two servings of the dish and ate it with Sarah, we sampled each nugget at a time, savoring how each item paired with the manchego topping.

The manchego I had access to has a Parmesan-like quality, albeit it notably milder.  I found the NZ and Spanish variants remarkably similar, though neither exhibited the ‘zestiness’ or ‘exuberance’ described on Wikipedia. The cheeses were fairly firm; they both crumbled when I tried cutting them with a cheese slicer.  It wasn’t so aggressive that it overpowered some of the more subtle nuggets hiding beneath it, but also didn’t stand out as particularly unique.  So basically it was a little like driving a Honda I guess.

My plating differs slightly here from that of Alinea due to limited access to big blocks of manchego that could be cut as required. I shot it on a pane of glass that I’d painted black on the reverse side; I find this gives me that nice ‘Sexy Apple Product Photo” look that I thought might work well with this one.  I was already composing a pretty boring writeup about this as I packed my gear away, but then, in cleaning up, I shoveled a whole strip of cheese/goodies in my mouth quickly, and all of a sudden it clicked.  The brilliance of this dish isn’t just how each ingredient pairs with the cheese individually; it lies in how all the ingredients pair with EACH OTHER. A mouthful of olive oil pudding, sour dough crouton, crisp olive, roasted pepper, and the manchego draped softly and warmly atop the lot is an explosion of flavors and textures.  It was a eureka moment, that bite, and so I laid out some spoons and crammed all the ingredients into it, melted the cheese over top of it, and offered it to Sarah. Her eyes widened and she too agreed, it’s way better when experienced all in one bite.