Cooking With Kurma

Kurma Dasa

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Rennet
By Kurma Dasa

Gopal Krishna, the Friend of the Cows and CalvesDo you read the fine print on packets of cheese when shopping? Maybe not. But I do, and for strict vegetarians it also makes for essential reading. Surely cheese is vegetarian, you ask? Why all the fuss? There's a one-word answer — rennet.

Rennet is an essential ingredient in cheese making. It's an enzyme that coagulates milk proteins, thus setting the curd. The first step
in cheese making is the addition of a starter culture of Streptococci and Lactobacilli. These bacteria ferment the lactose to lactic acid and reduce the milk's pH to the proper range for the rennet to coagulate the casein. Then the rennet
is added. The active enzyme in rennet, called rennin, is remarkably efficient. In pure form, one part will coagulate 5 million parts of milk.

But what's all this got to do with vegetarian ethics? The answer is that most cheese manufacturers use a rennet derived from the fourth, or true stomach of a milk-fed calf. Every year, millions of calves endure terribly inhumane factory farm conditions for their short lives, before being executed in ghastly slaughterhouses for their tender flesh.

As well as being a vegetarian I am also a Krishna devotee. In classic Indian Vedic tradition, Krishna is also called Govinda and Gopal (the sanskrit word go means cow) because He is so fond of the cows. In fact he is a cowherd, and treats his cows and calves as members of his family. Hence my eagerness to check my cheese labels.

Now, unless you’ve decided to be a vegan and eschew all dairy products, what’s a cheese-loving vegetarian to do? The good news is that although calves' stomachs are the classic source of rennet, there are alternatives. I once saw an old recipe for homemade rennet made from an infusion of the herb lady's bedstraw, which purportedly makes excellent cheese. The juices from the fig tree and certain thistles have the same curdling effect.

But for those of us, myself included, who don't have time to make their own cheese, there's an easier solution; and that brings us back to the deli or supermarket shelf. A good number of cheeses produced around the world now come with "non-animal rennet" listed with the ingredients. That means the manufacturers have used a herbal, microbial or synthetic rennet to make their cheese.

Not long ago I was given an invitation to attend a Cheese Show at the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne. As I went from table to table, and spoke with the cheesemakers, I was amazed to discover hundreds of varieties of cheese, including fresh unripened, "eye-types", stretched curd types, through to cheddar-types and hard grating cheeses. So, at least here in Australia, there’s a big range of vegetarian cheese to choose from. And if you don’t mind spending a little extra, there are some excellent imported non-animal rennet cheeses, such as the famous Italian Grana Padano, a hard grating cheese similar to Parmigiana.

If browsing through shelves of cheese is not your cup of whey, and you live in Australia, then as an alternative, you can ring up the Australian Dairy Corporation and ask them to send you a copy of their free book entitled "The Australian Cheese Buyers Guide." The manufacturers and agents details are all given, so you'll know where to go to get the cheese of your choice.

If you live outside of Australia, find out if there is a dairy regulatory board in your country and contact them. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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Here’s a recipe for a succulent salad using creamy white fresh mozzarella, my all-time favourite cheese.

Tomato, Basil and Fresh Mozzarella Salad (Insalata Caprese)

Tomato, Basil and Fresh Mozzarella Salad (Insalata Caprese)I tasted this ultra-delicious combination of fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella cheese, slices of ripe tomato, and fresh basil leaves for the first time in Rome. A friend and I were browsing a grocery store when a van pulled up and the driver raced in with a tray of buffalo mozzarella cheese that was so fresh it was floating in still-warm whey. Needless to say it was my most memorable cheese experience.

Do not even dream of substituting the hard yellow coloured cheese that goes by the name mozzarella – it has to be the fresh white stuff, or not at all. If you have no access to fresh mozzarella, then use freshly pressed panir cheese instead. For the best results, select the freshest cheese and tomatoes, aromatic fresh basil leaves, and the best extra virgin olive oil you have.

250g buffalo milk mozzarella, or bocconcini, sliced into 0.5 cm rounds
a few fresh basil leaves, shredded for garnish
3 or 4 ripe, medium-sized tomatoes sliced into 0.5cm rounds
Sea salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
12-15 whole, large fresh basil leaves


Decoratively arrange the slices of cheese, whole basil leaves and tomato slices in overlapping rings on a serving platter.

Sprinkle over the salt and the black pepper just before serving, drizzle with the extra-virgin olive oil, and garnish with the shredded basil leaves. That’s it!

From "Cooking with Kurma" by Kurma Dasa

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