That's where fresh cheeses come in. They are a perfect, heat-beating mainstay of summer menus, according to Susan Spungen, food editor and author of Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook. Fresh cheeses retain the pure, sometimes chalky whiteness of milk, so they set off the bright colors of summer fruits and vegetables, and they aren't especially filling. All are characteristically moist and mild, whether the milk they came from was cow, goat, or yak.
Fresh cheeses include supermarket familiars like cream cheese and mozzarella, as well as queso fresco, halloumi, and Quark. Unlike the complex flavors of a Cheddar that's been aged eight years or a Roquefort veined with mold, a fresh cheese won't knock you over the head with personality. It will, however, provide a beguiling counterpoint to a variety of other ingredients. "Fresh cheeses play well with others," Spungen says. A mascarpone, for example, can be stirred into a savory risotto or whipped with brown sugar and served alongside fresh strawberries as a dessert.
Most cheeses start out the same way, according to food scientist Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking. Enzymes and acids are added to milk or allowed to develop naturally in it; they chemically provoke its proteins and fats (the tasty parts) to clump into curds, leaving behind a watery excess known as whey. And here lies the fork in the cheesemaking road: Fresh cheeses receive little further doctoring. Panir, from India, is ready to use as soon as the whey is squeezed out; the curds for feta, from Greece, are drained, molded, brined, then good to go.
Before pasteurization and refrigeration were invented, such quick-to-make cheeses were the rural farmer's way of dealing with excess milk production. But today these cheeses are delicacies. Spungen keeps a handful of different types in her refrigerator for last-minute summer entertaining. For an impromptu brunch, she'll serve fruit on toasted brioche, topped with Quark and drizzled with honey. Dinner might be a salad of prosciutto, peaches, and warm goat cheese disks. And for dessert, she'll spoon some ricotta onto a berry compote.
As personable as these cheeses may be, their charms are fleeting. The high moisture content translates to a shorter shelf life: Aficionados of handcrafted mozzarella argue that its life span is measured in hours. Mold may be essential to a Stilton, but it's not part of the fresh cheese profile, Spungen warns, so if your goat cheese button starts to turn colors, best to throw it out and start, well, fresh.
Your glossary to choose fresh cheeses
Fresh goat cheese
This creamy, tangy cheese originated in France, where it is known as chèvre. American cheesemakers now produce versions that rival the best imports. (Coach Farm's goat cheese button is one award-winning example.) The cheese's shape—bouchon, crottin, log—is often part of its name. Crumble goat cheese into salads, or serve it with grilled vegetables; it's also delicious with fruits like kiwi or apricot.
Recipe: Salad with Peaches, Goat Cheese, and Prosciutto
Drain cottage cheese of its whey and press the curds into a mold, and you'll have farmer's cheese—sweet and mild, and also springy and sliceable. Made of cow's milk, farmer's cheese is good on sandwiches or as a counterpoint to fruits.
A cow's milk cheese from Central Europe that's similar to ricotta but slightly sour, like yogurt. A good snack if stuffed into celery, as well as a perfect dessert alongside berry compote.
Recipe: Quark with Honeyed Apples and Raisin Bread
Fresh mozzarella is typically made from cow's milk, but the water buffalo version is even richer and smoother. At its best, a drizzle of olive oil and freshly ground pepper is all it needs.
This high-fat cow's milk cheese is the Italian version of cream cheese. Used mostly in sweets (tiramisu, for example), it's also a great way to thicken a pasta sauce; mixed with anchovies, it makes a tasty spread.
A salty Cypriot cheese made from the milk of goats, sheep, and sometimes cows, halloumi can be fried without melting. It is often served as an appetizer with a lemony dip or eaten raw with mint and watermelon.
Recipe: Halloumi with Summer Vegetable Ragout
The salted and dried version of what we layer into lasagna, this is a milky-white, solid sheep's milk cheese that can be grated, shaved, or diced and tossed into salads or pastas.