Rye is everything I love in an ancient grain—and the uses are many,” says Matt Jennings, Boston-based chef and author of the cookbook Homegrown: Cooking from My New England Roots (Artisan, 2017). Once considered a weed by the ancient Greeks, the tall cereal grass was already a staple in Europe when Dutch immigrants brought its seeds to America in the 1800s. Rye’s ability to thrive in floods, droughts, and poor soil conditions suited it to New England’s cold, wet climate, and the “poverty grain,” so-called for its heartiness, quickly contributed to a burgeoning local grains economy.
Although the Northeast eventually lost its claim as America’s breadbasket, bakers and chefs like Jennings are working with local farmers and millers to help rye and other heritage grains stage a comeback. And from afar, Nordic cuisine champions like Noma’s Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer are boosting their efforts. “[These chefs] are all having a positive impact in making one of the Northeast’s under-appreciated crops take center stage on our plates,” explains Amber Lambke, co-founder of Maine Grains, a gristmill in Skowhegan, Maine, that stone-grinds local, organic grains.
We’re already pairing wheat with cheese—so why not rye? Not to be confused with the caraway that scents deli marble slices, rye’s flavor is rich, malty, nutty, and slightly milky. The dark grain is also high in fiber and antioxidants. So whether you simmer its berries whole, fold the flour into your next bread or pasta-making venture, or have it as a nightcap, give rye a try. “Most would equate rye with a great sidekick, but I’d call it a star,” says Jennings.
According to Johanna Kindvall, author of cookbook Smörgåsbord: The Art of Swedish Breads and Savory Treats (Ten Speed Press, 2017), Swedish knäckebröd, or crispbread, is traditionally rolled out and baked into large rounds and enjoyed open-faced with an array of toppings as a light meal or late-night snack. With its tangy rye flavor and satisfying crispness, knäckebröd is the perfect vehicle for both soft, mild cheeses and hard, nutty wedges alike. Kindvall is partial to the country’s beloved Västerbottensost—its subtle caramel-tinged, meaty sweetness counters rye’s tang. (Add a cooling dill pickle to round out the combo.) A bright, rich, and über-buttery fresh robiola is luxurious layered onto knäckebröd with smoked salmon.
Norrmejerier Västerbottensost + Olof Viktors Crispbread
Nonno Nanni Fresh Robiola + Siljans Crispbread
Homemade (just sub half of the flour for rye) or store-bought, rye pasta makes for a flavorful twist on the classic carb-and-cheese pairing. Steve Gonzales, chef and co-founder of Brooklyn-based Sfoglini Pasta, likes to keep it simple. A grating of sweet, nutty Parmigiano Reggiano would suffice, he says; we’d spring for an aged sheep’s milk cheese like Pecorino Toscano—its peppery and sweet, fruity notes at once play to and round out rye’s slight bitter-ness, while elevating its grassy undertones. For those with more daring tastebuds, Gonzales proposes goat cheese. Dense, creamy, and dusted with sweet paprika, Capriole’s Piper’s Pyramide has a bright, sweet tang and a savory hit of spice—a perfect foil to the pasta’s earthiness.
Pecorino Toscano PDO + homemade rye pasta
Capriole Goat Cheese Piper’s Pyramide + Sfoglini Pasta Rye Trumpets
Long before the rise of Kentucky bourbon or the popularity of vodka (thanks, James Bond), rye whiskey was America’s drink of choice—George Washington even distilled it at his Mount Vernon estate. Lighter, spicier, and fruitier than bourbon, rye pairs well with nutty, aged cheeses like Beemster X-O—the cheese’s crunchy crystals stand up to rye’s peppery bite, while its butterscotch and grassy notes amplify those of a whiskey like Hudson Manhattan Rye. Match Beehive Cheese Company’s Fully Loaded—an Irish-style cheddar infused with High West’s Double Rye!—with the whiskey itself. The creaminess of the cheese mellows out any prickly rye notes and its buttery sweetness jives with rye’s natural fruitiness.
Beemster X-O + Hudson Manhattan Rye
Beehive Cheese Company Fully Loaded + High West Double Rye!
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