About 9.5 billion pounds of milk are produced each year in Minnesota, according to the State Department of Agriculture, and a fairly high percentage of that milk gets turned into cheese. In fact, cheese is big business here, with Minnesota ranking sixth in the nation for cheese production. Large companies such as Land O’Lakes in Arden Hills, Associated Milk Producers of New Ulm and Davisco Foods in Le Sueur, Minnesota manufacture the bulk of the cheese.

But even mid-sized companies are turning out cheese in staggering quantities. For example, 65 miles west of Minneapolis, the First District Dairy Association Dairy Cooperative in Litchfield, Minnesota ships out about 176 million pounds of cheese annually, much of it in the form of half-ton blocks of cheddar and Monterey Jack.

Minnesota also has an increasing number of small-scale cheese producers, which have been cropping up in recent years at least in part due to the growing interest in locally-produced foods. Though Wisconsin, our neighbor to the east, may have a long-standing reputation as a top artisan cheese producer, Minnesota artisan cheesemakers have been gaining more attention as of late. They offer a variety of tasty options for the cheese connoisseur who is concerned about sustainable farming practices and who wants to buy locally.

The Lone Grazer, an “urban creamery,” produces cheese right here in Northeast Minneapolis. They get their milk from grass-fed cows on farms located in Cokato and Litchfield, Minnesota.

By bringing a creamery to the city, they claim they can share cheesemaking with a much larger audience. To this end, they offer self-guided tours if you’d like to see where and how the cheese is made. Other Minnesota cheese makers include Eichten’s Hidden Acres in Center City, Redhead Creamery in Brooten, Alemar Cheese Company in Mankato, Caves of Faribault, Metz’s Hart-land Creamery in Rushford and Shepherd’s Way Farms in Northfield. All have websites for online sales and some of these cheesemongers’ products are sold at local supermarkets and/or farmer’s markets.

Sometimes cheese gets dismissed as unhealthy, and there are people who advocate for avoiding it completely. But cheese eaten in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. (Full disclosure: I tried giving up cheese for a month when my husband and I attempted to eat vegan and I missed it quite a bit.)

The University of California Berkeley School of Public Health recommends we think of cheese as a flavor enhancer rather than a major portion of your meal. By choosing a strong or savory cheese you’ll only need a little bit. A dash of grated parmesan or a sprinkling of feta crumbles, for example, adds a welcome burst of flavor to soups, salads or vegetables dishes. Rather than mixing cheese in with other ingredients, it often works well to add a little on top for maximum flavor.

Or end your meal with a bit of cheese. A small slice of cheese paired with fresh fruit is a great alternative to an overly sweet dessert. Common cheeses to serve at the end of a meal include camembert and gouda. They go great with fresh fruit such as apple or pear slices, grapes or kiwi – or dried fruits such as apricots or cranberries. Another dessert combination worth a try is chevre with dark chocolate.

Baking cheese can enhance its flavor. These single-ingredient cheese crisps offer a welcome change from cookies and chips. Make sure you use a firm cheese so they crisp up properly. Softer cheeses such as mozzarella tend to become rubbery and just don’t yield the desired results. Even cheddar can be hit or miss. Trust me – I’ve tried it. Parmesan crisps are a fun snack and also work well as a garnish for salad or soup. Or add them to just about any appetizer spread. The parchment paper here is essential so you don’t end up chiseling the cheese off the baking sheet.

Parmesan Crisps

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Heat oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place a level tablespoon of parmesan on the lined baking sheet. Spread it out into a thin circle with the back of the spoon. (It’s okay if there are some small spaces in the circles you create as that enhances the lacy texture of the finished crisps.) Repeat with the remaining cheese, spacing the spoonfuls at least a half an inch apart. Bake for 3 to 6 minutes or until golden and crisp. Cool on a wire rack. Store cheese crisps (if there are any left) in an airtight container.

By Anita Dualeh