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MILK IS THE FIRST FOOD everybody in the world eats. It has been called the perfect food, the universal ingredient. Standing alone, straight up, unaltered, it is a healthful, naturally satisfying drink; add a little heat and a little sour, and magic happens. Milk and butter play essential roles in nearly every cuisine and culture in the world, despite the fact that they have relatively little flavor of their own. Few, if any, other ingredients can claim so much versatility and significance in both sweet and savory dishes.

Dairy remains one of the largest and most significant sectors of the agricultural economy—locally, regionally and nationally. In this country, most of the milk we consume comes from cows raised in crowded confinement, treated with growth hormones to force production and with antibiotics to counter the diseases of confined living. In many other cultures, to own even a single cow is a sign of great wealth, and the animals that give their milk are revered and even worshipped for their generosity.

Fortunately, Hudson Valley consumers have ready access to a fresh, local supply of milk from cows raised on small family farms in healthy conditions— grazing on pasture without the need for growth hormones or antibiotics. Though the Hudson Valley has lost over 70 percent of its dairy farms and 60 percent of its dairy cows over the last four decades, dairy is still critical, dominating the region’s agricultural economy. The good news for Hudson Valley dairy farms: While milk consumption across the nation has declined, cheese and yogurt consumption is on the rise.

What follows is a small celebration of one of the Hudson Valley’s signature products. Dairy takes center stage in these simple summer dishes. Ricotta, paneer and crème fraiche are easy to make and add rich deliciousness to accompanying dishes.

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!