Friday, January 31, 2014

Happy 200th Post!
What’s cooking? Cheese Platter Secrets

A sampling of cheeses from Italy (L to R): Il Forteto Boschetto Tartufo (with truffles), oil-and-herb-marinated Mozzarella balls, Gelmini Mountain Gorgonzola, and cubes of Pecorino Romano. Served with grapes, sliced pear, olives, Acacia honey, roasted pistachios, and Genoa salami.

Thinking online – about life and food and cooking. What a crazy idea, to start a blog. And in retrospect, when the Kitchen Goddess jumped into the world of writing online, she had no idea what she was doing. It seemed easy enough in the conceptual phase – write about some funny episode, link it to some kind of food or adventure in the kitchen, and hit “Go.” Then it turned out you also have to know about recipe writing, food styling, photography, and even a bit of new technology.

So here we are, 200 posts later. What a headache. And what a joy. I’ve made new friends – some of whom I’ve yet to meet in person – renewed old acquaintances, explored new foods and cooking techniques, learned a lot, and aggravated my poor husband-cum-sous chef beyond the normal limits of human endurance.

“Okay, let’s eat,” he says.

“No, wait – I have to take a picture.”

“But I’m hungry. And it’s 8:30 – you said dinner would be ready by 7:30.” [expletive deleted]

It’s a good thing he likes the food.

Being at Ease with Cheese

Let's talk about cheese.

I’ve always loved serving a cheese board at a party. Especially in the winter, when you want the food to be a bit hearty. And especially for an event like the Super Bowl, when your guests are jumping up, sitting down, wandering to and from the food. A cheese board seems like a fairly effortless way to satisfy your guests’ hunger – after all, the cows/sheep/goats did part of the work, and the cheesemaker did the rest. If you just pick a nice assortment of cheese, you can be good to go.

Aye, but there’s the rub. Choosing from the literally thousands of cheeses available – French cheesemakers alone offer more than 650 varieties – is only the first headache. Then you worry about how many to buy, and how much, and then how do you serve them? It’s enough to make a host or hostess give up and put out some chips and dip.

So it’s lucky you stopped in. The Kitchen Goddess is here to help. Let’s take care of the easy stuff first.

How many to buy?
If you’re just serving a cheese plate at the end of a meal, you don’t need more than 3 cheeses, and even one good one will do. For a gathering like a Super Bowl party, where the cheese will get major noshing, you’ll want 4-5 choices.

How much to buy?
As a general rule, the Kitchen Goddess recommends buying 2 ounces (total) of cheese per person. I’ve seen suggestions of as little as 1 ounce (maybe for a dessert plate but not for hors d’oeuvres) and as much as 3.5 ounces (whose army are we feeding?). You may need more than 2 ounces per guest if that’s the main appetizer item. Get enough to have some left over, as I have a couple of dynamite recipes for those bits. Come back next week for those.

A European platter (clockwise from bottom left): Brie (France), Idiázabal (Spain), aged Gouda (Holland), Roquefort (France). Accompanied by dried apricots, Acacia honey, chutney, spiced walnuts, and pear slices.
How to serve?
First, remove your cheeses from the fridge 30 minutes to an hour before the party. Hard cheeses need more time than soft ones. Set out small plates and cocktail napkins, so that guests can put together several samples and not be forced to hover over the selections like small children around a bowl of jellybeans. Each cheese should have its own knife (or fork if you’re cutting the cheese into bite-size pieces) for serving – you don’t want the tastes to get mixed.

Kitchen Goddess notes on cheese knives:
The all-purpose cheese knife has a serrated edge, holes in the blade (to keep soft cheeses from sticking), and tines at the end for spearing what you cut. But you still want one knife per cheese, so here’s what I prefer:

■ Spreadable cheeses like fresh goat cheese (chevre) or Gourmandise – butter knife (second from the left in the photo below) or one of those little hors d’oeuvre knives.
■ Semi-soft cheeses like Brie or Mozzarella – thin knife 
■ Crumbly cheeses like Roquefort and other blues – fork
■ Semi-hard cheeses like Cheddar and Swiss – bell-shaped knife
■ Hard cheeses like Pecorino Romano, Manchego, and Dry Jack – heart-shaped knife (the point helps you establish a starting point), mini-cleaver, or your basic paring knife.

A set makes life easy, but isn't necessary. This one is from Williams-Sonoma.

What to serve with your cheese?
This is big, folks, so pay attention. Cheese by itself – even with bread or crackers – can be a little heavy on the palate. And sometimes, a bit of chutney or meat or fruit will actually improve the taste. So it’s a good idea to include a few accompaniments with your cheeses; it’ll also add color and texture to your presentation. Here are some ideas:

Meat (cured): Prosciutto, Salami, Capicola, Culatello
Fresh fruits: apples, grapes, pears, figs
Dried fruits: apricots, Mission or Turkish figs, cranberries, Medjool dates, cherries
Fruit spreads: Chutneys, fig jam, quince paste (great stuff by the way – try it!), pear paste
Nuts (roasted, spiced, or honeyed): walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds (especially with sheep’s- and goat’s-milk cheeses), pecans, pistachios
Olives: Cerignola (especially with Italian cheeses), large black Greek olives (especially with Feta), California green olives, sundried tomato-stuffed olives (especially with goat cheese). Be sure to rinse brined olives.

A few pairings to get you started – with cheeses I like – and a couple of tips on selecting your cheese:

Brie de Meaux – The king of Brie, and once called the King of Cheese, period. Look for a foil label and A.O.C. (French name designation) to get the real thing. Ripe Brie should “bulge,” not run, and have a beige-mottled (edible) rind which should be tart but not bitter. Serve with apples or pears, candied walnuts, fig jam, or honey.

Blue-veined cheeses – Includes English Stilton, French Roquefort, and Italian Gorgonzola. Amazing with most fresh or dried fruits. Try it with pear slices or dried cranberries. There’s a range of sharpness that you have to taste before you can decide which you prefer. Among the American offerings, Maytag Blue is outstanding and has a reputation as good as any of its European cousins.

Cheddar – Originally an English cheese, but a few U.S. producers now make excellent Cheddar. Try Maytag Dairy Farms (white cheddar, from Iowa), Tillamook Cheddar (Oregon), and Sheldon Farms and Grafton Village Cheddar (both Vermont). Serve with chutneys – a life-changing experience – and aged meats, dried fruit, and nuts. Look for cloth-wrapped rind.

Dry Jack – One of only two cheeses that are original to the U.S. Made by aging Monterey Jack, it has a sharp, nutty flavor, similar to Parmigiano Reggiano. Try Bear Flag Dry Jack, from Vella Cheese, with toasted almonds and fresh fruit.

Parmigiano-Reggiano – You have to get the real thing – not parmesan, but Parmigiano-Reggiano; you’ll see the name printed on the edge of the rind. Nothing else is as good. Save the rind when you’re done, and freeze it for use in brothy vegetable soups. Serve with Prosciutto and other aged meats, or fruit spreads, especially fig jam. Think Italian.

Pecorino Romano – The sheep’s milk version of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but a little smoother. Ditto on serving. Widely available in excellent quality. Look for "genuino" embossed on the rind.

Manchego – Another aged sheep’s milk cheese, and the Spanish version of a hard cheese good for grating. Don’t get second best – look for the La Mancha origin on the label. Terrific served with Marcona almonds and Membrillo (quince paste). Think Spanish.

Manchego cheese from Spain, with Marcona almonds and slices of Membrillo (quince paste).
Goat Cheese – Fresh or aged, one of the simplest yet most flexible cheeses available. Fresh is creamy and slightly tart; aged has a bit of a nutty flavor. Serve with almonds and toasted hazelnuts, fresh and dried fruit – cherries are excellent – olives, and honey. (Think of where the goats graze.) Fresh goat cheese is amazing when drizzled with the Kitchen Goddess’s own Ground Cherry Shazam. One of the best brands that's also widely available – and award-winning – is from Vermont Creamery.

Share a crotin of aged goat cheese with your lover for Valentine's Day.

Say Cheese!

So here’s where you start: Find a good cheesemonger, preferably one who’ll let you taste the cheese before you buy. In New Jersey, we were lucky enough to have a delightful couple named Paul and Pam, who run The Summit Cheese Shop. They know volumes about the cheeses they carry, and even about some they don’t carry. They’ll give you little tastes, and they’re happy to spend time helping you develop an assortment that will please your guests.

A tasting of U.S. cheeses (L to R): Maytag Blue, Tillamook Cheddar, Vella Dry Jack. Sparked up by apple slices, toasted almonds, dried apricots, fig paste, hard salami, and dried cranberries.

In Texas, both of the larger gourmet grocery stores I shop at – Whole Foods and Central Market – offer extensive cheese departments manned by people who seem knowledgeable and helpful on putting together a selection. But I understand that Austin has at least a couple of specialty shops I have to try. Look around your town – find a cheesemonger you can trust. And try some new tastes!

P.S. When the party’s over, wrap those remnants in fresh cellophane – not the old wrapping – and hang onto them. Do not freeze them. The Kitchen Goddess has a couple of wonderful dishes to make with those leftovers. Coming soon...

Don't forget the crackers.

1 comment:

  1. This blog is so full and rich with information and really great pictures!
    Pear paste, never knew of and must try...rinsing brined olives...who knew?
    The Kitchen Goddess, that's who!

    Eileen in Atlanta