We are getting to the time of year where entertaining is a MUST and for some people it is a chore. Frankly, I enjoy it. Nothing, well almost nothing, makes me happier than having a group of my peeps hanging out at the house, eating, drinking, playing games or just chatting. And then of course there are the invitations you receive throughout the holiday season. As soon as you make or accept an invitation, the thought creeps into your head, “What will I make?” Don’t worry, Aunt LeAnne has an answer for you and it will only take a few minutes. Cheese!
Unless you are lactose intolerant or you are a vegan, chances are you like cheese. I have known only two people in my whole life that didn’t like cheese, and even then they liked melted mozzarella on pizza or a parmigiana dish. We have all been to parties where the host puts out a “cheese plate” and more often than not it is crappy little cubes or slices of yellow cheddar, white cheese and maybe some pepper Jack. But there is SOOO much more out there! There are literally hundreds of different kinds of cheese from all corners of the world. Nearly every culture has some sort of cheese. And you are in luck because October is American Cheese Month! (Meaning cheese made in America – not Kraft singles.)
For years, most Americans had only mass produced cheeses to choose from, but that is changing all over the country. You can find artisanal (small farms, small batches, crafted by hand) cheese in a myriad of shops in just about every city, and definitely in the country areas. Go to a large farmer’s market and if you are lucky you will find a good cheese monger hawking wares generally from their own farm. Here in the USA we can find cheese made from cow, goat, buffalo, or sheep milk, but there are also horse and camel cheeses (I have never had any of those to the best of my knowledge).
Here are some cheese facts and tips on serving:
• Nearly all cheeses taste better at room temp. When purchasing, ask the seller about the ideal serving temp.
• Blue cheeses (Bleu, Roquefort, etc.) really do have a live mold in them. Because of this, make sure you wrap them completely in waxed paper, or formaticum. The mold spores can and will spread onto anything they come in contact with. (Moment of Truth – I LOVE Bleu Cheese and I am allergic to mold so I have to take an antihistamine before I eat it.)
• Cheese is a living thing. Much like yogurt, it has active cultures and bacteria in it to help give it the special cheesy taste we all love. Make sure you don’t cut off its oxygen. Wrap it in waxed paper or formaticum and place it in a zip lock bag, partially sealed. This will keep it breathing AND prevent it from drying out. Because tape won’t stick to either type of paper, I use a rubber band to keep the paper closed.
• As much as some cheeses have strong odors, cheese, especially milder flavored ones, can also absorb other odors, so don’t store them with onions or anything strong smelling.
• Semi soft cheeses (like mozzarella and Monterey Jack) grate better when chilled. Hard cheeses (like Parm, Romano and Grana Padana) grate more easily when room temp.
• To create a nice offering, mix up the cheeses. Choose one soft (Brie, Camembert, Cambazola), one sharp cheese, one semi soft and a “variety” cheese (one with fruit or herbs in it or something completely different you have never had before). Of course the more people in attendance the more varieties you want to have on the board. Bring crackers, bread or crostini along and don’t forget fruit! Dried fruit and nuts are great with cheese as well as fresh apples, pears, grapes and some stone fruits. Also consider some low sugar fruit preserves – apricot, raspberry and plum are fab choices as long as they aren’t too sweet and the fruit flavors really shine thru.
• Never “cut the cheese” on a cheese board, let the guests do it themselves.
• Wine isn’t the only beverage that goes great with cheese; some beers are MADE for the pairing. Experiment on your own.
• When dining out, some places offer cheese plates. Be like the French and try it for dessert instead of that ice cream sundae. If you are lucky, you can find a place that offers locally made cheeses, or groups them by type of milk used. Have fun and be fearless!
And here is the recipe I promised. This should only take you about 20 minutes to put together, including the prepping of the fruit. It’s not fancy, but it tastes great and it is a nice change from the ever present Velveeta with tomatoes and green chiles.
Aunt LeAnne’s Bleu Cheese Spread
1 – 8oz brick cream cheese, softened to room temp
4 oz bleu cheese crumbles – choose the one you would like melted on a burger. For this recipe, the stronger the better in my opinion.
4 oz shredded mozzarella – about 1 cup
Freshly ground black pepper
½ – ¾ C coarsely chopped walnuts
Combine all ingredients except nuts. Mix well. Put into a 3 cup cocotte, casserole dish or ramekin. Bake in oven at 350 until cheese is melted and starts to bubble around edges about 10 minutes (or pop into the microwave for 4 minutes). In a small dry skillet or sauté pan, toast nuts JUST until fragrant and beginning to change color. Remove cheese from oven and top with the nuts.
Serve with sliced apples and/or pears. It’s fine with crackers, but best with fruit. Tip: to keep fruit from browning after being cut, dunk it in Sprite, 7-up or other citrus soda and pat dry with paper towels.
Cheese plate of locally produced cheeses at Pike brewing in Seattle
The display case at Beecher’s in Seattle
This week’s Food Memories are a lovely braised lamb dish that tasted even better the 2nd day, an eggplant recipe that I actually LOVE (again, it tasted better the 2nd day), food truck shenanigans with Lynn and Chris, and delicious pozole made by my main squeeze with me as the prep monkey.
Until next week, go out and make your OWN Food Memories.