Entertain with Cheese
Entertaining is such a wonderful opportunity for cheese fanatics who are hard pressed to think about any other menu item until they've decided on the cheese. Cheese easily fits into every meal, pairs well with a delightful range of sweet and savory flavors, melts and grills spectacularly, and makes a very fine cooking ingredient. When you want to showcase cheese all by itself, however, plates and platters are the best thing to do.
An Hors d'oeuvre Course
The French phrase hors d'oeuvre means “dishes separate from the main meal,” and has become synonymous with appetizers. When thinking about cheese as an appetizer, there are a few things to consider. First, by definition, it isn't the main meal, and because of this, it should be a light course, with relatively light flavors. Second, it can prepare everyone's palates for the main meal, or be a hearty entrée for a light meal.
If the cheese prepares the palate, the flavors should pique people's curiosity about the food and open their palates with bright grass, citrus, and herbal flavors. If it is a hearty entrée, then bolder, earthier flavors will satisfy people's palates and allow them to enjoy a light salad or bowl of soup.
The recipes for “A Platter from France,” “An American Artisan Platter,” and “A Milky Trio” at the end of this chapter all make good light appetizer platters. For bolder tastes, go to “A Classic Antipasto Platter” or “A Platter from Spain.”
An In-Between Course
For the most part, we think of serving cheese at the beginning or end of a meal, but stop and think for a moment about how certain cheeses enhance other tastes. Remember the pecorinos and Asiagos with roasted vegetables? How about the Gruyeres with potatoes, and fresh chèvre with salmon? Just because cheese is an excellent ingredient doesn't mean it can't be served as an accompaniment or as a transition between two courses.
For example, if you are serving a first course of fresh spring greens followed by salmon, think about putting a plate of fresh chèvres on the table and invite people to taste the chèvres along with their salad and salmon. The lemony tang of the chèvres will pair beautifully with the grassy brightness of the greens while preparing everyone's palates for the salmon, and quite frankly, it's the easiest course you'll prepare for the meal. Likewise, a few semihard buttery cheeses pair well with soup, and piquant blues certainly spice up a salad and steak.
There are cheese professionals out there who can help you arrange a tasting party. Ask about cheese-tasting parties at your local cheese counter. Or, if you have a local culinary school, give them a call and see if they have a referral for someone who can help you plan your party. By hiring a professional, all you have to do is enjoy the tasting, along with your guests!
A Dessert Course
Sweet and hearty flavors finish our palates and give us a sense of contentment with the meal. When serving a cheese course for dessert, think about any flavors from the meal you want to lengthen. For example, a main course of juicy chicken is lovely followed by a bowl of French vanilla ice cream. This is because the creamy sweetness of ice cream finishes the chicken flavor ; it completes it.
Likewise, a rich platter of triple-cream cheeses will finish chicken beautifully, as will a combination of triple-cream bloomy-rind cheese, farmstead Cheddar, and rich blue cheeses. The heavy, bold flavors of a roast can be completed by a combination of washed-rind cheese, aged sheep's-milk cheese, and bold blue cheeses.
On the lighter side, a meal of quiche and salad would be nicely completed by a natural-rind goat cheese, a semisoft medium-aged sheep's-milk cheese, and a young Gouda. There are literally hundreds of possible combinations, but you get the idea. The dessert is the end of the meal, and as you choose cheeses for a dessert course, choose those that complement the flavors of the meal and add enough sweetness to satisfy everyone's palate.