What's It For?
Asking what cheese is for might sound like a silly rhetorical question. “To eat,” you might reply. But stand in front of a cheese counter and take a look. There are a dozen different blue cheeses, and pile after pile of firm-looking cheeses with rough-hewn rinds. There are stacks of chopped white cheeses, and quite a number of beautifully wrapped small cheeses. There are fresh cheeses in buckets, and stacks of cheeses resembling well-worn building blocks.
Tucked in and among the cheeses are small jars of preserves, logs of salami, boxes of crackers, and bags of nuts. Behind the counter you see huge, beckoning wheels of Gruyere, Cheddar, and Gouda.
So the first question you should ask yourself is why you're here. Not in a philosophical sense, of course. In the world of cheese, this is a very practical, matter-of-fact question. Why are you here to buy cheese? Is it for a snack? Is it because someone asked you to bring cheese to a party? Is it to put on a platter, or for a meal, or an ingredient, or to melt? Or is it to begin building your cheese knowledge and vocabulary? Begin by answering this question, and you'll start to easily find your way.
Instead of string cheese for lunch, try packing half-a-dozen bocconcinis. These small, fresh mozzarella balls will be fine out of refrigeration for several hours (in moderate temperatures), and you'll enjoy their light, fresh taste. Perfect combined with fresh fruit!
Snacks are a cheese lover's best friend. A small morsel of cheese can satisfy your taste buds, take away that edge of hunger, and provide protein, vitamins, and minerals. Any cheese makes a good snack, so ask yourself if you're in the mood for something heavy or light, flavorful or mild, filling or not, or perhaps, something decadent or unusual. A good cheese monger can point you to new and unusual cheeses you might want to try, and these are always fun to snack on.
Perhaps the Brin d'Amour, a sheep's-milk cheese from Corsica, coated in herbs from the island, is at its most nutty, creamy, and flavorful peak. A small sliver will be expensive, but a wonderful opportunity to taste something unique. For lighter snacks, think about the small chèvres, or a half-dozen fresh mozzarella bocconcinis, or a sliver of fresh Asiago. In Italy, people often snack on crumbled Parmigiano-Reggiano. Try some, or some bits of another grana.
Don't be afraid to substitute cheeses. With so many cheeses in the world, many have different names but are really quite similar. Work with your knowledge of classifications: textures, rinds, techniques, milk, and butterfat, and you'll find excellent substitutes.
Parties and Platters
It's terrific news when someone asks you to bring cheese to a party. First, you don't have to cook, and second, you get to visit the cheese counter! However, when asked, take the opportunity to ask the host or hostess what else is being served and when they plan to serve the cheese. Then you can confidently use the following platter guidelines to select an assortment of cheeses that will complement other flavors.
Platters are an ideal showcase for cheese. They can be served as part of any meal, before or after a meal, or for a snack. To get you started, an array of platter ideas is offered, but here are some simple ideas to follow. First, decide if you want the cheeses to stimulate or satisfy everyone's appetite. If intended to stimulate taste buds before a meal, stay light and bright. If intended to satisfy after a meal, go with heavier, more full-bodied cheeses.
You can also choose cheeses that complement each other or contrast with each other. Or you can choose by region, or milk type, or cheese type. Do you want the creamy sweetness of cow's milk, the nutty, buttery tones of sheep's milk, or the delightful lemony tang of goat's milk? Perhaps a combination of the three will do. Another fun thing to do is serve one or two fairly traditional cheeses, like a rich, complex Cheddar with a rich, double-cream Brie, and then add something seasonal and unusual. Most of all, have fun grouping cheese. The more combinations you try, the better your cheese instincts will become.
Meals, Ingredients, and Melting
Cheese is the perfect food to make or round out a meal (later in this book you'll find over a hundred different recipes with cheese). But here you need to be fairly specific when looking for a cheese. If the cheese is the main body of a meal, you can choose the cheese first, then find complementary foods to accompany it, but if it's an ingredient or something to be melted, only certain cheeses will do.
A good cheese counter will have a number of different cheeses that can be used almost interchangeably in cooking and melting, so spend a few moments with the cheese monger and tell them what you're cooking. If it's pasta, she might offer several different types of hard, Italian grating cheeses. If it's pizza, he might offer several different flavor profiles of melting cheeses. If it's dessert, there are numerous light cheeses that go well with fruits, honey, or other desserts. You get the idea.
If you start with a recipe or an idea for a meal, look for the cheese it calls for, and then be open to new possibilities. Your cheese knowledge will grow exponentially, and next time you prepare the same dish or something similar, you might find yourself asking a whole new question: What other cheeses can I use here?