All the fun and frivolity of the holidays usually means last minute guests and hosts rummaging through the pantry trying to find some nibbles to offer. Even if you're throwing a party the tricky thing about entertaining is finding ideas that will impress guests, taste great and come together with little time and effort.
That's a tall order for a tasty little bite. Chips and salsa may be the usual standby, but this time of year I like to stock up on cheese. Putting together a cheese platter is easy and takes only five minutes.
A friend who works for a cheese company gave me some advice I will never forget — something old, new, stinky and blue. He wasn't talking about a wedding gone bad. He was describing the perfect cheese platter.
These are best enjoyed on their own or grated. Their flavors are sharp and concentrated. When cooking with aged cheeses it is best to combine them with another softer, milder cheese because the aged cheeses do not melt well and the flavors will not compete.
Soft cheeses are also nice to serve with a fruit spread such as cranberry sauce, fig paste or chutney. Add flavor to your mozzarella or feta by marinating it in olive oil, fresh herbs and chopped sun-dried tomatoes for an hour before serving.
Blue: In most cases blue also can qualify as stinky. Its flavor is particularly sharp and usually needs a milder cheese sitting next to it to balance the flavor of the platter. American artisanal cheese producers have created some nice blue cheeses that don't taste like your typical blue cheese. Some examples are Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farms, Rogue River Blue and Roaring Forties. The classic international varieties include Stilton from England, Roquefort from France, Gorgonzola from Italy and Danish blue.
Serving It Up: When building a cheese tray plan to have two ounces per category, per person. The platter can be rounded out with other accompaniments that your guests will enjoy.
Take the cheese out of the refrigerator twenty to thirty minutes before serving. The flavor in cheese is most pronounced when the cheese is served at room temperature. Be sure to have a separate knife for each cheese that is served.
Make the platter plentiful: Your cheese selection is the star of the platter but it's the costars that round out the cast. There are many thing you could add that are probably in your pantry or refrigerator. Here are ten of my favorites.
Grapes, melon, dates, apple or pear slices and strawberries
A fruit spread such as fig paste, cranberry sauce, jalapeno jelly and chutney
Mixed nuts, hazelnuts, caramelized walnuts, spiced nuts, pecans, Marcona almonds
Assortment of olives – Italian or Spanish stuffed with blanched almonds, blue cheese or jalapeno
Marinated vegetables – cipollini onions, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, grape tomatoes, mushrooms or sweet peppers
A small bowl of extra virgin olive oil seasoned with chili flakes, black pepper and Italian seasoning.
Cured meats such as prosciutto di Parma, Serrano ham, lomo, chorizo and Italian-style salami
A flavored cheese spread such as, Longview-made Haute Goat Black Pepper and Fig (available at Skinner's in Longview), Mozzarella Company Christmas Cheese (available at Sweet Gourmet) and Belle Chevre goat cheese ball (available at FRESH).
A light drizzle of balsamic glaze around your platter adds extra flavor to your cheese and accompaniments. This glaze used to be a chef secret for garnishing plates but is available in the grocery store or you can make your own.
Simply stir together two cups of balsamic vinegar and 3/4 cup sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a rolling boil and then reduce to a low boil. Let the vinegar reduce to half its volume. It will become thick and syrupy. The glaze is ready when it is thick enough to stick to the back of a spoon. Cool slightly and pour into a squirt bottle. It can be stored in the pantry for up to a month.
Christine Gardner can be contacted by emailing email@example.com or writing to 410 W. Erwin, Tyler, TX 75702. She can also be found on Facebook at Christine Gardner Tyler Paper Food and on Twitter and Pinterest @TylerFlavor.