Bring on the Cheese


Serve a bountiful cheese platter at your Chanukah party made interesting by pairing it with fruits, nuts and exotic preserves.

Friday, December 16, 2011

When my sister and I shared an apartment in Chelsea many years ago, we never shared our groceries when she was following her quick-weight-loss diet of choice. Known as Stillman’s, it involved only protein and fat—no carbohydrates at all.

So all the steak, lamb chops, even salami and eggs you wanted were fine, as long as you’d abstain from carrots and spinach. Coffee with heavy cream: uh huh; coffee with low-fat milk: no way. Yes to butter sauce, no to broccoli puree. Ketchup somehow had near vegetable status, though the diet predated the Reagan administration by several years.

At one point, though, Sami needed a brief respite, and found it in a very different diet book: it called for wine and cheese, accompanied by bread. And that we happily shopped for and ate together.

We’d both always adored cheese, from the assertive blues, tangy Provolone, and smelly Port Salut at my parents’ table to the many goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, aged and unaged, we explored on our post-college three-month European “Grand Tour.”

Her “diet” platter was the first big cheese plate I’d put together. And we went way overboard, of course. But it certainly was my most memorable cheese experience ever.

My favorite cheese partner now is my daughter. Alex didn’t like sandwiches as a child, so I packed her a nursery school lunchbox of four different cheeses and two fruits. These days we often share cheese plates at restaurants and go cheese-tasting together before planning a party.

We usually serve a large cheese platter at our Hanukkah party. First of all, there is the Judith-cheese-Hanukkah connection. And a well-thought-out cheese plate gives guests a substantial nosh and me the requisite reprieve while I’m busy frying latkes in the kitchen. Or sometimes we’ll start with big citrusy salads, then do the latkes, and end with great cheeses.

A few suggestions we’ve gleaned:

  • All cheeses taste better at room temperature, so remove them from the refrigerator at least one hour before you want to serve them.

  • In addition to crackers, serve good breads—plain or containing dried fruits and/or nuts—the more thinly sliced, the better.

  • Perfectly ripe, seasonal fresh fruits add color and contrast: apples, pears, persimmons, and pomegranate seeds.

  • The slightly bitter notes of nuts (always best if you’ve recently toasted them) and sweet/tangy dried fruits are also great complements.

  • I especially like to pair a schmear of a distinctive jam/preserve or a thick ribbon of flavorful honey with each cheese. I think it’s particularly important as a counterpoint to salty and tangy cheeses. This year, Stacey Kurtz of Fruit of the Land products (www.fruitoftheland.com) makes this very easy with her line of wine/fruit jellies imported from the Israeli winery, Tishbi.

Oshra Tishbi offers wonderful cheese and jelly pairings at the Tishri winery website. I haven’t tasted all of them, but I wholeheartedly recommend the three I have. Here they are (with Oshri’s suggested cheeses): Fig Cabernet, a SOFI finalist at the Fancy Food Show, with Roquefort, Stilton, Pecorino Romano, Emmental, Tomme, Camembert and Cheddar; deliciously tart Passion Fruit Champagne with Cream Cheese, Mascarpone, Feta, mild Cheddar, Kashkaval, Iberico, Camembert, Bra Tenero, and Duro Piave; and the Cherry Shiraz with Goat Gouda, Tomme, Emmental, Camembert, Sainte Maure, Edam, Monte Enebro, and Gruyere.

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