A Cheese plate is one of my favorite things to serve at at party or before dinner. Why? A few reasons: 1) I can assemble it before everyone arrives and they can munch away and chat while I finish cooking, 2) the only work on my part is to buy things from the grocery store and arrange them, and 3) almost everyone loves cheese, not everyone loves things like chicken liver pate (until they try it). I’m pretty sure that having everything (or at least almost everything) planned out and in place before your guests arrive makes them think that you are some kind of domestic deity (or that you are a hyperanal freak show of a host).
I am lucky enough to have several specialty stores with tons of cheese to choose from at my disposal. If you don’t have a cheesemonger around, try your grocery store, several smaller regional grocery chains I’ve been in have nice selections of high quality cheeses. Target even has a few nice cheeses in its grocery section. If all else fails check out some online retailers.
Here are a few of my rules for putting together a cheese plate
1) No more than three kinds of cheese (for a small group anyway). Three varieties of cheese is enough to have an interesting mixture of cheeses; I find that more can be overwhelming.
2) Try to have some kind of theme or progression. For example: pick three cheese from Spain such as Manchego (probably the most famous cheese from Spain), Cabrales (a blue cheese), and Garrotxa (a goat cheese). A selection of different goat cheeses of varying texture could also be cool. When in doubt, pick something soft, something hard (or semi-hard), and something blue. The axiom is: something old, something new, something stinky, and something blue.
3) Make it really good cheese. Please don’t serve your guests slices from a block of Kraft swiss cheese. Not only will they hate you, they will talk about you behind your back once they leave (if they were raised right; if they weren’t they might tell you to your face)
4) Have some tasty accompaniments. Good french bread is a must. Don’t use any bread that is too highly flavored, it will compete with the cheese. Olives, cured meats, nuts, and fresh fruit are all good choices. If you are really good, whip up (or buy) some membrillo, a sweet paste made from quince.
5) Make it pretty. No one wants to eat ugly food. Arrange the cheese on a slate cheese board or a pretty wood cutting board. An attractive plate or tray would work too. Make sure that all of the cheese are easy to access so your guests can cut off pieces without struggling. Also make sure that there are enough utensils to cut the cheeses.
6) Throw away the wrapper your cheese came in. As convenient as they lovely sheet of plastic wrap is for your grocer, your cheese doesn’t love it. Rewrap your cheese in parchment paper and throw it in your crisper for storage.
7) Feel free to break all of these rules. You’ll notice that in the photo I have brie, ricotta salata, and emmenthaler. It may be a slightly odd combination, but I pulled it out of my fridge in about 5 minutes before some people came over. Note the domestic deity/hyperanal freak comment above.
Next up on Chez Travie: Christmas candy (I think)