The perfect cheese plate

Ok, I am not an expert on most things, but since I was a little kid, there are a few things I know I can do well.

I can write well. I can put on eye makeup without the assistance of a mirror. I can smell when milk is even slightly sour. I can write my name using a pen between my toes. I can make an excellent mix tape … and that was back in the day, when you made a mix tape from recording songs off of the radio, and you had to be super-fast to hit the “stop” button before the DJ came on, talking over the end of the song you were trying to record. Nowadays the kids have it much easier with the mP3s and playlists. But I digress.

cheese plate

And I can make an excellent cheese plate. This isn’t hubris or boasting, it’s a simple fact. Part of the reason is because it’s nearly impossible to make a BAD cheese plate … I mean, honestly, just take a look at Pinterest one of these days and search for the term “cheese plate.” (Or check out mine right here! Shameless plug!)

mini cheese plate

Some people seriously pull out a pretty platter, slice a few bits of cheese and meat, and call it a day. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you’re going to do it …. if you’re going to have a great party and you want to really hit it out of the park … there are a few simple guidelines to follow.

1) Have a good selection.

Don't be afraid of the sample basket!

Don’t be afraid of the sample basket!

Seriously, people. No matter how much you love that one awesome cheese, not everyone at your party is going to like it. Present a blend of hard cheeses, soft cheeses, and stinky cheeses, and switch up the types of cheese as well … you want some sheep’s milk cheese, some goat cheese and some cow’s milk cheese.

cheese selection

My favorite local cheese shop keeps a basket near the register full of the odds and ends and weirdly-shaped chunks of cheese they have left over. This is an excellent way to sample certain cheeses you might not otherwise try.

2) The cheese is just the star. It needs a limo.

salted watermelon jelly and kokos gouda

salted watermelon jelly and kokos gouda

Don’t forget the rest of the plate! You want a nice crusty bread and at least one type of cracker, and some vehicles for cheese that are fresh fruits or vegetables.

apples and gjetost cheese

apples and gjetost cheese

Try mixing up different breads and crackers, and different fruits and vegetables like apples, pear, strawberries, endive, celery, carrot sticks, and radishes (slice them lenthwise).

endive and spicy cheese dip

endive and spicy cheese dip

carrot marmalade and port wine-soaked cheese

carrot marmalade and port wine-soaked cheese

Always have at least one savory spread and one sweet spread on the plate. I love the selection of jams and toppings from the Friend in Cheeses Jam Company, a small buisness that specializes in things that go great with cheese. (Seriously, how awesome is that?) More than once, their amazing creations like salted watermelon jelly, strawberry tarragon conserve, carrot marmalade and pisco pear butter have been the best parts of my cheese plates.

bacon jam and cheddar

bacon jam and cheddar

Meat items are also important to keep a good balance on your platter. The salty and sweet punch of bacon jam, or the smoky depth of smoked chicken liver pate or storebought liverwurst, are excellent accompaniments to most cheeses.

3) It’s a carpenter, not his tools. But get some nice tools.

mini cheese graterOk, not crazy tools. Or expensive tools. Just things like a tiny cheese grater so you can grate your cheese on the spot. Or a few of those tiny forks and knives for spreads and cheeses. Just a handful of toothpicks for your olives and your bits of meat, and a few small bowls or rammekins for those jams and jellies.

cheddar and strawberry tarragon conserve

cheddar and strawberry tarragon conserve

4) Be an artist about it.

cheese plate 2

I usually set up my larger selections on a handmade wooden board, but it’s certainly not necessary. A cracked plate works as well as a fancy decorative platter. What matters is how delicious everything looks.

cheese plate 3

cheese plate 4

Breakfast, dinner, snacks: Recipes starring Bacon Jam

Bacon Jam is a fantastic recipe and a welcome gift in its many variations … I myself have made at least three variations on the same recipe, like chocolate-chipotle bacon jam, bourbon bacon jam and the regular recipe. People are happy to get a jar … but then they always ask me, what is it good for?

Here are a few ideas:

Any egg dish:

  • smear it on the english muffin when you make a benedict;
  • add it to your egg mix when you make a quiche;
  • toss a spoonful into your scrambled eggs or omelette;

Any potato dish:

  • toss some with frozen tater tots or scalloped potatoes before baking;
  • use it to top a loaded baked potato or add to your warm potato salads;
  • mix with mashed potatoes or use it to make a gravy for your potatoes;

Any sandwich:

  • use it to top a tuna melt or grilled cheese;
  • mix it with ground meat for a meatloaf;
  • spread it (warmed) on a cold turkey or ham sandwich;

Any vegetable:

  • toss a couple spoonfuls into steamed corn, asparagus, green beans, etc., right before serving;
  • add to savory holiday dishes using sweet potatoes or yams;
  • add to soups and savory dishes featuring beans (like bean soups and chilis).

The answer, honestly, is that there are very few recipes that would not be made better with bacon jam; but it’s hard to just give someone a jar of it and say “I dare you to find something that ISN’T good with this jam!”

Here are two favorites of mine.

First, a delicious dinner. It’s easy to find a way to toss a spoonful of bacon jam into your scrambled eggs, but what about for later in the day? I got the idea for this one while I was enjoying a San Diego Restaurant Week three-course meal at the Brooklyn Girl Eatery in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego. One of the appetizer choices was their Bacon -Wrapped Vietnamese Meatballs appetizer, which was delicious and spicy and smoky and a taste-bomb on several different levels. This is my version of their masterpiece.

Bacon Jam Vietnamese Meatballs

(This dish is a perfect complement to the depth of multiple flavors already in regular bacon jam … and the spice just makes it better.)

  • 1 bag of frozen, pre-cooked meatballs (about a dozen individual meatballs);
  • 2-3 tablespoons bacon jam (any of the variations would work);
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of Thai chili paste (or more if you want it spicier);
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar;
  • generous squirt of sriracha;
  • about 2 tablespoons of soy sauce;
  • 1 lb cooked spaghetti or angel hair noodles;
  • 1 pack of extra-firm tofu, drained and sliced into about 8-10 slices (1/4 inch thick);
  • 2-3 tablespoons kimchi, preferably homemade;
  • 1 large carrot, grated;
  • 1 bunch fresh basil, torn into bits;
  • olive oil;
  • sesame oil

Place the pre-made and frozen meatballs into a cast-iron or heavy-bottomed skillet coated with olive oil and sesame oil, and brown the meatballs slightly over high heat. Reduce heat, add the bacon jam, chili paste, brown sugar, sriracha and soy sauce, and mix all of the ingredients together until it forms a bubbly sauce and coats all of the meatballs (you may need to add a little more soy sauce). Cover and let it simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 20-30 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare and drain the cooked noodles. In a separate skillet, coat the pan in sesame and olive oil, and gently lay down the slices of tofu. Cook for about 3-4 minutes on either side over medium high heat, and drizzle a little soy sauce on each slice of tofu as well. Remove from heat and set to the side.

When the meatballs have been cooked thoroughly (make sure they are coated with the bacon/chili/sugar sauce), toss with the cooked noodles.

To serve, add the cooked slices of tofu and the pre-made kimchi, and top it with grated carrot and fresh basil. Serve immediately.

BJV meatballs recipe card

Next, an appetizer. There are also no shortage of easy dips you can make with bacon jam, although you will definitely want to heat it before adding it to most dips. My favorite so far is this easy sriracha and white bean dip, made even deeper and more delectable with the addition of delicious bacon jam.

Spicy Bacon Jam Bean Dip

(Try this with a few crispy pita chips next time you get the munchies. This is super-easy, uses what you probably have, and takes hardly any time to prepare.)

  • 1 can of white beans, rinsed;
  • 2-3 tablespoons of bacon jam (any variety), warmed up slightly in the microwave;
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil;
  • 1 teaspoons soy sauce;
  • 2 tablespoons sriracha hot sauce;
  • salt and pepper

Blend all of the ingredients in a food processor or blender. Check the taste and add more sriracha if necessary. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately with chips or bread.

bacon jam bean dip recipe card

Crock Pot Madness: Bourbon Bacon Jam and Spiced Apple Butter

The winter holidays are a lovely time of year, and personally, when the weather turns frightful, I turn to my crock pot slow cooker. I love it for everything. It’s simply the best and easiest way to make a chili or soup (try my awesome smoked chicken posole) or to slow-cook a nice piece of meat (try this yummy Korean BBQ pork). But don’t stop there.

This year, with a few tiny exceptions, my holiday gifts to friends and family will be homemade, and I will be gifting many of the same dishes I plan to trade at the San Diego Food Swap this weekend.

However, I do not plan to be standing over a hot stove.

Once again, my crock pot saves the day. Check out these two easy recipes for making delicious and easily gift-able homemade goodies.

Bourbon Bacon Jam

(I adapted this recipe from Evil Shenanigans … by adding more bourbon, doubling the volume of the recipe, omitting the coffee and making it less hot. Not to be confused with this amazing, smoky and spicy Bacon Chipotle Jam.)

  • 3 lbs. chopped bacon
  • 2 large sweet onions, diced
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 head of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup good quality bourbon
  • 1/8 cup maple syrup

Render the bacon in a large stockpot and add chopped onions and garlic. Cook on medium high heat for about 10-15 minutes, until bacon is rendered and vegetables are a little tender.

Transfer everything to your crock pot (including all the bacon grease at the bottom of the pot) and add the remaining ingredients. Cook on high for about an hour, then take the lid off and let it cook on high for about another 2-3 hours, until the mixture is thick and syrupy. Taste often and add more or less spice according to your preference.

When it’s ready, transfer to a food processor or use an immersion blender in the crock pot to break the mixture down to a chunky spread. Pour into sterilized jars and keep refrigerated (this is not safe for canning).

Spiced Apple Butter

(This is a super-simple and extremely delicious recipe. You can also vary this recipe by adding pumpkin and making pumpkin-apple butter, or pears or plums.)

I like to mix up different types of apples for lots of flavor.

  • about 3 lbs. apples, mixed types, chopped
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp. ground nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp. allspice

Chop apples and add to your crock pot with brown sugar and spices, and place on high setting. Cook for about 2-2 1/2 hours, until the apples are tender. Mash up the apples with a potato masher or immersion blender.

This has a lovely seasonal flavor, but you can make it easily all year round. It’s delicious on toast, biscuits, pancakes and more. It’s also safe for water bath canning. Enjoy!

Bacon Jam Three Ways

bacon jam recipe card

 

Bacon Jam is one of my favorite creations, and it’s one of the easiest and most popular dishes I’ve ever made. The recipe I got from Martha Stewart is made with strong coffee, brown sugar, and maple syrup, and is delicious … it’s made in a slow cooker so there’s so much depth of flavor, it’s good on anything.

My friend Belinda and I are participants in (and original starting members of) the San Diego Food Swap, a monthly meeting where we all get together and share our jams, pickles, salsas, chutneys, soups, breads, cakes, cookies, fruits, vegetables  … and everything. We meet on the third Saturday of every month so we decided to skip the month of November to let people concentrate on Thanksgiving. Luckily we were invited to a swap just north of San Diego, and of course, we wanted to impress them, so naturally, bacon jam was a great choice.

Bacon Chipotle Jam

  • 3 lbs. bacon (chunks and end pieces are best)
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • head of garlic, roasted
  • 1 chunk of “Abuelita” brand Mexican chocolate
  • 1 cone of piloncillo brown sugar (you’ll have to break it up)
  • 1 can of chipotles in adobo
  • 1/2 cup vinegar (white or apple cider vinegar is best)
  • 2-3 cups strong coffee
  • 2-3 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce

Render the bacon with the sliced onions in a large saucepan. Transfer the bacon and onion (with the liquid that comes out with the rendering) into a slow cooker on the high setting. Add the chocolate, brown sugar, chipotle, roasted garlic, vinegar, coffee, and Worcestershire sauce. Cook on high with the lid off for about 4 hours, stirring often, until the liquid is thick and syrupy. Taste it at intervals and add more sugar or more vinegar if needed.

After the mixture is thick and saucy, blend it with an immersion blender or put it in a food processor to break everything down into small chunks. It looks something like this:

Then place into sterilized jars and seal in a pressure canner (for at least 30 minutes) or keep refrigerated. Refrigeration is probably best because this is a small-batch recipe, unless you’re making more for a food swap.

I can’t wait to try more variations of the bacon jam recipe! I am already planning a bourbon bacon jam to give as gifts for the holidays and I want to experiment with more and more things to add.

Lots of people ask me what bacon jam is used for — obviously you don’t spread it cold on some toast, because it’s technically more like a tapenade or chutney than a jam.  I love it on a grilled cheese sandwich or quesadilla, as a topping for a baked potato or an additive to scrambled eggs or ramen noodles, and in steamed vegetables. Next time you steam some green beans, asparagus, corn or whatever as a side dish for dinner, toss in a tablespoon or two of this at the end. Wowza.

Honestly, when you have a jar of this stuff lying around, all of a sudden you think of a million ways to use it. Suddenly everyone is a culinary mastermind, adding it to everything they make. We took jars of this awesomeness to the food swap and that evening I made a delicious meatloaf with bacon chipotle jam mixed into it and spread on top.

Bacon/Chipotle Jam Meatloaf

  • 1/2 jar of bacon chipotle jam (recipe above)
  • 2 lbs. ground venison (or lean beef or chicken)
  • 2 tbsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • seasoned salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients (only about half of the bacon jam) thoroughly and transfer to a baking pan, then spread the remaining bacon jam on top of the meatloaf. Bake for about 35-40 minutes or until cooked thoroughly.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of food swapping in your community, I totally recommend starting one. You will be pleasantly surprised at the amazing people you meet, the incredible food they prepare, and the wonderful time you are guaranteed to have. Belinda and I made the bacon chipotle jam, as well as habanero salsa and tomatillo salsa, and I came with feijoa jam, apple butter, pumpkin apple butter, spicy pickled vegetables and zydeco beans. And check out what we came home with!

Persimmons and pomegranates.

Pickled tomatillos.

“Dirty little secret” bars.

Meyer lemon marmalade.

Fresh orange juice.

Coconut scones.

Sprouted sunflower seed dip.

Green Olive and Artichoke Pasta Sauce.

Zucchini relish.

Pear sauce and pears with vanilla and lavender.

Maybe it’s because it’s Canadian? Eh?

I’ve always been a huge fan of carrot cake. It’s by far my favorite non-chocolate dessert. So when I stumbled upon a recipe for Carrot Cake Jam, I knew it must be love. And it was. It was all the best things about cooking. It was fun and simple to make, it was very pleasing to the eyes …

However, strangely (to me anyway), the recipe left out raisins. The second time I made this, I added raisins, as well as a little extra nutmeg and cinnamon.  If you eat it, slightly warmed — not heated, but just to take the chill off, on a bagel with cream cheese, it’s like a recreation of the carrot cake itself. Mmmm….

Adventures in marmalade

My family is Scottish and as such I feel it is somehow in my blood to enjoy and be good at making and cooking with marmalade. But after sampling a few different marmalades and making my own (courtesy of the Barefoot Contessa here) I discovered the unthinkable. I really don’t care for traditional marmalade. It’s too bitter and you can’t make a peanut butter sandwich with it. It’s lovely, and it’s easy to make, but I had my doubts.

I tried another batch, this time instead of navel oranges using fresh and local mandarin oranges (although they were very seedy and required lots of seed removal), as well as a large can of crushed pineapple. While still generally unusable for a sandwich, it works on toast, and is also insanely good as a base for a meat marinade. Here’s a nice steak marinated in a vinagrette with the orange/pineapple marmalade on the grill. The smell is fabulous.

Call me mint jelly, cause I’m on the lamb!

 

The lamb was tender and perfect … but I can’t take the credit. It was all Paula Deen’s recipe. However, it went fabulously with a jar of homemade mint jelly. This is a super-easy jelly recipe, basically boiling mint and sugar together with a few drops of green food coloring and pectin. The fresh mint in the marinade and the sweet juiciness of the lamb are heavenly …