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

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Football Feasts and Easy Appetizers

It’s that time of year again. The time when appetizers and finger foods are piled high atop wobbly tables surrounded by rowdy sports fans. I love it.

In general, I am a huge fan of finger foods, hors d’oeuvres, tapas, appetizers, small plates, cheese plates, things stuffed with cheese, things wrapped in bacon, things topped with cheese/chili/other things, and of course, munchies. This time of year arouses my creativity as well as my hometown pride.

I am sure your Facebook feeds and inboxes are stuffed to the gills this week with plenty of cheese dips and spicy wings recipes, so I won’t add to that list. There’s no need to paint yourself into a foodie corner with your party menu.

Here are a few of my favorite party items. Try one or two of them this weekend (or for your next get-together) and let me know how you like them.

Prosciutto-wrapped cheese snacks

As you know from my many gleeful rants about cheese, you can make homemade mozzarella in about 30 minutes, at home, with no special equipment. It’s delicious, and it’s AAAH-MAZING when it’s fresh, creamy, and still a little warm. How could I make it better, you ask? Wrap it in prosciutto after you’ve worked it into a log, then slice it, place it on slices of crusty sliced French bread with a bit of salt and pepper, then a dash of olive oil and a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar. That’s it.

Caprese Spears

Well, as long as you’re making cheese, put some chunks of it on toothpicks with basil leaves, cherry tomatoes, and the same salt/pepper/oil/balsamic seasoning. Now your one appetizer has become two … plus, the vegetarian sports fans don’t feel so left out!

Saucy Sausages

Seriously, two ingredients: tiny sausages and your favorite BBQ sauce. Heat and serve. Don’t forget the toothpicks.

Bacon-wrapped Tenderloin

This is another wicked simple recipe, so much that it’s not really a recipe (pork tenderloin and bacon). You will need a grill, however. It’s a great way to impress your party hosts (if you confirm ahead of time the existence of a grill), because you can buy your tenderloins and wrap them with good, thick bacon at home, then cook it at the party. If necessary, you may want to coat it with a little oil so it doesn’t stick to the grill.

Keep it on the upper rack so the bacon doesn’t burn before the pork is cooked through. If you cook an average-size tenderloin at 350 degrees for about an hour it should be perfect, just make sure the internal temperature is 160 degrees.

Bacon-wrapped Dates

This recipe is completely adaptable for a small gathering or a huge party. Essentially, each date (use the big, soft ones, like Medjool) needs to be sliced open, pitted, then the empty cavity where the pit was is stuffed with a hunk of blue cheese. Then you wrap it with a half-slice of bacon and secure the whole thing with a toothpick.

I usually make a huge pan of them ( for me, this is just a little too much work to only make a few), and I drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil and broil at 400 degrees for about 15-20 minutes. Top it off with another drizzle of balsamic vinegar — or, if you really want it to pack a punch, reduce about a half-cup of balsamic vinegar in a saucepan for about 20 minutes or until it thickens and reduces by half, then drizzle THAT over the dates right before serving. It’s concentrated. It’s tangy. It’s on top of cheese-stuffed-bacon-wrapped goodness. It’s divine.

Chili

This is the most valuable of sports event dishes. It’s spicy, it’s hearty, it can be topped with anything you like, and it becomes a myriad of other tasty dishes … namely chili dogs, chili burgers, chili pie, and, of course, my favorite, the big bowl of chili with sour cream and cheese, served with a big hunk of steamy, sweet cornbread (see the next item below).

Many people get very picky about their chili; some dislike beans and some dislike meat. Personally, I like it all.

  • 1 white onion, diced (plus another onion, diced, for topping)
  • 1 head of smoked garlic, diced
  • 1 whole smoked jalapeno, diced
  • 1 can each of crushed tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, rotel (diced tomatoes and chilis), white beans, light red kidney beans, black beans and whole kernel corn
  • 2 cans dark red kidney beans
  • 2 lbs ground beef or turkey
  • 1 tbsp. each of ground cumin, black pepper, chili pepper and paprika
  • 2 tbsp. salt
  • about a half-bottle of good beer

Brown the meat in a skillet with the diced onion, garlic and jalapeno. Mix it in a 5-quart crock pot with the canned ingredients and spices and let it simmer on high for about 4 hours (or, for the best, most slow-cooked flavored deliciousness, cook it on low for 8+ hours). Then add the half-bottle of good beer (or more if you like it less chunky, the beans absorb a lot of the liquid) and let it simmer another hour. Check the spices, add more if necessary, and serve while piping hot.

Smokin’.

488052_393586384044616_1154646174_n

Extra-Corny Cornbread

The single best accompaniment to chili is also pretty darn easy. I use a boxed cornbread mix (you know, the ones where you just add a bit of milk and an egg), plus I add a can of creamed corn and maybe a handful of pepper jack or some other spicy and/ or tangy cheese. Bake it according to the package instructions, as a cake or muffins.

Turophiles Unite Part II – Easy Cheesy

So you may recall my last cheese experiment, where I discovered the ease of making my own mozzarella and ricotta cheese. I used a handy kit from the good people at the Roaring Brook Dairy that I found at my local fancy cheese shop, but you can find it on Amazon for a decent price … or you can save some cheese (haha!) and buy yourself a pack of rennet tablets, a container of citric acid, a few plastic gloves and a good thermometer. I am glad that I used the kit for my first attempts at cheesemaking — they make it seem very non-threatening.

Really, making your own cheese of various types is incredibly easy … you just need a good thermometer and to keep your eyes on the temperature. Letting the mixture burn or adding the culture(s), rennet, acid or other additives at the wrong time is really the only way you can totally screw it up. For example, when making mozzarella, you have to add a citric acid solution when the milk reaches 85 degrees, then the rennet solution when it hits 100. If you don’t, it won’t work properly.

Essentially, fresh cheeses are milk brought to temperature and then cut with an acid, which makes the curds form, and then the curds are strained and formed into cheese. When making ricotta, you can use the whey left over from making mozzarella (“ricotta” means “re-cooked”) by adding milk, bringing it to 190 degrees, and adding vinegar. Strain it through a cheese cloth and you’re done. You can also eliminate the whey and simply bring the milk to temperature, then add the acid and strain.

Goat’s milk or sheep’s milk makes awesome fresh cheeses. I scored a quart of delicious and incredibly fresh goat’s milk last week at a Queso Diego cheese club meeting, and wanted to make some cheese with it right away. Now, in order to make a creamy chevre, you need cultures, which I did not have on hand. But I still was able to make a big hunk of incredible fresh goat cheese using basic ingredients from my kitchen, plus some fresh herbs I picked up that same day. The whole process took less than 20 minutes, although the cheese admittedly tasted better the next day, after it had hardened a bit in the refrigerator.

Super-Easy Herbed Goat Cheese

(did I mention I love cheese?)

Step One: Procure a quart of the freshest milk possible. Make sure it has not been ultra-pasturized (regular pasturization is OK, no pasturization is best).

Step Two: Pour it in a pot and make sure you have a good thermometer. Bring the milk up to 190 degrees, stirring occasionally to make sure the milk doesn’t burn.

Step Three: Remove the pot from the heat and add 1/4 cup of vinegar. It will curdle pretty much instantly.

Step Four: Remove the curds and place into a bowl covered with a cheese cloth. Add salt to taste and herbs of your choice.

I used ground black pepper and chopped fresh dill. I packed it into a small bowl and ate some right away, but it was pretty crumbly; the next morning it was easier to spread after refrigerating overnight.

If you don’t care for ricotta or goat’s cheese (shame on you!), there are several other delicious fresh cheeses.

For homemade queso fresco (aka queso blanco), bring a gallon of milk to 190 degrees, and as soon as you remove it from the heat, add the juice of 4 limes and a couple of teaspoons of salt. Strain and enjoy.

For homemade mascarpone, bring 2 cups of heavy cream to 190 degrees and add a teaspoon of lemon juice. No salt is needed. Strain and serve with your favorite fruit for an impeccable dessert.

Turophiles unite! Cheese is so easy ….

I. Love. Cheese.

Soft cheese, hard cheese, grated cheese, sliced cheese, crumbly cheese. American cheese, French cheese, Spanish cheese, Italian cheese, Greek cheese, Swiss cheese. Sharp cheese, sweet cheese, smelly cheese, spreadable cheese, gooey cheese. Cheese with things on top or cheese stuffed inside of other things. Cheese coated in nuts or studded with berries. Brie, provolone, Swiss, cheddar, chevre, blue cheese, cotija cheese, feta cheese, manchego cheese. Goat cheese, sheep cheese, cow cheese. All of it. I make a wicked good cheese plate, and given the choice of a decadent hot fudge sundae or a plate of delicious cheeses and accompaniments, I would probably take the cheese.

And, of course, mozzarella and ricotta are probably two of my favorites. Both are easy to cook with in pretty much any dish, or just by themselves. Is there anything more lovely than a caprese salad/sandwich/snack?

The last time I was perusing my local artisan cheese shop, Venissimo (seriously, check them out if you’re in southern California, they let you take full advantage of their tasting policy!), I noticed this cute little package.

Mozzarella, you say? All I need is one gallon of milk? And in less than an hour I will be shoving cheese into my face? Sounds good to me. And there was enough in this kit for me to make a pound of cheese out of a gallon of milk four times. Heck yeah.

I decided to give it a try. Upon closer inspection, this was simply a convenient kit with all of the little things you need to make cheese. No grand kitchens or fancy equipment needed — however it is handy if you are like me and cannot seem to locate rennet tablets anywhere in your town. (After I made this, I discovered this post from Simple Bites, and it’s exactly the same recipe. Although clearly she has a rennet hookup.)

The kit came with instructions, gloves, a thermometer, citric acid, salt and rennet tablets. I mixed the rennet into water and the citric acid into another cup of water per the instructions, and started the process.

Step 1: Gallon of milk (not ultra-pasturized, as fresh as possible) goes into a great big pot. Turn on  the heat. Not boiling but not too low either.

Keep the thermometer handy. Cheesemaking isn’t complicated, but you need to keep an eye on the temperature.

Step 2: When the milk temperature reaches 85 degrees, add the citric acid solution. Keep stirring.

Step 3: When the temperature reaches 100 degrees, add the rennet solution. Keep stirring, but start moving your spoon in a gentle up-and-down motion.

Step 4: Stop stirring. As the temperature continues to rise you will see curds starting to form, like this:

Step 5: Cover the pot and let the curds rest for 5-10 minutes. Then strain the curds out with a slotted spoon or colander, and place in a microwaveable bowl.

Step 6: Microwave the curds for 30-60 seconds at a time, and each time you remove it, strain more of the liquid out (squeeze it with your gloved hands), and fold and stretch the cheese. Sprinkle the salt over the cheese at this point. Repeat this process two or three times (but don’t add any more salt).

Your cheese should, at this point, look like cheese, and you can shape it into one large ball or several small ones, as well as string cheese strips.

The shaping is where I had some difficulty, as you can see. This was my first try with the ball-shaping, but it was still delicious.

Then, of course, what are we to do with all of that whey left over in the pot?

Well, let’s just say, they don’t call it “recooked” for nothing ….  ricotta, that is.

It’s made from the leftover whey you have after making cheese, plus some extra added milk and a little vinegar. According to SB Canning, you need to make the ricotta less than three hours after the mozzerella, but other than that, it’s incredibly fast and easy. Brilliant!

So … take the whey you have left over, and add a quart of milk. Bring up to 200 degrees, and keep stirring so you don’t burn the whey. Then add about a half-cup of apple cider vinegar and let the curds and whey sit for a few minutes.

Strain over a cheesecloth-lined colander, and once all of the liquid has drained out, you have a big pile of ricotta cheese, ready for stuffing into your favorite pasta!

Try planking … all the kids are doing it

Planking? Not the weird fad that consists of kids lying face-down in a public place or other location, I mean cedar planking. As in cooking on a cedar plank, indoors or out. It’s a classy and modern yet ancient and earthy way to make tasty food taste even better.

Oooh, it smells like fall around here. The weather took a sharp turn towards the weird in good old San Diego after Labor Day weekend, and the smell of the slightly rainy and humid feel makes me think of forests in the Pacific Northwest that are brimming with fragrant woods. Indigenous people have been cooking their meals on woods like cedar for generations. I received an awesome gift of some fresh Alaskan salmon, so I figured this was the perfect time to try some planking on my M7P outdoor cooking system.

I did a little research beforehand, looking at the tips from the manufacturer (I used “TrueFire” planks but there are a few different places to get cedar specifically prepared for grilling and cooking) and asking some fellow foodies in the know. The main recommendations I got were to soak, soak, soak the planks. The ones I bought suggested 20 minutes to 4 hours of soaking, but pretty much everyone else I talked to suggested more like 6 hours and even overnight. Since this blog is about my experiments, I determined that I would … well, experiment … and discover which recipes and methods work best.

Experiment No. 1:

Herbed Alaskan Salmon with fresh vegetables

I made this recipe on a cedar plank that had been soaking in water for about 4-5 hours, and I cooked it over charcoal. Obviously you can adapt this recipe and soak the plank in other liquid, like fruit juice or wine (but stay clear of spirits because they will make your plank of cedar into a plank of fire).

  • 2 fillets Alaskan salmon
  • 1 lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Fresh herbs (I used rosemary and thyme)

Carefully place the salmon on the planks (you may need one plank per fillet if the planks are small or the fish is big) and season the salmon with the salt, pepper, and herbs, and sprinkle fresh juice from the lemon on top. Add fresh vegetables (I used asparagus, but stick to something like broccoli that would steam quickly and easily) and cover with foil. Carefully place the plank on a preheated grill and cook for about 25-30 minutes.

The vegetables covering the salmon also help to keep the heat inside.

What I Learned from Experiment No. 1:

  • Cedar is weak. Within 10 minutes at not-very-high heat, the plank has started to buckle in on itself and the juices are starting to run off. The solution: put the plank on a broiler pan or some other equally sturdy and hole-y flat surface.
  • Temperature control is key. Keep the fire at about 200 degrees and keep the lid on as much as possible while cooking. The wet cedar is also steaming the salmon and vegetables, and it helps to keep the salmon protected by a pile of asparagus or other veggie. It’s also recommended that you keep a squirt bottle handy in case of a flare-up. 
    A broiler pan is perfect to keep the cedar plank from buckling.

Experiment No. 2:

Baked Alaskan Salmon with Grapefruit/ Vanilla Quick Marmalade

I got some lovely fresh vanilla beans and thought the additional sweetness and citrus flavor would be great on the salmon. This version is also baked in the oven on top of a plank soaked in orange juice, but it can be cooked on a grill also if you like.

  • 1 whole grapefruit (if not organic, scrub the outside very well)
  • 1/2 fresh vanilla bean, scraped
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 fillets Alaskan salmon
  • salt and pepper
  • Fresh vegetables (I used carrot sticks and bok choy this time)

To make the marmalade, slice the grapefruit very thinly, peel and all, into a nonreactive pot (to make the marmalade less bitter, omit the peel but keep the pith). Add vanilla and sugar, boil on high for about 10 minutes and then reduce to a simmer for about 30 minutes or until the mixture has gelled (watch carefully, because when it’s done, you have about 10 seconds to remove it from the heat before it burns). While still warm, spoon on top of salmon fillets that are already on soaked cedar planks.

I kept the cedar as wet as possible (literally in an inch of orange juice in the baking dish) and also covered the salmon with sturdy vegetables to keep the moisture and heat inside while baking.

What I Learned from Experiment No. 2:

  • Cedar takes the flavor you give it. Soaking the plank in orange juice adds a ton of fresh and delicious flavor to the delicate salmon.
  • Cedar is delicious. There is no need to pile on overpowering flavors to compete with the delicate flavor of the salmon. Although the grapefruit is a little overpowering in this recipe, salmon and most other fish work very well with citrus and this is no exception.
  • Baking the cedar plank while it’s immersed in liquid means you don’t need to be constantly vigilant about the cedar possibly flaring up, so it’s more convenient in that sense. However the cedar flavor is definitely more pronounced when the plank is grilled.

Of course, there’s no reason your cedar-plank-cooking experience must be limited to vegetables and delicate fish. For my next attempt, I went full turophile.

Just the perfect level of gooeyness.

Experiment No. 3:

Planked Brie

I love cheese like Paula Deen loves butter. I soaked this cedar plank in white wine to enhance the awesome.

  • Bottle of white wine (I used a simple Turning Point Chardonnay, but use whatever you like)
  • Wheel of Brie cheese
  • For serving: a jar of your favorite spicy jelly and some crusty bread or crackers (I used my favorite roasted cherry/pepper jam. Thank goodness I had an extra jar! It’s delicious and smoky and is an excellent addition to the creamy brie).

Soak the plank in the white wine for at least 4 hours (to really get the wine flavor into that plank, soak it for 6 or more). Carefully slice the top off of the brie package and place on the plank, then carefully place on a grill.  Cover and let cook over the hot coals for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is gooey and bubbly. For serving, add the spicy jelly on top and serve with sliced apples and pears and crackers or bread.

Try it with a spicy and fruity jam or preserve.

What I Learned from Experiment No. 3:

  • Cheese is awesome. Well … I may have known that before. 
  • White wine doesn’t add as much flavor as I thought it would. The wine adds a delicate scent and flavor but the cedar is pretty delicate and fragrant as well. One day I plan to try planking some chicken and cheese with a good hoppy beer.
  • If you are cooking on coals, cook as the coals are starting to cool off. If you have a propane or very hot grill that has been cooking all day and is still very hot, make sure you keep an eye on the brie because you have about enough time as it takes to slice an apple or two and open a pack of crackers before the cheese overflows all over the plank. If the grill is cooling off when you place the brie on it, you have a beer or two before it’s soft enough to serve. But still keep an eye on it.

    It also helps to "tent" some foil over the plank, like so.

  • Brie is like jam in that when it’s done, you have about 45 seconds between “done” and “burnt beyond recognition and unusable as food.” Watch it carefully or you’ll waste the cheese and the cedar plank.

Altogether, I am very happy with the results of my cooking on cedar planks. It adds a delicate and smooth yet very distinct flavor to several different dishes. Obviously things like delicate salmon or gooey brie is best for a medium like cedar, but I look forward to planking chicken, ribs and even desserts. Stay tuned.