When summer rolls around, the heat in Washington DC can be rather prohibitive. Almost nothing is worth touching that oven dial, especially in our loft apartment that gets a whole lot of hot air and nary a breeze. Dinner most frequently comprises an easy salad like this broccoli slaw or this Mediterranean orzo salad, or maybe even a cold soup like this quick-and-easy zucchini number I made last summer. Tie that all together with some crusty bread and I've got an easy supper.
Salads and cold soups are definitely an antidote to the heat and humidity, but when the weather is so debilitating that I want to just crash when I get home, a cheeseplate is really the way to go. Cheeseplates are easy to assemble but elegant enough for company, and while people seem to think they go best with red wine, I've found (and had more authoritative sources corroborate) that a chilled (but not too chilled) glass of white wine makes even better company.
Recently, I was reading a great post from Mr. Amateur Gourmet, Adam Roberts, about his trip to the famed Murray's Cheese in Greenwich Village and his quest for the perfect cheese plate. He asked the man behind the counter for help selecting his cheeses, and the man gave him a mild but interesting goat cheese, a sharper cow-and-sheep cheese, and a stinky washed rind cheese. Lost yet? Don't despair. You can do as Adam did -- and as I often do -- and ask the advice of the person behind the counter. My favorite cheese spots here in DC are the wonderful Cowgirl Creamery, where cheese nerds come to play, and Calvert Woodley, which has a great selection and some really helpful folks behind the counter. That said, even the folks at Whole Foods can help steer you in the right direction. Meanwhile, whether you're enlisting a team of advisers or going at this alone, there are a few basic things that are helpful to know before embarking on your cheeseplate expedition. This post will shed some light on how to build a cheese plate, how to cut and serve each of the cheeses, and what sorts of breads and spreads make the best vehicles and complements for enjoying the cheese.
CHOOSING YOUR CHEESE When building a cheese plate, one good guiding principle is that the plate should reflect a range of funk, hardness and origins. There's nothing wrong with a plate composed entirely of cow's milk cheese, but having a variety is a good place to start.
I usually like to have at least one goat cheese on the plate. Sometimes I pick something spreadable, perhaps with herbs. Other times, I choose a harder, semi-aged goat cheese, like Bucheron, or one of my all-time favorite goat milk cheeses, Humboldt Fog. Humboldt Fog is made by Cypress Grove Chevre, and it's got a beautiful layer of ash running through the middle of the cheese. It's also got three distinct layers: the cakey interior, the creamier outer layer, and the rind. It's a wonderful cheese.
I'm not a big sheep milk cheese person, but I really enjoy Manchego and Idiazabal, both Spanish sheeps' milk cheese. Manchego is salty and robust; Idiazabal is grassier, but really complex. Both are good options, and both will be harder than most goats' milk cheeses.
Other types of Cheese:
Blue Cheese, which is cheese laced with (delicious) bluish mold. Blue cheeses are pungent, sometimes even a bit spicy, and strong. Some are quite salty, others on the sweeter side. A couple of my favorites are Fourme D'Ambert, which is creamy and rich, and Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue, which is wrapped in grape leaves and is uber smoky and delicious.
Bloomy cheeses, which are covered in a white, slightly damp rind. Bloomy rinded cheese tends to be soft, and ranges from the chalky goat-cheese consistency to the unbeatable richness of triple cream cheese.
Washed rinds, which are, as the name suggest, washed in any number of liquids including but not limited to water. Washed rind cheese can be quite funky. One of my favorite washed rind cheeses is Epoisses, which is salty and pretty runny, but also has a sort of funky sweet-smokiness to it. I find it absolutely addictive.
One last shout-out to one of my other favorite cheeses, Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam. It's a triple cream cheese that's got a thick, creamy texture and an endless array of wonderful aromas. It's won lots of awards, and it's truly a phenomenal cheese.
If even after trying them you're hesitant to invest in a big hunk, try the "cheese treasures" section. They tend to have sections like it at Whole Foods as well as major cheese stores (and I know that the Calvery Woodley here in DC has one, too). Usually buried somewhere in the corner of the display case (as all treasures should be), there'll be a pile of cheese nubs, usually the bits of whatever cheese was killed that day. It's a great place to experiment, and at only a couple of bucks per piece, it's hard to go too far astray.
Plate your cheese in order from mildest to most stinky. Theoretically, you should eat the cheeses in this order as well, though after trying an initial round of bites in the correct succession, I tend to take bites of this or that in no particular order, using a glass of wine as a palate cleanser.
For hard cheeses, use a slicer that'll take off shavings of the cheese. If you have a big hunk of hard cheese, you won't enjoy it nearly as much as when your slice of baguette cushions several paper-thin slices.
Serve softer cheeses with cheese knives -- those blunt-bladed stubby ones that can spread just about anything. Also put out some spoons for any accompanying chutneys, jams, or pastes.
Most people seem to serve cheese plates with crackers, since they're easy to serve, easy to eat one-handed, and come in a variety of flavors. However, most cheese experts say that a classic baguette is actually the way to go; its flavor, while pronounced, is more neutral than crackers, and thus serves as a prime vehicle for tasting the true flavor of the cheese. I eat cheese most often on baguette, but every once in a while, I enjoy a crispy cracker (especially those rainforest crisps from Whole Foods -- they're like biscotti, with bits of dried figs or cranberries and some nuts too). Best solution? Serve both. See for yourself which goes first.
In terms of condiments, everyone's got their favorites, and I'm no exception. For Manchego or Idiazabal, I like a nice hunk of Membrillo, the delightfully sweet-tart and thicker-than-jam quince paste. Mitica is my favorite brand: it's homemade and fresh-tasting. It might look like a lot for just a cheese plate, but buy yourself some and I guarantee you'll find ways to use it. Plus, it lasts in the fridge for months.
For creamy, runny, nosey cheeses, I like a jam or compote that can stand up. Fig jam is my standby, but I'll settle for something else in a pinch. Nothing too fruity though -- strawberry jam will kill the cheese with its overpowering sweetness.
Goat cheese goes well with any number of things, from sweet to savory. Tomatoes, capers, olives, and pesto are all good savory choices; for something sweet, try a tomato or pepper jam, a chutney, or even a drizzle of date honey.
I hope this list is a good beginner's guide, but please don't let it be restrictive. The last time I was at Cowgirl, one of the women behind the counter was helping me out, slicing tastes of this or that as I poked around. Suddenly, she had some sort of lightbulb moment and ran to the back of the shop. She came back carrying a massive (think a yard wide) half-wheel of what she described as the best cheese she's ever had. It was a Basque cheese, handmade by a husband-and-wife team, and wrapped in all sorts of fresh and dried herbs, including bay leaves and various peppercorns. The cheese was firm, pale whitish yellow, and looked pretty ordinary inside -- but the flavors, WOW, the flavors! It felt creamy and rich, but then it started to open up, and I got herbs, wood, some barnyard-y aromas, then sweetness, a punch of salt, and who even knows what else. I asked for two or three more tries and took home a big hunk with me. The cheese didn't even have a name, so I can't recommend it, but it was really earth-shattering. I'm willing to bet your local cheese shop has something in stock that one of the folks behind the counter is really excited to share. Be sure to take them up on it.