THE BIG CHEESE
How to concoct the perfect cheese plate
Vitamin-rich calcium. Strong bones. Hunger-busting protein. That's why I eat cheese — right? Of course not. I eat cheese because it's absolutely delicious, and because there are so many varieties. We're not talking Velveeta or slices of that fluorescent Kraft-processed-whatever-it-is or the shakers of grocery-store Parmesan you dumped on your spaghetti as a kid. There are so many kinds of cheese to choose from — luxurious creamy cheeses, hardy firm aged cheeses, stinky blues — all begging to join your plate.
Because of that versatility, constructing your own winning cheese plate may be daunting. It's not; in fact, it's surprisingly simple.
Start by limiting the varieties. Stick with a trio. Since contrast is important, include one of each: soft, firm and blue, which will provide a nice assortment of flavors (salty, nutty, buttery, sweet, earthy, smoky, fruity) and textures. If you want four kinds, consider making one of your soft selections a goat cheese (soft and spreadable,) and another brie.
Cheeses with different textures — take that soft, creamy brie, for example — can be used to offset a firmer Gouda or Gruyere. Try a triple cream (so smooth!) called St. Andre. If you're in the mood to go blue, opt for maximum flavor by grabbing a Stilton, Maytag Blue or Roquefort. Be open. Experiment.
You really can't screw this up. There are no rules. Just be sure that you have several flavors and textures, and keep in mind that each cheese should have a separate spreader so you don't mix discordant flavors.
Once your trio is picked, label your selections. (Think chalk on a blackboard cheese tray or insert small toothpick flags with your selections' names on them into the cheeses.) If your guests fall in love with one of your choices — and why wouldn't they? — they'll easily be able to learn its name, origin and type.
Remember that most cheeses are at their best when served at room temperature. Set them out about 45 minutes prior to devouring.
Proper accompaniments are also important. I'd recommend something crunchy, like a generous handful of walnuts or candied pecans, something crisp like slices of toasted baguette or a stack of wafer-thin crackers, and something sweet and crunchy — I'm looking at you, Granny Smith apple slices. Or go crazy and add dried apricots, grapes, raspberries or blueberries for a fun burst of color, along with a small dish of honey (or truffled honey) to add a bit more sweetness. And include tiny gherkin pickles along with pearled onions and grainy mustard. Or maybe try out a chunky chutney or fig preserve.
Once you've mastered your first cheese compilation, begin to incorporate more varieties and accompaniments.